Women’s perspectives on 50 years of agricultureFarida Akhter || Wednesday 29 December 2021 ||
BANGLADESH is celebrating the 50 years of its victory on December 16, 2021. Bangladesh emerged as an independent sovereign state and is supposed to exercise her political independence to articulate and demonstrate the meaning of her liberation in a global context through economic, social, cultural and political development. The political decision to be separated from Pakistan has enormous significance not only for the people of Bangladesh but for the whole subcontinent. In the same order economic success of Bangladesh has implications for various other peoples and communities in the subcontinent with national aspirations. The subcontinent is not homogeneous in terms of religion, language, culture and internal relations. Therefore, what Bangladesh has achieved or failed to achieve in the last fifty years has very broad implications for the subcontinent.
Bangladesh had been the part of Bengal that was the microcosm of the British rule in India and was the main outpost of British imperialism. The history of 1947 and 1971 had failed to cut her off from the colonial legacies, particularly its legal system and the form of government, culture and the idea of modernity. The colonial exploitation of agriculture continued even after 1947 through neo colonial relationships at two levels. The first level was mediated through the post-colonial state of Pakistan as a whole and the second was internal colonising relations between the two wings of Pakistan. Internal colonisation followed the logic of capital, that is exploitation of the vast agrarian sector of East Pakistan to industrialise West Pakistan. Bangladesh is the result of the contradiction of capitalist economic development between an industrial and agrarian sector that manifested more visibly because of the absurd geographical distance by the two wings of Pakistan — the East and the West.
History fades, Bangladesh has been pursuing a development model that is built on exploiting farmers and rural Bangladesh in favour of a few elites in power in the capital. Development meant the destruction of agriculture in favour of urbanisation. An economy that comprises agriculture, industry, commerce, service sector and the informal sector and the measurement of growth rate in terms of GDP hardly tell anything meaningful about the condition of the people. There is a conspicuous absence of reliable data from which one could reasonably discuss the state of the economy of Bangladesh. A large number of our people are working abroad and contributed over USD 21 billion as remittances in 2020. The readymade garment sector is about USD 27.95 Billion a year — the highest export earning sector. The industry and service sectors are growing as well. Among these, agriculture remains the only sector that characterises our culture, society, economy, and diversity within the country. Needless to mention that the overseas workers and the RMG workers almost always are the sons and daughters of the farmers or are from rural areas. The Bangladeshi elite thrive on the exploitation of agriculture and the rural population.
Therefore, the common statistics that are referred for the contribution of agriculture to the GDP, is not of much help to understand agriculture from livelihood perspectives. From a feminist perspective, gross domestic product is nothing but a patriarchal construction reducing development into numbers, and not the life and livelihood of real people. Patriarchy hardly cares about the lives of people irrespective of gender, class, caste, religion. Agriculture’s contribution to GDP has declined to only 14 per cent from over 30 per cent. It demonstrates that life-affirming and the biological existence of living beings have no place in the mainstream development paradigm. Agriculture is the ground that sustains our life. The agrarian lives and the principles of biological regeneration have been systematically ignored in favour of export-led development policy and industries that pollute the land, river and ocean. Even in statistics agriculture’s contribution is employing 40 per cent of the population.
The strength of Bangladesh, as a delta of four major rivers, the River Padma, Meghna, Brahmaputra and Jamuna, with 147,570 km of land area and over 160 million people, is her bio-geographical potential, store of her biological wealth and life-affirming biodiversity. Almost 50 per cent of the population is women, i.e. about 80 million. Within this small area, there is huge diversity as shown in the FAO-supported Agroecological Zones study conducted during the 1980s, which recognised 30 agro-ecological regions and 88 subregions. The patriarchal methods of measuring agricultural performance in terms of growth or decline expressed in numbers fail to grasp the complex nature and dynamic relations of agriculture. The life and livelihood of the people are interwoven in particular agro-ecological zones. The patriarchal growth mongering calculations fail to grasp how millions of women live in these different agro-ecological zones and are actively contributing to food production.
Over the past 50 years, the policy perspective was dominated by the singular focus on food production. Historically, Bangladesh had inherited the destructive ‘Green Revolution’ policy from Pakistan since 1965 and started anew in 1972. The ‘independent’ country was not in a position to decide about its agricultural policy from the farmers perspective. The green revolution was a neo-colonial script that imposed the use of the high-yielding variety seeds, fertiliser technology and irrigation. The IR8, a laboratory seed that was promoted as a ‘miracle seed’ claimed to be producing more than the traditional varieties that farmers already had in their collection. In the initial period of Bangladesh, the focus was on producing more of the food grains, and attaining ‘self-sufficiency in food grains by 1985’. Already inscribed in this policy is the erasing of women and their concerns, women were left outside all calculations of self-sufficiency, a monocultural miracle. Quantitative production was emphasised at the expense of quality and nutrition. Anwara, a Nayakrishi woman farmer, critically mentioned the modern agriculture HYV rice varieties as ‘betara diche (given by Men)’. Indeed, such technological packages are given by men who are apt to mechanise inert ‘inputs and not life, care and the appropriate seed for the right agro-ecological conditions.
Dr Stefan de Vylder, a Swedish economist, in his book Agriculture in Chains has made some very good observations about these policies in the initial period of independent Bangladesh. According to him, ‘There is nothing new about this strategy: it has in fact, been the official policy in East Pakistan/Bangladesh ever since the HYV was introduced in the late 1960s. Immediately after independence, an Accelerated Rice Production Programme with the same ends and means … was launched’. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, American researchers in the area of food said, ‘the distinguishing features of the new seeds are that they are highly responsive to certain key inputs such as irrigation and fertiliser.’ It does not stop here. Keith Griffin, an economist on poverty reduction wrote ‘Fertilisers are a sine qua non of the Green Revolution’. Then comes irrigation …next pest and disease control becomes essential and lastly mechanisation’.
In the crop sector of agriculture, rice became the only crop for food self-sufficiency. The rice production output increased from 12 metric tonnes (in the late 1970s) to 36 million metric tonnes, about three times, while the population growth was from 75 million to 160 million, a bit over two times. But at what cost? In the main seasons of rice production, Aus and Aman rice are cultivated in monsoon (May–October), and are mostly rainfed and often partially irrigated. With a major policy shift of extending the rice cultivation in the boro season needed the use of deep tube wells for irrigation. At present, groundwater-irrigated Boro rice is produced on 83 per cent of the net cultivable area in the north western region; however, historically, boro rice used to be cultivated only in low-lying agro-ecological zones in the north-eastern region known as the haors (marshland). The landraces of boro rice in those areas match the local temperature, day-length and other agro-ecological amplitude. The local culture and the cuisine are related to these varieties. According to Dr Asaduzzaman, ‘boro rice production rose four times from 2 million metric tonnes in the late 1970s, before the turn of the century, it rose almost four times to more than 8 million metric tonnes and overtook aman as the main rice. The larger shift came about during the last 20-25 years and by now, boro output stands at just short of 20 million metric tonnes while aman output has risen from 7-8 million metric tonnes to 13-14 million metric tonnes. Aus has become marginalised accounting for only less than 3 million metric tonnes’ (The Daily Star, March 26, 2021).
For the farming communities, particularly for women, food does not mean only a single crop production, but a great diversity according to the social, cultural and economic needs. For rice, Aman meant the number of diverse varieties of rice that could be grown in different agro-ecological zones. For the farming families, diverse varieties are needed for different uses of rice. Our cultural festivals are around the Aman harvesting — the Nabanno. The pithas are made with the newly harvested Aman rice. But although boro has superseded the Aman both in terms of area and total output, there is no festival or celebration after its harvest. The number of Boro rice varieties is limited and the government-sponsored boro rice cultivation is for monoculture of BR-29. Pithas are very important for social relationship building, bringing the married daughters with their children to have pithas, sharing with the communities and even with the non-farming communities. Boro rice could not replace any of those practices.
The shift in the kind of seeds from HYV to hybrid is also a significant phenomenon during the 1990s both in rice and vegetables. These are promoted by the private pesticide companies and the agro-industries as a package to sell seeds and pesticides. The seasonality of the vegetables has disappeared making tomatoes, cauliflower and other vegetables available around the year. The seasonality of the fruits are also reducing, and accordingly, the number of varieties is shrinking. Hybrid seeds were initially imported and they needed farmers as ‘clients’ of their market. So the promoters did not depend only on the commercial sales of the hybrid seeds. They used NGOs providing micro-credit such as BRAC, Proshika to give out seeds along with the credit money. The government wanted to produce the hybrid seeds themselves through the research institutions such as the BARI, the BRRI and the agricultural development corporation such as the BADC.
One of the concerns around hybrid seeds among the government scientists was that the HYV seeds could be preserved at the farmers’ level, but hybrid seeds, could not and therefore, needed to be bought every year from the market. This is a major issue for women. Women have been preserving seeds for hundreds of years. Hybrid seeds have to be bought every season in packets that are completely alien to women. In 2001, the agricultural minister Matia Chowdhury permitted the marketing of the Hybrid rice seed BR-Hybrid-1 after its approval from the National Seed Board. This paved the way for the hybrid rice seed importers without any restrictions. This is a step in agriculture that is against women farmers’ interests.
The micro-credit programme started in Bangladesh through Grameen Bank in 1983 by offering collateral-free high-interest loans of less than $100. These were given to poor women for some income-earning activities. The poor women as borrowers have shown the incredible performance of 98 per cent repayment with a high-interest rate. The miracle ‘micro-credit’ programmes were then picked up by major NGOs and used the ‘captive’ women clients for the interest of the agro-business corporations. In 1998, Monsanto attempted to launch the Grameen-Monsanto centre for environment-friendly technologies, which included Monsanto’s herbicide, seeds of maize, cotton etc. Such a centre was called off by Grameen Bank amid protest. However, it did not stop Monsanto from the partnership with other NGOs like BRAC who had a large number of women borrowers recruited in their credit programmes. Women had to accept the hybrid seeds as part of the loan money.
Since 1998, several natural disasters created further scope for the promotion of hybrid seeds. The government allowed the ‘monopoly’ control of the seed market to only four to five companies and NGOs. These companies are Supreme Seed company, Syngenta, ACI and BRAC. Among these Syngenta is one of the major biotech companies that is now trying to introduce the genetically modified ‘Golden rice’ in the name of addressing vitamin A deficiency.
The biotech companies gradually entered into the academic field particularly in the University of Dhaka and other institutions. From Plant Tissue culture in 1990 to the formation of the National Committee on Biotechnology Product Development in 1993, workshops on Biosafety Regulation in 1997 — all academic activities directly or indirectly given support to the agroindustrial intervention. In 1999, the National Institute of Biotechnology was established to accelerate multidimensional biotechnological research. In 2006, the government adopted the national policy guidelines on biotechnology which was approved by the National Taskforce on Biotechnology. In 2012, the cabinet approved the draft of the National Biotechnology Policy, 2012 which was aimed at eradicating poverty through increasing productivity in agriculture and industrial sectors. Bangladesh, shamefully, became the first South Asian country to approve a food crop, Bt brinjal, promoted by Monsanto (now Bayer) in 2013.
The assault on agriculture continues unabated and those affected are the marginalised farmers and the women. However, it is the women who are resisting the corporate control of agriculture and leading the newer approaches of life-affirming agricultural practices, preserving the seeds they need. Patriarchal policies must be changed. Bangladesh has the potentiality of showing women-led biodiversity-based life-sustaining practices and that is what is needed now. l
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.