DHAKA: Food prices in Bangladesh have doubled over the last few months, as they have elsewhere in the world. The country already suffers from food shortages and financial difficulties regularly caused by cyclones and other natural disasters. And Bangladesh is currently sitting at number 70 (out of 88) on the Global Hunger Index.
When such basic needs are not being met, the development required to foster functioning democracies often takes a back seat.
This need is amplified in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southeast Bangladesh where for over a year a plague of rats, attracted by the flowers of the bamboo plants that bloom once every 50 years or so, but can flower for up to three years when they do bloom, has been destroying crops in Bangladesh with catastrophic results.
What may seem like the setting of a science fiction movie to some is altogether too real a scenario for people like Aung Khei Marma, a 70-year-old farmer and a father of six. He lives with his wife in the hill village of Majher Para in one of the three hill districts of CHT. The harvest from his plot of land feeds him and his wife for half the year.
Aung Khei and his wife then collect and sell bamboo from the forest to feed themselves for the other half of the year.
Bamboo is a symbol of life for Aung Khei and others living in this region. It provides vital income in the 5,093 square miles that make up the CHT, and 10 percent of Bangladesh. But since 2006 bamboo seems to have been at the centre of a catastrophe for Aung Khei Marma and the other 150 families in his community, who now rely on governmental and international aid to meet their basic food needs until the plague of rats is over.
To the hill dwellers of this region, bamboo blossoming is a sign of impending famine. Once a bamboo grove begins to flower and bear fruit, the region is soon plagued with a massive influx of rats, known as a rat flood.
They multiply quickly through reproduction, consuming the bamboo fruit and moving on to pumpkins, potatoes, paddies and other crops planted in the area.
For example, of the 24 kilograms of paddy seeds Aung Khei sowed in 2007, three-quarters of it was consumed by rats. Others in the village suffered a similar fate.
Indigenous leaders of the CHT blame the food crisis on the mismanagement of the country’s Development Board, which was created following a peace agreement between the Bangladeshi government and the region’s people, who had been fighting for indigenous rights and special status.
As of May 2008 the government had sanctioned Tk 2.2 million ($32,460) to combat the food shortages in different regions of the CHT. However, this amount has not been enough and international donor agencies have had to step in.
UNDP is taking the lead in implementing development projects in the CHT, where they distributed packages of rice, salt, dried shrimp powder and rat traps to 7,000 of the worst affected households. CARITAS, the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, amongst others, are also running programs to assist those in need.
A well-coordinated plan and concerted effort between the Bangladeshi government, the people of the CHT and international agencies is necessary to tackle this situation.
Despite the predictability of this 50-year event, local inhabitants are unable to stockpile enough food to prepare for the famine they fear. The government must lead the effort by coordinating all affected parties to act collectively to address such disasters. The government should strengthen local administrative bodies, such as hill district counsels, to address such calamities.
To reduce the dependency on bamboo, the government should initiate technical training programs such as textile manufacturing and other cottage industries, encouraging alternative livelihoods.
Local non-governmental organizations must tackle problems like the rat flood in their agendas and take precautionary measures. They can create emergency relief funds to deal with the threats of famine in the short term.
For example, in addition to reporting on the rat flood to raise awareness, the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), in cooperation with the local social organization Tripura Kalyan Foundation, has responded to the plight of 55 affected families in the Ruilui and Longlar villages of the CHT by providing them with food packages.
In the longer term, these organizations can provide training for families on alternative agricultural practices such as horticulture, homestead gardening, poultry, etc. – particularly those practices that won’t be affected by future plagues of rats.
The damage due to this most recent rat flood has already begun in the CHT; however, farmers and their families can still benefit from additional help.
Intensified relief efforts, coupled with prevention programs can mitigate the impacts of future famines on the inhabitants of the region and to enable the country to move beyond hunger in their development program.
Partha Shankar Saha is the coordinator of cultural program s for the Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation, Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).