Sowing seeds of change
At 65, Mohammad Abed Ali leads too busy a life to find time for his family. The small-time farmer from Haridevpur village in Bangladesh’s Rangpur district is least bothered about the long predicted impacts of climate change on the country. Bangladesh has been categorised as the most vulnerable country to climate change. And farmers like Abed are expected to face erratic weather conditions impacting their livelihood.
He should also be worried as he falls in the official category of extreme poor and his village is notorious for having famine-like situation, locally called monga, every year. But Abed smiles away the threat of climate change. Four crops a year, he says, is the reason for his hectic life. From morning, he has been scavenging a part of his half-a-hectare farm to harvest potato. Taking a break towards noon, he attends his small patch of tobacco crop. ‘I have to monitor the sale of the winter paddy harvest,’ he murmurs, when asked to stop for photographs. At Haridevpur, everybody is talking about a booming economy, and a new crop season in between the staple summer and winter crops that holds the key to combat monga.
But not long ago, it was a different story in northern Bangladesh, which is hit by monga twice every year – mid-September to mid-November and mid-March to April. Monga is a lean period between agriculture seasons which sees a scarcity of food grains and work that result in a famine-like situation. Since independence, Bangladesh has been fighting hard to fix this condition. During the monga periods, people, particularly the poor small farmers and the large number of farm labourers, face starvation. In northern Bangladesh almost all farmers cultivate aman (summer) rice crop, where they grow a long duration rice variety that requires 146-160 days to harvest. Farmers prepare the seedbed and sow the seeds in late June and finish the sowing cycle by early September. After that there is little farming work required from late September to early November in the rice fields, which results in monga. Around 70 per cent of the labourers and landless poor wholly depend on the summer crop for employment. During the lean period there is hardly any work for them. With limited food stock in the area and no income, it is normal for the people in northern Bangladesh to have
irregular meals. This is also the reason people of northern Bangladesh suffer more food insecurity than the rest of the country. Add to this late floods in the area which destroy the monsoon rice. Scientists say the floods are an impact of climate change. In the last two decades, the Rangpur region has witnessed six major floods during late August and mid-September, which is the peak time for summer rice crop.
Farmer Sahinoor Alam’s face gathers wrinkles as he narrates his past. ‘Just a decade ago, during monga we would enter the forest to survive on roots and tubers. If lucky, my family would have one meal every second day.’ The village, like others in the region, used to be deserted as people moved out for survival. Most small farmers and farm labourers would commit to sell their grains and labour in advance for the next farming season at throwaway price in exchange for some money during the monga periods. ‘This set a vicious cycle of debt. Even in a year of good harvest, people will not have the benefits as they would have sold out in advance,’ says Mamunur Rashid, an agriculture specialist working with non-profit RSDS Bangladesh. Abed remembers how his family had to sell 40 ha of land to fight successive debt because of monga. ‘Each famine season, we will mortgage a part of the vast land, which could never be freed,’ he says.
‘But there is no monga now,’ he says. It has been more than five years since the village witnessed this scarcity period. There is no reported distress migration either. In fact, the residents say they now earn more during monga periods. ‘There are no beggars and there is no starvation,’ says Sahinoor. Fiddling with his mobile phone, he says, ‘Bad weather was there earlier and will be there in the future, but we have won over the situation.’ The change came about after RSDS started an extensive programme in Haridevpur to fight the seasonal monga. At the core of the programme is a new crop cycle during the lean period. Farmers in the north now cultivate rice thrice a year in about 0.5 million hectares (ha).
Small wonder that politicians now talk about the success of this new crop mix. Monga for long has been a political agenda and political parties are now banking on the new crop mix. Bangladesh prime minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed, is relying on it for political success. During political rallies, he tells the people that monga will return if his party is voted out of power. This is for the first time that a solution to monga is turning into a best political case for exploitation. ‘Whatever it is. We are happy, there is no monga,’ says Abed.
By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine