Friday, 1 October 2010

Into the field - Day 3

The next field visit is nothing like the first two. We are off to visit JOYNOGOR - Kamarkhular Union, sub-division Dacope, Khulna District. It takes several hours by car, followed by several hours of boat travel (no seats, sitting on the hard deck) to get to this isolated location. We stop on the way for some delicious freshly caught prawns and crab, which is cooked & handed to us by some men and women living on a sliver of land. 

family that caught & cooked fish

On we go to the community, which has been affected by two cyclones, Sidr and Ayla, the first of which happened two years and the second of which happened about one year ago. These cyclones put the entire district under water, washing away any existing infrastructure such as roads and putting buildings, schools, cropping fields and houses partially or totally under water. 

under water

erstwhile school
The approx 70,000 people in this community have built make-shift houses on top of mud banks and feeble polder dikes that were constructed to cultivate crops. Bamboo bridges connect the slivers of land. The technology needed to rebuild the polders is lacking, keeping the women and men of this community in a vunerable position. They live on Bangla government and UNDP aid.
bamboo bridge

We walk around the main village area and we are invited into one of the huts where we are served an ample and unexpectedly scrumptuous lunch of rice, fish and duck. No sign of food shortage here, yet there is no work for the men and women of this community ~ apart from some fishing ~ until the polders are reconstructed.

Literacy levels in this community are about 20% although enrolment in the make-shift school nearby is high, and especially well attended by girls (enrolment is 70% ). School is free for Bangla children through primary and free for girls through year 11. As mentioned in an earlier blog, graduation needs to be paid for and this is often where girls' ongoing education falls over. 

make-shift school
We take a small boat to tour around the makeshift dikes and stop at a spot where there a number of families have set up house. Mud everywhere and I manage to get one of my feet stuck in the mud! We return to the 'main' land and sit down with the community for a chat. 

community members
They want to know if I can help create a future for them. I hesitate to answer ~ I have no magic wand and wonder what sort of future there could possibly be for the members of this community ~ if water levels don't drop, they cannot rebuild infrastructure or farm their land. They are not willing to relocate as their wealth is vested in their (currently underwater) land.

I leave this community with a heavy heart.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

When in Rome

Friday today ~ a day of rest in this predominantly Muslim country. Hindus are in the minority and quite often get discriminated against in terms of work and employment. Hindu women have a double burden in that they are Hindu and a woman, who by default have a lower status than men in this country.  

It is not common for women to travel alone or go out alone at night. Come dark the two volunteer girls rush home as their fathers get angry if they stay out. Unless I am with my host, I find myself stuck in my hotel room after dark. Connectivity becomes pretty slow at night, so I spend my evening reading or watching television. There is satellite TV with about 108 channels, 98% of which have Bangla and Indian soaps or Bollywood type entertainment. The remaining 2% is CNN, the Discovery Channel and a movie channel or two. There is never a dull moment during the day though and since I am surrounded by people all day long, I am quite happy with a bit of peace and quiet at night. When we go places, the car is suddenly full of relatives. Nephews, cousins, aunties and the like..

A few days ago, the girls decided I need henna in my hair and promptly arrive with a bag of henna leaves, which is handed to the hotel staff to turn into a paste and once delivered duly patted on my head. My hair now looks distinctly although not offensively orange!  

The only outing today will be lunch.  I am pleased to report that my hand-eating technique is improving and yesterday I even managed to get my hands (literally ~ although it is a no-no to eat with both hands) on some fish and a brownish type of root vegetable with a vague resemblance to eggplant -- hoorah!

Two more events (pre today) to report on -- it's hard to keep up, especially when technology crashes and one can spend hours uploading a blog ...

Into the field - Day 2

Another day - another field trip

This time we visit a relatively new NGO named ARSHI, which means mirror. ARSHI is located in Shahapur, in the Damuria sub-district of Khulna. A group of both women and men are sitting on mats waiting for us. There is a row of plastic chairs for the visitors, but my host suggests they remove the chairs and give us a mat to sit on, so we are all level.

the community

Apart from the 'officials' (the ARSHI Director & his side-kick), the meeting is attended by a variety of women and men, consisting of farmers -- including fish farmers who cultivate tiger and white prawns in the local ponds -- and micro entrepreneurs who function as 'middle man' marketers of the local product. Generally the men plant the crop (vegetables and paddy rice for own consumption) and the women process the crops. 

This community makes its income from purchasing muri rice from the market and turning it into puffed rice. They buy 100 kg of muri rice @ 3600 Taka (100 Taka is approx. A$1,50) which they process overnight and end up with approx 90 kg of puffed rice which they sell at market for 4000 Taka. They loose about 200 Taka in production costs (buying fire wood, etc.) and end up with a profit of about 200 Taka, which does not take into account the highly intensive labour by the women who spent 12-14 hours of slaving over a hot pot stirring the rice until it pops -- nor the  many, many miles it takes the men to paddle their bicycles back and forth to the market. The marketers generally do not have market information and often do not get a fair/high price for their product. At present this is not a sustainable way to live and the community members talk about the need and their wish to diversify into poultry and livestock -- for 'cow fattening' purposes -- so they can sell meat at market. But they are unable to diversify without micro credit. 

Micro credit has been touted as the best thing since sliced bread -- earning the man who established the Grameen Bank world fame and a Nobel Price -- but micro entrepreneurs on the ground tell a disturbing tale. The real micro credit story appears to be a vicious cycle of poverty and the farmers of this community express great trepedation about taking on a micro credit loan. They explain that loan conditions are harsh and inflexibile, with interest payments running between 25%-33% (and can sometimes go as high as 80% as they continue to pay interest on the initial loan amount) with repayment starting immediately upon receipt of the loan and collectors visiting the village weekly to collect. This puts enormous psychological pressure on the farmers, hampering their daily work as they live in fear of losing the little that they have. One woman tells how she would dearly like to see her daughter graduate from school (which is free for girls up to grade 11, but graduation costs money), but she is unwilling to take on a micro credit loan as she is fearful of losing everything. For micro credit to work, loans need to be flexible and interest payments need to be adjusted.

At this point in time the community is not organised as a coop and it is every (wo)man for him/herself. They are hard workers and it would make sense for them to pool their resources. Literacy rate is about 25% and a few people have a mobile phone. There are no computers and no connectivity. Even if there was enough credit to diversify, this community would benefit if it had access to knowledge on how to improve their production and fish farming processes. For now, the only option for members of this community is to continue doing what they do best: puffing rice and being agri-preneurs.

rice processing

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Into the field - Day 1

Field work starts immediately and after being introduced to my support team ~ my host has arranged two local women volunteers, I get whisked off in a car ~ thankfully we have a driver.  I opt for a seat in the back so I don't have to sit in terror with my hands covering my eyes as vehicles of all sorts and sizes come straight at us..

A meeting  is organised at the 'head office' (think roadside hole in the wall) of Locos, a non-government  social development organisation working in the southwest coastal region. Locos has a focus on poverty reduction, in particular agriculture, environment and food security as well as sustainable livelihood through capacity building.  After a chat with the Director we visit a local farming village. 

Gongram Pur Sabuj Mohila Somity:

This is a farmer cooperative with 21 members located at Botia Ghata in the Khulna Upazila (region)A group of colourful women and children are sitting on mats waiting for us visitors and we are invited to sit on a mat across from them for a chat (pix to follow!). Members of this community are using group saving to provide loans among its group members to buy seeds. Locos facilitates the community by providing seeds and the members of this community have started vegetable cultivation during the off seasons in the paddy (rice) fields. The women farmers apply organic fertiliser and pesticide ~ almost every  households composts. The women farmers are now able to contribute to their family which has opened up a new era of economical empowerment and their decision making capacity inside the family has been enhanced. Their childrens' school enrolment has increased and their health condition has improved.  

This local village coop of women farmers has resisted offers by the likes of Monsanto and their rep 'seed dealers' (or is that 'seedy dealers?) to use hybrid seed. Hybrid seed grows faster and returns higher profits, but the seed is owned by the corporation, leaving farmers dependent on Monsanto with no ownership of their own future.

To protect the indigenous variety of crops Locos has started a project within financial support from Mejario – a German NGO. In this initiative they target two Upazila sub-districts, known as Dacope and Botiaghata. In total 500 households are the target group for this project. Through this project both men and women farming  community has been motivated to farm organically using organic fertiliser and pesticide. Locos has preserved 49 varieties of local indigenous seeds of paddy and distributes these among the farming households.

But all is not rosy. The salinity in the soil in this district reduces cropping season to about 4 months, which does not provide much in the way of food or livelihoods for the rest of the year. NGOs do not fill this gap and the women farmers in the coop are desperate for additional income.  In short, an admirable but unsustainable setup. 

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Dhaka to Khulna

It's hot, it's humid. People, cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and gritlock everywhere.

Lodged the first two nights @ the Dutch Club in Dhaka which felt it bit like home. Mostly expats hanging in the bar having beers and chats.  Got chatting to a Dutch businessman and learnt that there are some 135,000 different NGOs @ work in Bangladesh, yet the majority of the population remains desperately poor. What's wrong with this picture?

On Day 2 in Dhaka my Bangla host arrives and we organise travel to Khulna. No flights to be had and the only option is an air-conditioned bus -- a 10 hr ride including crossing the very wide Rupsha River -- leaving at 11:00 at night. We sit in Dhaka traffic for hours before even getting on the bus.

Around 1:00 AM we finally get on the road and amazingly I manage to get a few hours sleep. Got to Khulna to find that the hotel that had been booked has been high-jacked by an American delegation of some sort, although there's no foreigner in sight and I'm IT (everyone stares at me wherever we go), so off we go across the street to the Hotel Royal, where the beds have park benches for mattresses. I've requested that we eat local food (when in Rome..) and so far I've eaten rice and mutton, rice and chicken, rice and fish, and more rice. Apart from a bit of cucumber, not a vegetable in sight!