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“Nayakrishi Andolan” shows Bangladeshi farmers the way forward

SAM SPECIAL-ENG-20-04-2020

Despite being the food producers of the country, Bangladesh’s, farmers find it difficult to market their produce and make a decent living. In fact, the terms of trade have always been unfavorable to the agricultural sector in comparison with the export-oriented industrial sector.

Giving this dismal background, the resilience of the farmers is really surprising. They have managed to have a good winter crop. But that success itself is a source of frustration for them. Farmers are forced to bear the cost of the government’s policy of favoring industry over agriculture in a neo-liberal global order backed by the ‘development’ dictates of the multilateral agencies.

The COVID-19 global pandemic is assaulting the already beleaguered farming community in Bangladesh. Vegetable farmers have been incurring big losses for weeks now, due to the disruption of the transport and supply chain following the countrywide lockdown.

Also Read: Coronavirus puts Bangladesh’s agriculture and economy at risk

The winter crops, particularly vegetables, are being harvested. But under lockdown, local markets are kept open only for a few hours. As a result, farmers are compelled to sell their crops often at a price that does not even cover their production cost. Vegetables cannot be stored for a long time. Though crops like garlic and onion can be stored for a relatively longer period, that is no consolation. Farmers must earn cash by selling their produce for investing in the next Aman crop.

Farmers who cultivated potato, cucumber, beans and brinjal are selling at a much lower price than they had expected. In early April, cucumbers were sold at Tk. 3-5/kg, brinjal at Tk.5/Kg., tomatoes at Tk.7-8/kg.

Many aggrieved farmers fed the unsold vegetables to their livestock. An angry farmer, Amir Hossain, in a YouTube video which went viral said: “I gave the tomatoes to the cows, but they also didn’t like to eat”.

Share-croppers and farmers who have taken land on lease, do not know how they will pay back the lease. It is hard to imagine how they could continue production under these circumstances.

Farmers in North Bangladesh are selling vegetables at 25-50 per cent of the production costs, according to the Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM). Brinjal is sold at Tk 3.0-4.0 a kg against the production costs of Tk 10.50; pumpkin is sold at Tk 8.0-10 a kg against the production costs of Tk 18 [see The Financial Express, “Vegetable growers in dire straits” April 18, 2020].

However, the government claims that there will not be any food scarcity as different initiatives have been taken, such as the stimulus package of Tk. 5000 crore for farmer loans at 4% interest and the Tk. 9000 crore as subsidy on fertilizers and other inputs. Agriculture assistance that is easily received from the government is for machinery, fertilizers, irrigation and the modern proprietary seeds (HYV and Hybrid) etc.

Government policy explicitly destroys farmers’ seed system by replacing it with commercial seeds with corporate companies taking over the seed and inputs market.

Nothing in the government’s package supports farmers. And there are no measures to ensure a market for their produce. There is no support for agricultural laborers engaged in planting and harvesting of crops.

Nayakrishi Andolan       

In contrast to the mainstream development policies, the Nayakrishi Andolon, the biodiversity-based farming practice, thinks differently.

Bangladesh must not compromise on the principle of ‘food sovereignty’ that is linked to the country’s economic and biological survival. Enabling farmers to participate in the market is positive if it ensures incentives for food production and frees the country from food imports. Farmers feed the people, not the companies. Structural obstacles such as transportation and communication must be removed immediately.

Secondly, it is necessary to step back immediately from the high dependence on external inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and other mechanical and chemical inputs and learn from natural, environmental and biological sciences, particularly agro-ecology and landscape management in order to unleash the power of nature.

The country should avoid environmental and ecological destruction. UBINIG field data show that while the Nayakrishi farmers are facing the same problem of limited timing of the market and low price of the produce, they are free from debt. They do not have to worry about paying the fertilizer and pesticide dealers and seed companies.

Conventional farmers practice mono-cropping of vegetables, wheat, rice etc. They now have to think about the next Aman crop, for which they have to buy seeds, fertilizers, pesticides on credit from the dealers. By contrast, Nayakrishi farmers never keep their land fallow. There are always some crops to harvest. After Aman harvesting, they have a mixed crop during the winter with vegetables, lentils, mustard, wheat, maize etc. based on land types and geographical conditions.

For example, a Nayakrishi farmer in Tangail already had an income of Tk.35,000 – Tk.40,000 from land of only 35 decimals. Still he has other crops in the field. Mixed cropping ensures protection against pests. The extra plants or herbs grown in the land becomes “uncultivated food” or medicine and fodder for cows and goats.

Also Read: Will the pandemic derail Bangladesh’s economic growth?

The Nayakrishi Andolan farmers follow strategies to maximize production and income by enhancing the productive capacity of the small farming household (owning less than 2.49 acres, comprising over 80% of the farming households). They produce for themselves as well as the market.

The Nayakrishi farmers build relations with the community thereby ensuring food for all. The farmers buy local variety seeds from the market, and also exchange and share among themselves. They are not indebted to the dealers.

A Nayakrishi farming household is complete with livestock and poultry. In the difficult situation of the lockdown, some Nayakrishi farmers are selling goats, or cows for investing in the next crop, particularly those who are planning to take land on lease.

(Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh.)