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FAO Presses for Urgent Assistance for Burmese Farmers

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for urgent aid for thousands of farm families that suffered losses during last month's cyclone in Burma. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, while aid experts say that many victims of Cyclone Nargis are beginning to rebuild their lives, about 52,000 farmers will not be able to plant a new crop without help.

The Food and Agriculture Organization says $83 million is needed to allow farmers in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region to plant a vital second rice crop during the monsoon season.

The Irrawaddy Delta is known as the rice basket of Burma, producing more than 60 percent of the country's rice.

An FAO team just spent two weeks in the delta, assessing the damage from the cyclone that came ashore May 2.

The FAO deputy regional representative, Hiroyuki Konuma, says tens of thousands of farmers lost everything they need to plant a crop.

"A majority of the victims lost their production assets such as seed, fertilizer, agricultural tools drought animals. Without external support they will suffer from hunger and poverty for a long time, they would remain dependent on external aid for a long time," said Konuma. "On the other hand, time is not on our side. The window is very narrow to meet the seasonal deadline [for] monsoon cropping."

An FAO consultant, Albert Lieberg, told reporters that it appears less farm land was severely damaged by the storm than originall y feared. He also says that that not all townships in the delta suffered flooding.

Te damage will probably cut Burma's rice harvest by two percent this year.

Lieberg says aid groups are focusing on those who suffered losses. He says without help for farmers, more than 180,000 hectares will go unplanted.

"It would be a fatal error, a fatal error if we just concentrate on this figure of two percent," he said. "What is important is the number of families suffering, that need urgent assistance and we are talking about a substantial number of families - this is the only point which really matters."

Cyclone Nargis, which hit southwestern Burma, claimed the lives of about 78,000 people, with 56,000 still missing. Lieberg says at least 30,000 fishermen lost their lives in the cyclone.

For weeks, Burma's isolated military government blocked most international aid. It was nearly three weeks after the storm hit, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, before the government promised the United Nations to allow in foreign aid workers.

The delay created concerns that even more people could die of hunger or disease, but in recent days, aid groups have said the recovery has been better than feared, and thus far there have been no signs of disease outbreaks.