Farmers struggle to come out of crises

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Farmers in Bangladesh, plagued by low prices for years, are this time grappling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the natural disasters disrupting agricultural marketing and the crop calendar.

Spells of flood prevented thousands of farmers from cultivating aman in over a third of Bangladesh since late June with some northern areas still experiencing intermittent flash floods and low-lying central Bangladesh being under water.

Many prosperous fish farmers saw their entire investment disappear with their farms getting washed away by flood water and livestock rearers facing severe fodder crisis are selling out their cattle.

Farmers across Bangladesh were already struggling ever since the coronavirus crisis emerged over three months before the flood.

Vegetable growers and poultry and dairy farmers were particularly badly hit because of the crisis severely disrupting the agricultural supply chain.

‘Farmers have never been so cornered. They have never been in so much distress,’ agricultural economist Jahangir Alam told New Age.

He feared that many farmers might never return to the field unless the government helped them get back to their feet with cash and other incentives needed for growing crops until the next aman season, which begins June next year.

Although overall agriculture makes up for nearly a quarter of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product, the livelihood of over half the country’s 160 million people are either directly or indirectly connected with agriculture.

About 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s farmers are small cultivators, majority of them lacking access to land and enough money to grow crops. They are highly dependent on loan for growing crops and often sell them in advance to money lenders.

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies professorial fellow Md Asaduzzaman said that many of these small famers would never recover the losses suffered this year.

‘We have a very real reason to be worried. We are surrounded by a series of crises challenging our food security,’ said Asad.

The Department of  Agricultural Extension’s centrally released data, however, does not give any indication of farmers’ distress with all their activities right on target.

The DAE said that they were only 0.5 per cent behind their aman cultivation target while vegetable, aush, jute and maize cultivations exceeded their expectations.

But the DAE’s Rangpur divisional office said that 83,000 hectares of land targeted for aman cultivation still remained unused with the aman planting season completely over.

While a large portion of the targeted land is still unusable because of being submerged in water, other areas are buried under tonnes of mud turning crop fields unusable, according to DAE officials in Rangpur.

Fazlu Mollah, a farmer at Mohipur of Rangpur’s Gangachara, had spent Tk 74,000 to remove the mud burying his 7 bighas of aman field.

He raised a second aman field that got destroyed by the latest spells of flash flood that hit north in the second week of the month.

‘I am finished. My rice field now resembles a swamp,’ Fazlu told New Age correspondent in Lalmonirhat.

In mid-August, the agricultural ministry said that flood destroyed aman worth Tk 380 crore. Overall, the initial flood damage to agricultural crops was estimated at Tk 1,323 crore. About a quarter million farmers in 37 districts were affected.

The official estimate did not consider the losses resulting from late plantation of aman, the country’s second most important grain, because of flood.

Aman, a photosensitive crop, needs to have a certain degree of vegetative growth before a certain time of the year to produce full yield.

Delwar Hossain, a farmer at Kukrul village of Lalmonirhat sadar, made three attempts at growing aman but in vain.

‘I tried so hard to grow some rice but it all got lost, my entire investment of Tk 1,42,000,’ said Delwar. 

The agriculture ministry earlier announced that it would stand by the farmers with free seed and seedlings but the help offered was not enough.

The official government estimate covering only registered fish farms showed flood losses caused to fisheries was worth Tk 500 crore.

The likely real loss is many times greater because registered fish farmers represent only a portion of the cultured fish industry.

Aminul Islam is not on the government list though he owns an eight-bigha fish farm at Balapara of Kaunia, Rangpur. Flood washed away his entire farm.

Aminul loaned Tk 96,000 at Tk 9,000 monthly installment to resume fish farming but a second wave of flood literally made his entire investment literally go into water.

‘I will soon be heading to some city for pulling rickshaw,’ said Aminul.

Aquaculturists say that initially the impact of flood on fish culture would appear not much as fish collection from natural sources would pick up following the flood.

The disappearance of fish farmers like Aminul is surely to be felt next winter, after fish supply from natural sources would dry up, they said.

Besides destroying vast grazing fields along rivers, the prolonged and recurring flood also washed away thousands of tonnes of stored hay, creating a severe fodder crisis.

Small farmers who have reared livestock are unable to keep their cattle for long as the fodder crisis is unlikely to be over soon while commercial farmers can farm fewer cattle with bigger investment.

Just a month before came the monsoon flood, super cyclone Amphan had damaged crops on more than 1.76 lakh hectares in 17 districts, especially badly affecting mango growers in southern and north-west Bangladesh.

Parts of coastal embankment riddled with holes that the cyclone had created collapsed during the monsoon allowing the sea to move inland inundating vast coastal agricultural land and shrimp enclosures.

But the most unprecedented of the challenges appeared earlier than the natural disasters with the emergence of the coronavirus crisis early March.

Just like many other countries Bangladesh reacted with movement restrictions to contain the spread of the virus but it severely impacted agricultural marketing.

Unsold eggs piled up at poultry farms while dairy farmers threw out milk failing to sell. Hatcheries stopped producing chickens and fish fries. Many farmers culled poultry birds in order to slash cost.

Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University poultry science professor Anwarul Haque Beg estimated that minimum 30,000 poultry farms were badly hit by the coronavirus crisis and many of them had to shut down.

‘The situation has come to a point where the difference between big and small farmers does not matter. Everybody needs help,’ said Anwar.

But the stimulus package that the government announced to help famers get through the COVID-19 crisis was largely ineffective because of its poor disbursement, said economists.

Economist Jahangir Alam said that only 10 to 15 per cent of the cash incentive was released and doubted if it all fell in the right hands.

‘The government should ensure that the cash incentive reaches real farmers fast,’ he said.

‘The government should also ensure that farmers get legitimate price for their produces in the coming days,’ said Jahangir. 

Food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder said that he saw no possibilities of any crisis of food grains.

‘Rice growers got very good price this year,’ he said.

Agriculture secretary Nasiruzzaman does not think farmers would call it quits.

‘Farming would rather increase as many returned to their village homes after losing their city jobs because of the coronavirus crisis,’ he said.

He admitted that there was no cash aid for farmers but Tk 19,500 crore has been allocated for distribution among farmers at 4 per cent interest to help them recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

He however was not sure how much of the loan was so far disbursed.

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