Nayakrishi Andolon: Farmers movement for biodiversity conservation and food sovereigntyFarida Akhter || Friday 28 August 2015 ||
Ecological meaning of ‘small and marginal’ farmers
We know that ‘small and marginal farmers’ not only ensure food supply to 150 million people of Bangladesh but contribute to the conservation and regeneration of country’s agro-biodiversity and genetic resources. Small and marginal farms also perform various other ecological and environmental services. Farmers are the repository of social memory, wisdoms and knowledge practices without which agriculture can not contionue.
However, the economic notions such as ‘small and marginal farmer’ or ‘subsistence agriclture’, etc., developed concurrently with the ideology of Green Revolution’, became a hindrance in understanding the complex nature of agriculture and the functions they play in ecology and environment. Green Revolution needed such economic categories to prove efficiency or inefficiency of farming systems as a client of their political and technological package; political because, Green Revolution is a response against Red Revolution and in practical terms meant denial of land reform to enhance agricultural productivity and claiming that the same can be achieved through technological intervention; secondly, artificially maintaining the terms of trade in favour of industrial as against agricultural sector or the farming communities.
While use of economic paradigm, measuring performance in terms of money or by the visible quantitative outputs of a system, is common and dominant in capitalist world view, an appreciation of Nayakrishi Andolon demands understanding of the dynamics between economic and ecological relation, in a way that one is not reduced into the other. Economic representation inevitably misses the value of an agricultural system, the value of multiple and complex functions it performs, by reducing its performance as merely a ‘firm’ in the market economy, while ecological calculation misses the reality that farming households are also part of the market system, national as well as global.In this context, working with farming community for biodiversity-based ecological agriculture is to enable farmer’s capacity to participate in the market in their own terms. Capacity building in this case implies resisting the anarchy and uncertainty of capitalist market by enhancing system’s capacity to absorb risks and at the same time taking advantage of means available for exchange of the produce for economic return. Farmer needs economic benefits from the service they perform; therefore, enabling their capacity to participate in a market economy, measured by the ecological capacity to absorb economic risks, is critical. However, it is possible only by making a household farming system ecologically and environmentally efficient, so that it can satisfy the household’s consumption need as well as the need to reproduce the system.
Market constantly breaks and fragments the agricultural systems into different sectors of production. The ‘technical’ division within an eco-system is torn apart to make independent economic unit of production. Technical division of labour appears as social divison of labour. Thus poultry, an integral activity of the farming households, become poultry industry. Animals integral to the farming household, are raised separately in the diary factories for milk and meat production; thay are no more available for ploughing, as a source of renewable energy. Fishery appears as an independent economic sector funded by World Bank and ADB, along with it fishers disappear along with their vast knowledge of both inland and marine aquatic system.
Impacts of tractor in Bangladesh have been ecologically devastating. Very apeearence of such machine in deltic agro-ecological plains signifies disaster caused by Green Revolution. Tractor signifies the absence of animals for ploughing. Green Revolution introduced dwarf laboratory rice, instead of the indigenous tall varieties producing more biomass. As a result farmers soon lost the source of fodder to maintain animals on farm. Farmer's notion of 'food' production includes food for domesticated and semi-domesticated animals, birds, fish, earth worms and insects, Green Revolution displaced this idea 'food' with anthropocentric and monocultural notion of 'staple food' conceptualised in quantitative terms. In the laboratory scientists transformed biomass into 'grains'. Food chain has been destroyed forcibly turning the fertile land into barren fields requiring inputs from outside. Negative agro-ecological impacts are most pronounced in flood-plain ecosystems, historicallly known for the richness of agro-biodiversity. Resiolience of the flood-plain ecosystems against climatic variability has also been is destreoyed adding to the vulnerability of the climate change. Agricultural reform demands reform in thought and shifting aways from the paradigm of premises of industrial food production.
By contrast biodiversity-based ecological agriculture, e.g., Nayakrishi Andolon, integrates and promotes social division of production not by the logic or dictates of the market, but by the imperative of the natural and ecological relation, without which agriculture cannot be sustainable. Biodiversity-based ecological agriculture thus increasingly unites and reunites the fragmented and disarticulated parts of nature caused by profit and greed based capitalist market. Livelihood strategies are designed along with other members of the community to conserve, defend and regenerate natural and agro-ecological resources. Ecology and the local knowledge guides in identifying strategic and tactical sites either to resist or to adapt to constantly changing realities. Nayakrishi Andolon is a farmer led community development movement of resistance, imparting novel political and cultural meaning to biodiversity-based ecological agriculture over and above the role it plays in attaining food, nutrition and seed sovereignty.
So, how to conceptualize a farming household from the perspective presented above in order to transcend the Green Revolution paradigms. Farming households ensure our food and nutritional needs and are the nodal points of both in-situ and ex-situ conservation of genetic resources. Farming, by its very nature of experiential practice based on empirical observation, is a knowledge-based operation. Besides, farming is not possible without some primary understanding of climate & climate variability, nature of the crops, biodiversity and agro-ecological systems and related knowledge.
A shift is necessery from the domination of economic paradigm to ecological conceptualisation of 'small and marginal farm'. We can start making this shift interrogating what indeed an ecological farm system presupposes.
A Nayakrishi farmer women maintains diverse crops in her farming system. Her household plays the role of in situ conservation of various genetic resources. Farmer women is the key to the rich agro-biodiversity of Bangladesh. Industrial food production replaces women, her knoledge system and the her household as the 'genebank' in order to ensure the domination and control of multinational seed companies. In the era of globalisation and bio-industrialisation Nayakrishi is the women's resistance against ecological and environmental desyruction. Not a surprise that Nayakrishi is led by farmer women.
An ecological farming system presupposes the following:
1. Availability of a farmer seed system. This is the key to the farmer led innovation that has historically contributed to the agro-ecological evolution and generation of agricultural knowledge. Farmers must know about various crops, the right time to seed and steering through the seasonal and climatic variance.
2. Access and availability of community knowledge functioning through oral communication, community memory and conservation of the popular wisdom through stories, narratives related to ecological diversity.
3. Existence of a fairly functional system of culture related particularly to food and nutrition. The cultural practices link agricultural consumption to production without which an articulated self-reliant agricultural system cannot sustain. However, agriculture does not only produce food, it also produces medicines, fibres, construction materials, fodder, fuel woods, etc. A determinate rural culture is linked to specific agro-ecological system and its performance.
4. An informal system of sharing agricultural inputs and labour.
5. Community management of common resources such as water, forests and biomass.
6. An operative notion of common property designing with the cultivated and uncultivated sources for food and livelihood and moral values that keeps the community together with a common purpose.
By ensuring availability of food in and around the household and from uncultivated spaces including water bodies, Nayakrishi ensures food security at the household level, where state or the market can hardly reach.
Learning from Farmers
When UBINIG got involved with the farming community the idea of rural development was mostly influenced by the paradigm of Green Revolution, premised on effacing the complexity of agriculture and conceptualizing agriculture merely as a ‘factory’. We learned from the farmers that farming by nature is ecological and its performance depends on efficient means to recycle the flow of biological ‘surpluses’ that are no way similar to dumping environmentally destructive industrial 'wastes' such as chemicals, pesticides and other environmentally harmful chemicals. The energy needed for agriculture cannot by definition be in the form of industrial input, e.g. fossil fuel based products. Agriculture must regenerate the energy it consumes in the process of production. Agriculture is not merely a system of food production but production of energy as well. Energy is renewable. Capacity of the farming system to produce energy to reproduce itself is the best criteria to assess the agrarian characteristic of the operation.
When Nayakrishi Andolon led by farmers started to take shape in the early 1990’s, the major challenge the peasant movement faced was to resist the ideology of industry to defend the life-affirming activities of agriculture. We had to face the lies and the myths that industrial transformation of the rural landscape is the way to go forward into future and the ‘progress’ means destruction of the life affirming activities of the farming household. Nayakrishi Andolon had literarily started by challenging the myth of ‘progress’, which means destruction of the life affirming activities of the farming household. No one has the right to destroy the livelihood of the farming communities. The first major lesson, therefore, farmers taught us, is that agriculture is a way of life of the farming communities and not industrial food production run by food companies and corporations.
The notion of space and its relation to agriculture is the second context that determined the nature of Nayakrishi movement. More we engaged with the farming communities and opened our brains and hearts to learn from peasants, the more we became aware of the meaning of ‘space’ in agriculture and the art of management of multiple spaces in farming. The conventional notion that farming means merely ‘cultivation’ implies a notion of agriculture that takes place only in a predetermined space of activity. What such prejudice misses is the complex functions in which farming households are regularly remain engaged. Farming is the management of multiple spaces and next to cultivation of specific crops lays the major importance of the uncultivated spaces managed to source various needs of the family including uncultivated food.
The idea that cultivation is the only form of engaging with nature is not true at all in agriculture. Agriculture is the management of both cultivated and uncultivated spaces. Farmer’s mode of relating with nature is not limited by the cultivated space. The immediate need is supplied both by cultivated and uncultivated space and possible if they are managed without poisons or chemicals. In a study conducted by UBINIG it was revealed that in some agro-ecologically well managed eco-system, such as maintained by Nayakrishi, resource poor farmers are able to collect nearly 40 percent of their food and nutritional needs. This is much higher in case of medicinal plants, fuel woods and biomass need. These are possible by efficient management of uncultivated spaces in the Nayakrishi farming practices.
The importance of the management of space is extremely important when farmers design the space for various crops in a mixed cropping and rotational system to ensure the best return in terms of produce and ecological benefits. Mixed cropping system instead of monoculture, is the easiest example how management of space determines the performance of agriculture and significantly enhances the output.
The notion of multiple spaces and its efficient management is also paramount when we keep in mind that farming households are also the source of milk, egg, meat and fish. So the animals, poultry birds and aquatic lives also require sharing or occupying spaces in farming household. Farming community manages common spaces which they share between household to enhance the productivity of a village, to produce milk, meat and fish. Villages are always replete with hidden spaces and possibilities to design ecologically to optimize the production.
The importance of space in the so called debate about the productivity of agriculture recurrently comes up to prove that ecological and biodiversity-based agricultural practice cannot feed the humanity, monoculture is the answer. This is another lie and a myth and originates in a fixed notion of single space in agriculture, i.e., lands, where a single crop is produced. Modern agriculture in some cases increased the production of cereals, the so-called staple crops, but reduced the production of oilseeds, lentils, beans, fruit and medicinal plants. Similarly milk, meat and fish have also reduced. There is no base line data to prove that modern agriculture actually increased food production. The data available for Bangladesh shows in most cases expansion of agricultural lands manifesting in increase in cereal production and hardly reflecting enhancement of per acre productivity. In contrast Nayakrishi concentrates on the total yield of a farming system including the enhancement of the system’s sustainability and fertility of the overall system. Immediate goal of Nayakrishi is to increase the production of safe, healthy and nutritious food. Thus with farming communities we arrived at the second major definition of agriculture: farming is the art of management of multiple spaces to enhance productivity and performance of an agro-ecological system.
How Nayakrishi Andolon started?
UBINIG, a policy research organisation started in 1984, got involved with farmers since 1990 and leading formed the small and marginal farmers’ movement called Nayakrishi Andolon. Two particular situations encouraged UBINIG into biodiversity-based farming; a. the floods of 1987 and 1988 where farmers were badly affected; b. the preparations for the Earth Summit (held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992). The two consecutive floods of 1987 and 1988 had devastating effects on the farmers who lost standing Aman crop, the most important cropping season of the year, the farmers felt helpless and approached UBINIG in one of its rural centres in Tangail district. UBINIG was there to work with the handloom weavers. Through interactions with the farmers, it was revealed very clearly that effects of floods were more devastating because farmers were dependent on reduced diversity of rice seeds and that they could not afford to bear the additional costs of fertilizers and pesticides. UBINIG carried out research to know the situation and to find out the impact of modern agriculture on the farmers.
At the same time UBINIG was engaged in various international networks on environment. During the preparatory meetings of Earth Summit, UBINIG got to know about the initiatives of ecological agriculture and biodiversity preservation in other countries in South Asia and in Europe. With research findings UBINIG was convinced to take initiative to get farmers out of chemical-based agriculture. The concerns for health and environment and the loss of diversity became prominent in the discussions among the farmers. Nayakrishi Andolon, meaning new agricultural movement, thus, started in 1990 with the basic principles of no use of pesticides, gradual decrease of chemical fertilizers, no use of ground water and most importantly using the farmer-saved seeds. Since then, the Nayakrishi farmers have been growing crops without the use of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and use of underground water for irrigation. For the small and marginal farmers it was a relief from incurring cash costs and going into debt conditions.
Nayakrishi was welcomed initially more by women than men. While young generation men got used to the mechanised agriculture, women felt that they were becoming redundant from farming practices. Women were concerned that excessive use of chemicals was harmful for environment. “It destroyed my body” – the statement by a Nayakrishi woman farmer is significant. By the word ‘body’ she meant the land, water, seeds, birds, insects, butterflies, micro-organisms and all life forms. The modern agriculture has pushed women out of the rice production practices. Women’s’ knowledge encompasses holistic aspects of rice including collection, regeneration and maintenance. But modern agriculture changed the situation of producing rice diversity. It became a monoculture of IRRI rice varieties. However, small and marginal farmers did not stop producing diverse rice varieties according to different agro-ecological situations and those which can resist the natural calamities like flood, drought, and cyclone etc. Nayakrishi Andolon soon became active in collecting rice varieties, vegetables, lentils, oil seeds and fruits.
Nayakrishi and biodiversity
For Nayakrishi, it was not an issue to be known as ecological agriculture, but in the situation of aggravating loss of biodiversity, the major focus became the ‘biodiversity-based’ farming practices. With small holdings of farmers land, the approach became very meaningful to innovate through their own knowledge base how to maximise production for meeting subsistence needs as well as preserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is not just a term to mean only diversity of species and varieties that have no use in farmers’ lives. For each area, the diversity is unique combination of crops, livestock, poultry, fish etc. For example in the flood plain areas of Tangail the emphasis of crops was rice, jute, goat rearing, fish while in drought-prone areas it was on fruits, vegetables, in the char areas peanuts, black gram, sesame, cow rearing and in coastal areas rice, beans, chicken varieties, etc. Hundreds of local varieties of rice, vegetables, fruit and timber crops, etc. have been reintroduced in the Nayakrishi villages. At present, farmers in Nayakrishi area cultivate at least 2700 varieties of rice, and the number is increasing. The farmers are happily sharing and exchanging seeds among themselves and increasing the genetic resource base of their community.
The social and cultural aspects of seeds are very significant. For example, the names of different rice varieties were interesting and very intimate to the farming families. They named the paddy as they name their children. Some examples of the names are chamara, tulshimala, aloimalati etc. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its Bangladeshi counterpart, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), introduced HYV seeds. The names of the new varieties retained its abstract laboratory origin, such as BR-20, BR-11, BRRI-50 etc. One can see that automatically it is far from farmers' perceptions of names, and even much further from women. The practice of modern agriculture, especially through the promotion of fewer varieties of paddy has resulted in the erosion of local varieties to a large extent. This was mainly because farmers were persuaded to cultivate only the so-called "higher yielding varieties" and not the local varieties.
Nayakrishi farmers also collected rice varieties that are able to cope under difficult climatic and weather conditions. This is shown in the table below:
Nayakrishi integrates all livelihood and rejects monoculture
Nayakrishi is a combination of farming, livestock, fish culture, horticulture and agroforestry. Through this, every Nayakrishi farming household is a deposit of extensive biodiversity in plants, animals, birds, trees and one helps the other to generate diversity. A Nayakrishi farming household is only complete if it has family members that include cows, goats, hens, cocks, ducks etc. A Nayakrishi village is complete only when it has relationship with fishers, potters, weavers, blacksmiths and other non-farming occupations. Of course, in all the Nayakrishi villages all other households are not available, but an integrated relation with non-farming occupations is needed for sustaining livelihood. In Tangail and Sirajganj, the weavers’ best selling time for their clothes is the crop harvesting time of the farmers. The potters earn better if the seed keeping is done through earthen pots. The blacksmiths are happy to make different farming equipment and fishers are happy to find the water bodies free from poison.
Nayakrishi farmers reject monoculture and ground their practice on mixed cropping and crop rotation. The experience of mixed cropping has been very innovative in using their knowledge for productivity and sustainability. It has an immediate effect in overcoming the present narrow genetic base. It is also highly effective method for pest management and contributes to the nutritional health of the soil. For example, Nayakrishi farmers of Sonatoni (Char Land of Jamuna River), Shahjadpur, upazila, Sirajgonj district grow aus rice, aman rice, sesame and fox tail millet in a mixed culture. Seeds of aus rice (25%) + aman rice (25%) + sesame (25%) + fox tail millet (25%) are mixed and broadcasted in April. Foxtail millet is harvested in June, sesame harvested in July, aus rice is harvested in August and Aman rice is harvested in November/ December. The yield of fox tail millet ranges from 1- 1.25 ton/ha, sesame1.25 – 1.50 ton/ha, aus rice 2 – 2.5 ton/ha and aman rice 3 -4 ton/ha. On the other hand, the conventional farmers follow a monoculture of irrigated boro rice in robi season and land remains fallow in Kharif 1 and Kharif 2 because of flooding and inundation. The yield of irrigated boro rice ranges from 4-5 t/ha. One fourth of the yield goes for irrigation and also more than half goes for buying pesticides, chemical fertilizer, cultural and intercultural operations and harvest. There are many different patterns of mixed cropping practiced by Nayakrishi farmers in different agro-ecological areas.
There is always a substantial gap in the claim and the actual performance of a HYV variety in the farmers' field. The calculation of yield by the Nayakrishi farmers is done firstly not on single crop based on monocultural calculation; secondly, the energy used as input and the energy produced as an output are taken into account to bring the category of ''sustainability" as the fundamental parameter to assess ''productivity". Since the ''high yielding" varieties consume more inputs or energy to perform than what they reasonably can produce, the terms ''high yielding" is a misnomer. Thirdly, a biodiversity-based farming system responds to diverse need of the community that cannot be satisfied by increasing quantitative yield of a particular crop.
The Nayakrishi Seed Network (NSN)
The innovation of the Nayakrishi farming is the development of farmers' collective action called Nayakrishi Seed Network (NSN) with specific responsibility of ensuring both in-situ conservation of biodiversity and genetic resource at the household and community level. It builds on the farming household, the focal point for in-situ and ex-situ conservation. Farmers maintain diversity in the field, but at the same time conserve seed in their homes to be replanted in the coming seasons.
The Network is structured in the following way:
Nayakrishi Seed Huts: From the individual farmers’ seed collection at the household level, Nayakrishi Seed Huts is established by the independent initiative of one or two households in the village, belonging to Nayakrishi Andolon, who are willing to take responsibility to ensure that all common species and varieties are replanted, regenerated and conserved by the farmers. These households are known as Nayakrishi Seed Huts (NSH).
Specialized Women Seed Network: To enhance the capacity of the community the Specialised Women Seed Network (SWSN) has been formed. These are the women who are specialised in certain species or certain varieties. Their task is to collect local varieties from different parts of Bangladesh. They also monitor and document introduction of a variety in a village or locality. They keep the information up to the date about the variability of species for which they are assigned. The SWSN often shares their finding in large meeting organised by the Nayakrishi Andolon.
Community Seed Wealth Centre: Community Seed Wealth (CSW) is the institutional set up in the village that articulates the relation between village and the National Gene bank. The CSW also maintains a well-developed nursery. The construction of CSWs is based on two principles: (a) they must be built from locally available construction materials and (b) the maintenance should mirror the household seed conservation practices. Any difficulty encounter in the CSW reflects the problem farmers are facing in their household conservation. Any members of the Nayakrishi Andolon can collect seed from CSW with the promise that they will deposit double the quantity they received after the harvest.
There are three Community Seed Wealth Centres located in Tangail, Pabna and Cox’sbazar with 11 Seed Huts. The collection of seeds in the NSN is the following:
|Areas/CSW||#Seed Huts||Collection of rice varieties||Collection of other seeds||# of farmers involved|
|Nayakrishi Community Seed Wealth Centre, Tangail||7||1752||192||17,523|
|Nayakrishi Community Seed Wealth Centre, Pabna||3||767||180||4,990|
|Nayakrishi Community Seed Wealth Centre, Cox’sbazar||1||529||166||13,500|
Note: Collection of Other Seeds include (1) Fruit vegetables (2) Leafy Vegetables (3) Pulses (4) Oil Seeds (5) Other cereals (6) Spices (7) Fruits (8) Flowers (9) Medicinal plants (10) Timbers and (11) Fibres (Jute and Cotton).
Nayakrishi and uncultivated food
According to a study carried out by UBINIG, it was found that for all social classes in the villages uncultivated food sources make up a large part of the daily diet during a time of the year when cultivated food sources are also relatively abundant. Far from being a minor supplement or simply a crisis food, the leafy greens, tubers and small fish collected by people from the lands and water bodies of their communities are a vital part of their daily diet.
Families in the categories of very poor (no cultivable land, no economically active men) rely on uncultivated foods averaging some 65%, the poor (has homestead land and a small amount of cultivable land less than an acre) derive about 55%, middle families (2 acres of cultivable land, homestead, cows) derive 52% and the better off families (over 3 acres of cultivable land, homestead, several cows etc.) derive 34% of food from uncultivated sources .
The number of uncultivated species used as food is also qualitatively and quantitatively very high. Some 102 species of leafy greens associated with agricultural fields, homesteads and common areas were identified by local people as food, mainly herbs, creepers, aquatic plants, shrubs and trees. Understanding the dynamic relationship of biodiversity and local food systems allows us to question the inevitability and desirability of a transition to diets based entirely on cultivated diversity. Increases in the production of so-called “staple crops” can only be considered an increase in food production if they really make a net contribution to the availability of food at the household level.
Context of Natural disasters: A case of dealing with river erosion and Nayakrishi
Farmers in Sonatoni, a union in Shahjadpur upazila in Sirajgonj district, have been engaged with UBINIG through practicing Nayakrishi for over a decade. The farmers and all other members of the community in the 22 villages declared Sonatoni union as ‘Pesticide free’ union 7 years back. The ecology, therefore, offers a unique agro-ecosystem that has tremendous contribution to lives and livelihoods of people. However, the community always faces the question of sustainability in the context of river erosion of Jamuna. This island on Jamuna river is quite old but often faces erosion. After the erosion the people of Sonatani were split out in other islands of Jamuna and its' adjacent areas. The split out people were blessed by the Jamuna again in late 1980s'. The people started to resettle in Sonatoni and started their livelihood on the char land. But again the direction of Jamuna started to change its’ course in the recent years. The Community became vulnerable again in mid 90s'. In 2010, in the face of continuous river erosion during monsoon season, the Sonatoni farmers approached UBINIG with a proposition of using their indigenous knowledge and technology for redirect the huge water flow of Jamuna river and thus protect the community from river erosion. For this they can provide free labour but need raw materials such as bamboo for the construction of Chatka – the bamboo binding. The community constructed 5 separate Chatkas - bamboo bindings (750 feet long). There was no further land erosion in the target villages. The Chatkas helped accretion of 150 acres of land and also saved 142 households from river erosion. In the mean time, the raised land was cultivated by the farmers. Sixty nine farmers cultivated black gram, mustard, grass pea and local boro rice in the raised land.
Chakta Bamboo binding has helped siltation and earthling up of the adjoining areas. These raised lands are better suited for uncultivated plants like reeds, Vetivar, nut grass, kasbon etc. These are very good cattle feed as well as soil binder. The farmers are very happy to see the development of vegetation .
Resistance of farmers against aggressive interventions in agriculture
In Bangladesh, new challenges to farmers are coming from aggressive interventions in agriculture. UBINIG has been actively following trends in the aggressive interventions mostly in the areas of commercial non-food cash crop cultivation such as tobacco and introduction of GMOs.
Tobacco is a non-food cash crop with concentrated cultivation in few districts gradually moving to newer areas. It started from the northern district of Rangpur, moving to Kushtia and now moving to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) areas mainly in Bandarban district. The present land area under tobacco is over 51,000 hectares according to Department of Agricultural Extension. it is in fact in more land areas which remain unaccounted. The tobacco companies allure the farmers with the possibility of earning cash income at a time and in the absence of similar offers from the department of agriculture, the farmers succumb to such offers coming with advance payment and input supply with guarantee of market. But the opportunity cost of tobacco cultivation is very high. Different profitable high food value rabi crops such as potato, maize, wheat, pulses, oilseeds, beans, spices and vegetable have to be foregone on the land where tobacco is grown. Moreover, tobacco cultivation contributes to environmental degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, food and nutritional insecurity and health hazards.
The effects of tobacco cultivation on soil are very much visible. The physical structure and chemical properties of soil has been changed with continuous cultivation of monoculture of tobacco. The organic matter content of soil has drastically been reduced. So is the water holding capacity of the soil. Some other unusual character of the soil include: 1) soil has become hard, 2) Soil dried up quickly, 3) In some places the water does not drain out easily, 4) The natural smell of soil has been impaired and 5) The soil colour has changed. The chemical fertilizer and pesticides used indiscriminately and large doses and logging of trees for curing of leaves cause erosion of genetic resources. Fertilizers are applied in tobacco field from land preparation to different stages of growth of plants. The major fertilizers include urea, phosphate, zinc, MoP, manganese, potassium, DAP, sulphate and TSP. The chemical fertilizers in high concentration become toxic for the bottom line of food chain of the biological diversity including algae, fungi, bacteria, Phyto-plankton and zoo-plankton and trigger genetic erosion. Farmers apply pesticides in tobacco at different stages of production. The farmers apply five types of pesticide before sowing seed in the seed bed, 22 types after transplanting seedlings in the main field and 27 types during growing stage and one type after de-heading. These include destructive pesticides like Ripcord, Furadon, Sumithion, Thiovit, etc. The pesticides have killing impacts on biological diversity. Indiscriminate use of pesticides for tobacco production has been poisoning environment including soil, water and air. Fish diversity has been reduced in the open water bodies. Consequently the bird population and variability have been declining. One kilogram of tobacco production requires 12kg of fire wood for curing of tobacco leaves. Fire wood from different sources, irrespective of species is logged for curing of tobacco. Consequently food and shelter of many birds and animals have been reduced. Moreover, the monoculture plantation of fast growing plants for production of firewood like akashmoni (Acacia moniliformis), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.), rain tree (Albezia lucida), mahogany (Switenia mahagoni) and debdaru (Polyalthia lorgifolia) lead to loss of PGR for competition of space .
Nayakrishi farmers in two major tobacco growing area, such as Kushtia and Bandarban in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has worked with tobacco farmers willing to stop tobacco cultivation and grow food crops. But it was not easy because already they have lost seeds of food crops, the soil is degraded and other inputs are not available. Nayakrishi organised farmers with supply of seeds of mixed crops for both pre-tobacco season (called Transition season) to substitute crops in winter season which coincides with tobacco cultivation. Nayakrishi farmers identified mixed crops that will ensure yield, monetary returns, repayment of loans, food for the family, fodder for livestock, regaining soil fertility etc. UBINIG offered tobacco farmers seeds of local aman rice varieties they plant immediately after the tobacco harvest (Kharif – 1 season) to be harvested in time for winter crops (rabi). For winter crops Nayakrishi Seed Network supplied seeds of winter crops in a combinations of potato+maize+lentil+coriander in Kushtia, and potato+french bean+felon in Bandarban which was then changed every year according to farmers preferences and soil conditions. Mustard, radish, tomato, brinjal etc also became part of the winter crop.
Genetically Modified crops (GMOs)
The first GM crop introduced in Bangladesh is Bt Brinjal, a genetically engineered eggplant in 2013. The genetic engineering has been done by inserting a crystal protein gene, Cry1Ac from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the genome of brinjal cultivars. The insertion of the crystal protein gene, along with other genetic elements, such as promoters, terminators, and antibiotic marker gene into the brinjal plant is accomplished by using an Agrobacterium-mediated gene transformation. The Bt crystal protein gene contains a toxin that endows pest-resistance to Lepidopteran pests, such as the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (FSB). It is lethally toxic and works via binding to protein receptors in the gut of FSB larvae during its feeding on the Bt brinjal.
Nine varieties of Bt Brinjal are promoted on the argument that it will control Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB) pest and therefore will save pesticide use. But the FSB is not the only pest of brinjal. There are a number of other pests, including insect pests, diseases and nematodes that inflict serious damage to brinjal crops causing heavy yield losses. The pro-GM scientists are claiming to reduce pesticide use and anyone who speaks against Bt Brinjal is blamed to be an “agent of the pesticide company”! Independent scientists in Bangladesh have shown through their calculation that this claim is false. Since 24,583 tons of insecticides are used for all crops occupying 14,943,000 ha, an estimated amount of insecticides to be used for 50,000 ha of brinjal crops may be only 82.3 tons. This estimated amount of insecticides is supposed to be saved if Bt brinjals occupy all the 50,000 ha of brinjal cultivated area, which is almost impossible.
GMOs may most aptly be described as silent death or suicide traps made for the people as consumers of food or as farmers when they are producers. Commercial company seeds rapidly replacing farmer seed system, and displacing farmer with industrial food producer. The diverse local crops, seeds, and knowledge practices capable to regenerate various life forms are disappearing amid this ecological disaster Bangladesh government is ‘proudly!” declaring itself to be one of the 29 GM crop producing countries. They are desperate to introduce several genetically modified crops with support from controversial multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta etc. using public institutions such as Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and some scientists uncritical of the consequences.
Bangladesh agriculture is already suffering from reduction of crop, plant, fish and animal diversity after the introduction of monoculture and chemical-based modern agriculture. Globally large-scale monoculture crop production has resulted in a 75 percent reduction in plant diversity. Introduction of GM crops reduces the number of crops for large scale production controlled by the agribusiness and replace the local varieties, pollute them and cause destruction to many unknown weeds that are necessary for biodiversity. Herbicides used in GM crops are known to result in birth defects and population decline in amphibians, birds, soil organisms, and marine ecosystems .
Bangladesh is a country of diversity of crops, having thousands of varieties of rice, several varieties of each vegetables, pulses, oil seeds etc. For brinjal, there are at least 248 varieties all over the country. Bangladesh is in the centre of origin for brinjals. Then why genetically modified brinjal is introduced which is a threat to the local brinjal varieties? Why genetically modified rice and potato are in the pipe line to be introduced, which we do not need? So by introducing GM crops, Bangladesh is contributing to the loss of biodiversity and violating the Convention on Biological Diversity which states under Article 8 (g), which says
“Establish or maintain means to regulate, manage or control risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking into account the risks to human health”.
One can say, farmers and the consumers of food are gradually becoming aware of the negative impact of industrial food production and also trying to appreciate the initiatives of farmers for biodiversity-based production. Bangladesh is a small country, but it is rich in diversity. We still have the knowledge and experience of the farmers to preserve the rich biodiversity that makes us unique. Nayakrishi farmers active in different agro-ecological areas have been able to show that initiatives taken to preserve biodiversity are welcomed by the communities. Bangladesh can achieve food sovereignty if it enhances it agricultural diversity without falling into the trap of corporations for industrial food production.
[Note: Presented at the Regional Workshop on “Strategies related to problems of small and marginalised farmers” held during 28 – 29 August, 2015, organised by Research Initiatives Bangladesh on behalf of UBINIG and Nayakrishi Andolon.]