Battling climate change, female farmers in Bangladesh find new ways to farm

Sabita Rani Manjhi, one of the members of Banojibi Nari Unnayan Sangstha.
The Daily Observer
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Bangladesh

Battling climate change, female farmers in Bangladesh find new ways to farm

DATANAKHALI -- Shefali Begum was forced to leave her village of Gabura near the Sundarbans in the southwestern part of Bangladesh after Cyclone Aila struck in 2009, devastating the land and leaving her empty-handed. 

The village sits within an expansive mangrove forest off the Bay of Bengal that is increasingly prone to the negative impacts of sea-level rise. Extreme salinity in the soil has turned the entire 33-square-mile area of Gabura into barren land, with local people failing to cultivate any crops, including vegetables, for years. 

"I did not have food to eat, any cloth to wear and did not have any space for shelter," Begum said, recalling the terrible days after Aila with the Daily Observer.

Rather than lose hope, however, Begum, 42, a mother of three children, reshaped her life by leaving Gabura for another village and following adaptive farming methods to return her family to economic stability. The village she settled in was Datnakhali. Just three kilometers away from Gabura, it was also struck by Cyclone Aila, but the land was not as inundated with salt water, allowing Begum to cultivate different kinds of vegetables by drawing on traditional methods she learned from her mother, Kohinur, and altered to suit current conditions.

Her unique cultivation methods involve setting up cement rings in an area with a significant amount of moisture then pouring in salt-free soil mixed with natural fertilizer, such as ashes, crow dung, rotten leaves and weeds. 

She then places bamboo sticks around the rings to support the vegetables she plants inside and covers the rings with a net to keep out goats and cows.
Begum places brick pieces and dry coconut bushes in two corners of the rings to keep the water from drying up or becoming too excessive.

"Through this method, I try to balance the water because different vegetable needs various quantities of water and through my methods, I ensure this balance," she said.  

Begum's adaptive approach comes at a time when many area residents have started migrating or switching from farming jobs to day labor as crop yields suffer from the impacts of climate change. 

A 2018 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute and The Ohio State University estimated that saltier soils caused by rising seas would push nearly 140,000 coastal residents to move within their districts due to falling income from crops, while about 60,000 would migrate to other districts.

Bangladesh-based development group BRAC warned in its 2016 annual report that about 27 million Bangladeshi were predicted to be at risk of sea-level rise by 2050, with two-thirds of the country sitting less than five metres above sea level. Yet Begum's efforts have brought changes to the lives of at least 45 families in Datnakhali, where other women now cultivate vegetables following the same methods. 

They're now able to meet their daily food demands and also sell the remainder of the vegetables they grow in the local market, earning money that helps in providing educational expenses for their children, Begum said. 

In 2014, she and dozens of women from Datnakhail established a non-profit organization called Banojibi Nari Unnoyan Shangtha (Forest Women Development), which focuses on giving women tools to become economically independent. 

Alternative farming method
Begum's unique vegetable cultivation method draws on traditional agricultural practices that she's adapted to suit current ecological conditions in her village near the Bay of Bengal / Credit: Banani Mallick

They exchange vegetable seeds and share knowledge about the proper measures for seed preservation. They also operate a grassroots savings and loan, collecting a small amount of money each month that they can distribute among members to run a new business, such as honey processing, which they can operate out of the local market, and also do some handcraft work at home. 

The types of vegetables Begum currently cultivates - gourds, pumpkin, brinjal, potato, lemon, tomato, cucumber, cabbage, green chili and beans - are not uncommon, but in recent years they have failed due to extreme soil salinity. 

Talking to the Daily Observer, she noted that she sold vegetables and seeds in the local market last winter season and earned 30,000 BDT (US$355).

She also received a prestigious award called Joyeeta (or Winner) by the local government in 2016 for contributing to women's empowerment.

Bhabotosh Mondal, chairman of the Datnakhali Union, said that Begum is now a role model for the village, as other women have begun following her measures. 

"They are sharing knowledge with each other and also exchanging different kinds of vegetable seeds instead of purchasing from the local markets," he said. 

Like Begum, Sabita Rani Manjhi, 45, who lives in Sribalkathi village, started preserving varieties of vegetable seeds that were harder to find following Cyclone Alia and selling them in the market. 

Manjhi's seeds have earned a special demand in the market due to their high quality. One ripe gourd, for example, contains at least 400 seeds and each seed's price is 0.20 BDT, meaning if she's able to sell seeds from 20 ripe grounds she can make as much as 16,000 BDT (US$190).

"They are sharing knowledge with each other and also exchanging different kinds of vegetable seeds instead of purchasing from the local markets."

"My vegetables, such as gourds, get sufficient sunlight under this new cultivation adaptive measure," she said.

Using vegetable seeds that are first planted in plastic sacks then directly kept under the sun, they are protected both from flooding and soil salinity. Manjhi, a mother of four children, told the Daily Observer she never thought preserving seeds could be a good business, particularly because cultivating different kinds of vegetables in the area is extremely difficult as the soil becomes more saline due to the impacts of climate change. 

"I used to purchase seeds from the local farmers and the price was pretty high," she said. "Sometimes even then it did not germinate properly because of the bad quality of the seeds. So I decided to preserve the seeds of brinjal, pumpkin, bitter gourd, ladies finger, chilly, cucumber so that I can save some money."

The seeds business has added an important value to the life of Manjhi and her family, which had struggled previously to earn enough for three daily meals. Now the family owns 10 acres of land bought from the profits of her seed business.

A former day labourer, Manjhi also now bears all the educational expenses for her three children and has paid for her eldest daughter's marriage, she said.

Kushalla Mondol, 45, was also seriously impacted by Cyclone Aila and has since developed a new farming method that has completely changed her life. 

In every season, Kushalla cultivates araceae, red spinach, lady fingers, beans, basil, arum and pumpkin. Her vegetables are pesticide and chemical-free, putting them in huge demand in the local market. People also come to her house to get vegetables from her garden.

"Previously, I used to work as a day labourer and all the money could be finished only by purchasing rice and oil," she said. "But now I can purchase other nutritious items including chicken and eggs, besides eating vegetables.

Datnakhali Union chairman Mondal says the government should further extend its support to women through financing and training to help them cultivate vegetables using climate-adaptive measures.

Habibul Bashar, an official under the Department of Agriculture Extension in Satkhira district, said his office is aware that such cultivation measures are being adopted by local women and is extending some outreach.

"We are providing training and distributing saline resistant seeds for ensuring their work more effectively in mitigating the impact of climate change," he said. 

Meanwhile, the central government has joined hands with the United Nations Development programme to invest in a US$33-million project in Satkhira and Khulna districts aimed at helping nearly 700,000 people, mostly women and adolescent girls, better adapt to climate change by providing safe drinking water through community-managed rainwater harvesting and mechanisms aimed at adopting resilient livelihoods.

The six-year project is mainly financed by the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the world's largest multilateral fund for climate change, with the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs providing US$8 million to plan, implement, and manage climate-resilient programmes.

"It is the women, girls and children who are the worst victim of climate change, facing multiple types of health problems," Women and Children Affairs Secretary Kamrun Nahar told the Daily Observer. "Considering this situation, the government has decided to give special focus on marginal groups."

Bangladesh has drawn global attention for the impacts climate change is already starting to register. In June, the World Bank announced it would provide US$50 billion in financing over the next five years for climate adaptation.

"We have to help countries to adapt, and Bangladesh is probably one of the most heat-hit countries that has faced the extreme impact of climate change," John Roome, senior director at the World Bank's climate change arm, told the Daily Observer during a climate summit in June. 

But while pointing out that rising salinity has had a significant negative impact on agricultural production, he also emphasized local, adaptive measures and traditional knowledge, saying solutions should come from the local level following local people's experiences and their daily struggles.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant through the Earth Journalism Networks' Bay of Bengal Climate Resiliency Initiative.

Banner photo: Sabita Rani Manjhi, one of the members of Banojibi Nari Unnayan Sangstha, smile as she points at a garden of vegetables in Datnakhali that she cultivates following traditional adaptive measures / Credit: Banani Mallick

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