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Making change in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

A look at FAO’s work with rural men and women farmers in a remote and rugged region of Bangladesh.

Located in the extreme southeastern part of the country, the districts that comprise the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) are both topographically and ethnically distinct from the rest of Bangladesh. Covered in large part with rugged hills and dense forests, the area is home to eleven indigenous groups, with their own traditions, languages and lifestyles.

The majority of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, with many engaged in subsistence farming, using a traditional technique of shifting cultivation called jum. Developed over centuries, jum is a traditional form of shifting cultivation that is practiced on very steep slopes. While it has traditionally been a sustainable practice, jum cultivation has been affected in recent years by challenges such as land access and natural resources degradation, making it very difficult for people to grow and produce enough food.

In addition to growing environmental fragility, a series of natural disasters has plagued the CHT area since 2010, ranging from pest infestations to flash flooding and landslides. The region has also been wracked by over two decades of conflict and civil unrest, and despite a peace accord that was signed in 1997, tensions remain.

Limited access, limited alternatives

Food insecurity is therefore both chronic and widespread, and nutrition levels are among the lowest in the country. Most people have little to no access to markets, roads or other infrastructure and services. So when food stocks run out, as they often do, (especially between July and August, from monsoon season through to the next harvest of the jum rice), they have limited alternatives for earning outside the homestead. Women are particularly affected, as they generally tend to eat less than others in the household during times of crisis.

In 2013, FAO began activities in CHT to increase food security and help rural men and women farmers restore and diversify their livelihoods, and strengthen their resilience to future shocks and stresses. Through a project entitled ‘Increased food and nutrition security in remote areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts through resilience building measures,’ the Organization worked with 6 200 households in Sajek, in the district of Rangamati and Thanchi, in the district of Bandarban.

The project, funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), provided a range of inputs such as seeds, feed and fertilizer, along with training not only for improved jum farming and better rice yields, but also for poultry farming, vegetable and fruit production. Beneficiaries were also instructed in nutrition and dietary diversity, as well as in household hygiene and household food safety.

Impact on the ground

An FAO video released last year illustrates the impact of the project on the ground, particularly for women farmers like Mantu Mro, Thwe Ma Ching and Sokhina Chakma. Like their fellow beneficiaries, these women recall only too clearly the challenge of growing enough food to survive.

“Earlier I was very poor,” recalls Thwe Ma Ching. “Life was very difficult back then. There was not enough food [and] I had to go for day labour to survive.”

“There were days when we didn’t have three meals a day,” adds Mantu Mro. “At times we had to live on bamboo shoots only. Sending children to school was a luxury we couldn’t afford.”

Through the project, the women learned about seed quality and seed preservation. Each household was also provided with a plastic silo to store their rice more securely for the long term.

“Now I know how to preserve quality rice seeds, which I never did before,” explains Thwe Ma Ching. “Previously I used to keep both the grains and seeds together, since I didn’t know the difference. I used the same grains as seeds for jum that I kept for my own consumption.”

“I used to keep seed inside baskets and sacks,” adds Mantu Mro. “Rats and pests used to damage the seeds. Now I keep the seeds in the silo that FAO has provided, so the seeds remain safe.”

With a view to diversifying their livelihood options for greater resilience and sustainability, FAO helped many households to establish or improve upon alternative means of food production and income. These included poultry-keeping, homestead vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. The project’s ‘poultry package,’ for example, included cash to buy local birds, as well as feed, medication and materials with which to build sheds for safekeeping.

“Previously, there were no poultry sheds,” explains Thwe Ma Ching. “I kept the poultry under a basket, and many used to die. Now I keep the chicks inside the poultry sheds, and all of them are surviving. The feed that I have received from FAO is helping the chicks grow faster, and also the hens are laying eggs earlier.”

Sokhina Chakma, too, is pleased with her poultry. “With the money I received from FAO I bought seven hens and one cock,” she says. 

“Now the hens are laying eggs,” she adds, and she has already been able to sell some of her stock. “I earned 3 000 taka and second time I earned 6 500 taka, after selling the chicken in the market.”

Planning for a more fruitful future

In another video, fellow beneficiary Mita Chakma discusses the value of the ‘fruit package,’ consisting of saplings and fertilizer, along with training on how best to plant the saplings and manage fruit production for the long term.

“Each fruit sapling costs 100 to 150 taka. We live hand to mouth [and] it’s not possible for me to buy them, [but] now [that] we have received saplings from [FAO], I have planted [them].”

“We trained the farmers on how to plant the saplings,” explains FAO Project Manager Stefania Battistelli. “In three or four years they will be able to generate continuous income from the fruits that come from the trees.”

Indeed, Mita Chakma is already planning for the future fruits of her labor. “When the saplings will grow big,” she says, “I will be able to sell [the fruit] and save the money. I want to buy cattle with some of that money. Some I will save for the children and for their education. Then I also need to save some money for myself when I will grow old.”

Thwe Ma Ching is similarly determined. “I don’t want my children to experience the same suffering that I went through,” she says. “After selling the fruits from the saplings, first, I will ensure my children’s education. Then I will save some money, and build a new house. That is my plan.”

 

See also:

06/03/2017

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