Easing the plight of the hungry

 Trina Leah Mendoza and David Johnson   |  
A farmer takes a break from weeding his field and eats lunch brought by his wife. For many farming families, lunch consists of just rice and curry. (Photo: Trina Leah Mendoza)

A farmer takes a break from weeding his field and eats lunch brought by his wife. For many farming families, lunch consists of just rice and curry. (Photo: Trina Leah Mendoza)

In Bangladesh, hunger and poverty are part of the sad reality. Here, in one of the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, millions of people suffer from severe hunger each year. The streets of Dhaka City are dotted with men, women, and children begging for alms. In the north, however, life is even harder. In five districts (Rangpur, Nilphamari, Kurigram, Gaibandha, and Lalmonirhat) 7 hours away from the country’s capital, a famine known as monga occurs from September to November each year.

Monga (hunger months) occurs after the previous season’s food has run out, before the transplanted rice is harvested in December. Millions of rural families who rely mostly on farm work for their livelihood are jobless and cannot afford to buy food in the market. In Rangpur, one farmer shared that he simply tries to sleep off the pangs of hunger during this period. He gets up only when he needs to check his field and if he has money to buy food in the market.

A team from the Irrigated Rice Research Consortium (IRRC) journeyed to these districts in October 2007 to learn more about the yearly famine and to see how some management options could help soften the blow on the people. The IRRC is a regional partnership program of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), with 11 countries committed to developing rice-growing technologies and disseminating these to farmers across South and Southeast Asia (see Hungry for knowledge, pages 32-33 of Rice Today Vol. 7, No. 2).

The IRRC teamed up with the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and a local alliance called the Northwest Area Local Forum, which is composed of government institutions and nongovernment organizations (NGOs), including Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service, Solidarity, Intercooperation, and Grameen Atto Unnayn Sangstha. Together, they are promoting earlier harvests through the use of a shorter-duration rice variety (BRRI dhan 33), direct seeding, and weed control options.

Compared with the traditional practice of transplanting, with direct seeding of rice, seeds are sown directly into an unflooded field, either as dry or “wet” pregerminated seeds. But, without the flooding of fields, weeds are a major problem, and timely and appropriate weed management is essential to avoid drastically low yields.

On two visits to these districts in Bangladesh, Florencia Palis, IRRI agricultural anthropologist and IRRC social scientist, interviewed landless and marginal farmers about their hardships during monga and how they cope during these tough times.

Joshna, a 35-year-old farmer from Nilphamari, used to transplant rice in her small upland and lowland fields (a combined area of less than one-third of a hectare). In 2006, she harvested a meager 243 kilograms of rice from her upland field sown with Swarna, a traditional variety. But floods damaged her lowland fields. Heavily in debt, Joshna sold her two goats and a few small trees for wood to be able to buy food for her family.

Ironically, while Bangladeshi farmers suffer from annual floods, they also rely heavily on monsoon rains to prepare the land for rice. If the rains are too late or too little, farmers may not be able to plant the crop on time. Transplanting especially requires large quantities of water to flood the fields. For Joshna, there was not enough rainfall to quench the thirst of her fields.

In 2007, Joshna decided to try dry direct seeding using a lithao (a traditional hand-drawn tool) to sow the short-duration BRRI dhan 33. This decision changed her family’s life. At harvest time, her fields yielded 560 kilograms of rice and gained an additional US$50 gross income. Now, her family no longer goes hungry. Joshna was able to pay her debts and buy a pregnant cow. Most Bangladeshi families consider cows very special investments that provide them with milk and cow dung (manure) for fertilizer. Aside from being able to buy meat and fish, Joshna is able to send her children to school and buy them other things such as notebooks, books, clothes, pencils, and bags.

Following the establishment and dissemination of rice-growing technologies among the farmers in Bangladesh, the IRRC came back  in July 2008 to probe deeper into how these technologies benefited the farmers. They saw how things have improved and found out that the farmers are now singing a happy tune. These changes were captured in the video Easing the plight of, available in English the hungry (http://snipurl.com/d2018) and Bengali (http://snipurl.com/d2ufv).

Moreover, other than Joshna, Panchu and his family also benefited from these technologies. At first, Panchu’s wife was hesitant to try direct seeding in their small field in Rangpur. But Panchu convinced her that, if they tried direct seeding using BRRI dhan 33, they could make use of the growing season and eventually harvest three crops such as rice, potato, and maize. True enough, they saw good yields at harvest time and appreciated the benefits of direct seeding. Now, they worry less about what they are going to eat next or where they can get money for their children’s needs.

Other farmers tried the technologies for the same reasons: they can harvest earlier, sell at a higher price, and grow crops such as potato, maize, and chickpea.

IRRI agricultural economist and IRRC team member Arelene Malabayabas trained local interviewers to collect rice and other crop production data from 200 farmers through household surveys. BRRI dhan 33 direct-seeded during the aman (wet) planting season from June to July is harvested 30–37 days earlier on average than transplanted long-duration varieties. The early harvest generated employment of about 60–63 person-days per hectare, which means that landless laborers can earn wages during monga.

Direct seeding of an early-maturing variety combined with proper weed management has helped ease the suffering during monga.  This has increased people’s access to an early food supply, created jobs for the landless, and generated income for farmers to buy food for their families, and has significantly improved the quality of their lives. The Bangladeshi government has adopted these approaches and technologies for a national program for monga mitigation with a 3-year (2008-10) action plan.

Linking government organizations with NGOs that have active programs in the countryside and working closely with farmers’ groups and rural communities have improved technology transfer.

Thanks to these developments and the active participation of the local partners, the farmers lead happier and healthier lives as they no longer worry about where to find food and employment when monga  comes.

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