Farmers are saving Bangladesh’s endangered soil

Mariam Begum holds eggplants from her garden. Photo: Paul Plett
Mariam Begum holds eggplants from her garden. Photo: Paul Plett
Published May 26, 2016

Light trickles through thatched walls into Mariam Begum’s seed hut. Painted clay pots and salvaged medicine bottles crowd the bamboo shelves along the walls. Begum unstops a bottle and tips the contents into her palm, careful not to drop a single grain. Her seed vault may be low-tech, but it holds a resource that will be vital to the people of Bangladesh as they face the upheavals of climate change.

The people of Bangladesh expect to feel the effects of climate change sooner and more acutely than most places on the planet. The country is a low-lying sandy delta, split by three major rivers and criss-crossed by countless tributaries that drain into the Bay of Bengal. A one-metre rise in global sea levels would permanently inundate 15% of the country, wipe out thousands of acres of valuable agricultural land and displace 30 million people, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Those effects are already being felt. The country’s rich alluvial soil, which grows most of the food the country consumes, is in danger. Every year, about 8,000 hectares of arable land are lost to urbanization and degradation, according to research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Another 8,700 hectares are swallowed by shifting rivers. As sea levels rise, saltwater pushes inland, flowing up rivers and canals and rendering fields near the coast too salty to grow crops. Every year, tens of thousands of farmers move to the city, looking for work.

House on stilts in Bangladesh. Photo: Josiah Neufeld
House on stilts in Bangladesh. Photo: Josiah Neufeld

As her country struggles to continue to feed itself and adapt to changing weather patterns, Begum, a midwife, community activist and organic farmer in the township of Ishwardi, central Bangladesh, has taken on the role of safeguarding the soil her community depends upon.

Begum doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. She makes her own organic compost and mulches her soil so it retains more water. She brews bio-pesticides with cow dung, ashes and banana leaves. To further protect plants from insects and preserve soil nutrients, she mixes crops-ginger with cumin, for instance.

And she harvests her own seeds and keeps them in her seed hut. Among her treasures are 90 varieties of rice indigenous to Bangladesh: some are resistant to drought; others can survive in salty soil.

Begum no longer has to spend money on seeds, pesticides or fertilizer. She can sell her produce for higher prices in the market because it’s organic. And she shares her organically grown seeds freely with anyone who promises to join UBINIG, the movement she belongs to.

UBINIG is a grassroots organization founded in the 1980s by a handful of Bangladeshi academics and professionals who wanted to empower poor farmers. “We wanted to know why we were poor, why major development organizations were telling us what to do,” says director Farida Akhter, a slight woman with grey-streaked hair.

At the time, the technologies of the Green Revolution-hybrid seeds and chemical inputs-were credited with increasing production and saving millions of lives in India and Bangladesh. But the women Akhter talked to were noticing something else: the chemicals in their food were making their children ill. Butterflies were disappearing from the fields and the small fish that thrived in the standing water in rice paddies were dying.

UBINIG’s approach to agriculture is based on a combination of new research and old technologies. They call it nyakrishi, which means “new agriculture,” even though many of their practices are ancient.

Begum was one of the first people in her village to adopt nyakrishi farming. Fifteen years ago, she was having trouble providing for her family. She heard about UBINIG and travelled to Dhaka, the capital, for a seven-day workshop. Since then, she has persuaded 257 farmers in her community to join the movement. Across Bangladesh, 300,000 farmer families now practise nyakrishi farming.

Aminul Islam Gain, a nyakrishi (new agriculture) farmer, used to grow tobacco, but after taking UBINIG training in nyakrishi farming techniques, he now grows mustard. Photo: Josiah Neufeld 
Aminul Islam Gain, a nyakrishi (new agriculture) farmer, used to grow tobacco, but after taking UBINIG training in nyakrishi farming techniques, he now grows mustard. Photo: Josiah Neufeld

UBINIG has partnered with The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF)-the Anglican Church of Canada’s relief and development arm-since the 1990s. PWRDF funds are used to organize nyakrishi training workshops and build seed huts like the one Begum manages. PWRDF has also funded the construction of community birthing centres, and provides training and equipment for local midwives.

Begum says since her village has stopped using chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers that butterflies, worms and several species of small fish have returned to the fields. As a midwife, she’s also observed an improvement in the health of newborn babies.

Josiah Neufeld is a journalist based in Winnipeg. Last December he travelled to Bangladesh to research the effects of climate change. His trip was funded by Canadian Foodgrains Bank, of which PWRDF is a member.


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