Biodiversity Conservation and Food Security of Indigenous People Hilly Regions of Bangladesh

Bangladesh occupies an area of 144,863 km². The hilly areas cover about 17,342 km² mostly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts districts, Chittagong, Habigonj and Moulvibazar. Hills constitute about 12 per cent of the total area of Bangladesh. Chittagong Hill Tracts districts alone covers 13,184 km² which is about 9%. Based on geology and landform, the hills of Bangladesh may broadly be subdivided as: High hill ranges (about 70%) and Low hill areas (about 30%). The high hill ranges, about 200-1,000 m above mean sea level (msl), are steep to very steep hills and usually have a rather youthful soil mantle ranging from a few cm to several metres in thickness over bedrocks. In contrast, the low hill areas, about 15-200 m above msl are nearly flat or rounded topped and usually have old and deep soil. The whole hilly region receives more than 2000 mm precipitation annually about 80% of which receives in 4 months (June-September) and the region was covered by tropical climax forest with diversified flora and fauna just a century back. Due to human pressure, the deep forests were deforested to denuded hills. Moreover, introduction of tillage cultivation practices and uses of chemicals a good number of indigenous flora and fauna have lost their habitats. One of the important aspects is that waterbodies viz. natural lakes (Haors) and sea are adjacent to the hills which greatly influence the hydrological cycles and flora and fauna of both hills and the water bodies. The folded ranges, the extension of Arakan and Lusai Hills, are very important for the coast of the Bay of Bengal, their existence is essential to protect the coast line as well as the forest flora and fauna.

However, a large part of hilly areas are under state forest and some are under tea and rubber plantation. In the remaining part, Jhum (shifting cultivation following slash and burn method) is being practiced by the tribal people, especially in Chittagong hill tracts and locally in other areas. Jhum involves clearing of forest land after several years (4-5 years) of fallow. But now the fallow period has been reduced further to 2 years due to non-availability of land. This exposure of land has increased the chance of soil erosion and further degradation of land. In May 9, 2009, the massive land-sliding blocked the flow of the river Sango and in 29th July, 10 people were killed due to land-sliding in the Bandarban Hill District.

The Jhum crops include early summer highland rice, maize, cotton, sesame, turmeric, ginger, banana, chilies and vegetables etc. Locally plantations of pineapple and orange also occupy small areas. Vegetables, tobacco and wetland rice are the major crops grown in the valleys, and adjoining plains. Every year more and more land is becoming denuded due to unplanned agricultural expansion. Surface run-off is the main cause of soil resource loss and land degradation. A continuous process of soil and nutrient loss is going on all over the Hill soils under high rates of precipitation. The process is accelerated by the open cultivation system on steep to very steep land. In the greater district of Sylhet, growing of pineapple in the hilly areas is causing extensive erosion. The plants are grown in rows which are mostly oriented vertically down the slope. The inter-row spaces are clear-tilled by hoeing leaving the loosened soils highly vulnerable to sheet and gully erosion. In Chittagong Hill Tracts, soil erosion is mainly due to shifting cultivation. The worsening soil fertility of hill soils becomes more serious if the faulty cultivation goes on unabated.

Due to mono-cropping and use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers especially in tea plantation, the soil fertility has been declined. Despite introduction of 17 high-yielding clones the yield of tea has not been increasing for last 10 years. Moreover, the catchments are being raised by expanding paddy cultivation and the total peripheral tea has lost their root zone and thus declining the total area at an alarming rate.

The density of population of the hilly region has been increasing at an alarming rate and the present cultivation practices have been deteriorating the soil fertility and nutrient status. Biodiversity is in a great threat. Many of flora and fauna are endangered. Therefore, food chain as a whole is disrupted. The overall human activity needs immediate attention to restore the food chain, restore the eco-partners, pollinators, tree crops especially for timber, fruits, soil conservation and soil creation, wind protection, habitat for associate flora and fauna etc., and for restoration of hydrological cycle to revive the perennial streams. High water table indicator flora e.g. wild banana, ferns, zinzibers, canes and bamboos etc. should be re-established. Right plant (crop) at right place according to their habit and habitat is needed be cultured. Due to lack of sufficient green coverage, the perennial streams are drying up in the dry season. As a result, there has been prevailing a great water crisis in the hilly zones of Bangladesh. Upland dams are causing detrimental effects changing the ecological conditions, reducing surface area, blocking the seepage water flows (capillaries) by continuous impediments. Moreover, after heavy torrential rainfall, the dams become a great risk for the downstream dwellers. The reservoirs made by the dams in the hilly regions are not so productive for fish culture due to high depth.

Most of the crops especially the fruits like jackfruit, citrus and lemons, litchi, Kao (Garcinia) and pineapple etc., and vegetables are seasonal; harvested in summer/wet monsoon. It is very difficult to manage the crops due to poor post harvest facilities and transportation. A huge quantity of summer crops is being damaged every year due to above reasons and the farmers do not get their price. Post harvest management of crops needs utmost attention.

In most of the hilly regions of Bangladesh, indigenous and migrant people along with Bangalees are living there maintaining their own food habits. Many indigenous tribes consume locally grown herbs and spices for food and medicine. In contrast, some of the tribes and migrant laborers are habituated with excess drinking of locally made wine and with smoking and chewing tobacco. In most cases, they spend their whole weekly income within 4-5 days and remain hungry and suffer from malnutrition. These people need motivation and sustainable supply of necessary and healthy foods.

Multidisciplinary action is needed for improvement of the agro-economic conditions of the hilly regions of Bangladesh. Selecting the target households, farmer’s community based organization development, setting of social, agricultural and environmental baselines, choosing of right crops and right cultural practices for a specific agro-ecological zone, bio-diversification with long-term adapted species, varieties bringing more species under cropping culture according to their habits and habitats, improvement of hydrological cycles and to keep the water tables up for reviving the perennial stream by establishing appropriate plant species, uses of organic fertilizers and pesticides to restore flora and fauna especially, the mycorrhiza, eco-partners and pollinating agents etc., and to protect the soil and water bodies from pollution from conventional use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Identification of specific requirements of target households in each region, provision of seed and planting material to encourage diversification, provision of advice on improved technology and practices, provision of farm machinery to ensure use of technology to boost up production, , identification of best local practices, awareness raising of social and economic issues related to food security for all members of disadvantaged households, provision of training, awareness raising on nutritious food and health related issues, monitoring yields and environmental impacts, monitoring the social well being of target households, monitoring and evaluation of the impacts of the actions on well-beings of households and reporting for widespread dissemination of the results of these actions.

Land and environment degradation remain an important problem because it’s adverse effect on agricultural production. Inappropriate agriculture practices, particularly in areas with fragile ecosystems increase the loss of productivity of resource-poor farmers. There are strong, direct relationships between agricultural productivity, hunger, and poverty. Increased agricultural productivity enables farmers to grow more food, which translates into better diet and under market conditions that offer a level playing field, into higher farm income. Farmers should be made aware of and encouraged to adopt improved agricultural practices and soil conservation measures to enhance productivity, which are-

Habitat Restoration and Permaculture: The prime and foremost important activity is to restore the habitat to create the climatic conditions for reviving hydrological cycles through trans-evaporation, surface and underground water flows and to keep the ground water table up. To do this, action will be taken for planting evergreen and deciduous trees at a proportion of 4:1 according to their habit and habitat. Crops will also be chosen and planted preferring mixed plantation method according to their habit of co-existence and long run adaptation.

Improved Jhum and use of improved germplasm: Jhum is likely to continue as a fundamental land use system in the region. Improving the sustainable management of the natural resources in this area must therefore consider sustainable alternatives within jhum farming. An improved jhum can be created by selectively weeding the fields and enriching them by planting species that increase the rate of return of organic matter to the soil and have some commercial interest for the farmer (such as commercial bamboos and various leguminous shrubs). Repeated campaigns with field demonstrations are needed to show them that adoption of improved varieties will better suit their needs

Conservation of soil moisture: The Hill farmers of Bangladesh generally cultivate their crops under rain-fed conditions. The average yield is low in most cases because of their inadequate knowledge about appropriate sowing time under rain-fed cropping system. In Bangladesh, November-December is the best planting time for winter vegetables in the plains but it is too late for hilly areas. In hilly regions, suitable slopping lands are available for early sowing, usually in October. If crops are planted in October, both higher yields and market prices will be obtained.

Zero-Tillage Practice: A cultural practice like zero-tillage is one of the most important factors for higher crop production in rain-fed agriculture especially in hill regions. Zero tillage enhances and sustains farm production by conserving and improving soil, water and biological resources. Essentially, it maintains a permanent or semi-permanent organic soil cover that protects the soil from sun, rain and wind and allows soil micro-organisms and fauna to take on the task of “tilling” and soil nutrient balancing – natural processes disturbed by mechanical tillage. Zero-tillage is reported to give significantly higher yield of maize, ginger, cowpea and Mukhi Kachu in hill slopes.

Moisture Conservation: Mulching is one of the most important cultural techniques for higher production in rain-fed farming systems. Erosion, declining soil fertility, and increased emergence of weeds affect production when fallows are shortened. Mulching will help prevent soil degradation and excessive weed emergence. This technique can be used by farmers growing ginger and taro in hilly areas of this region. The use of mulch safeguards the topsoil against excessive soil temperatures and favors seed germination.

Use contour plantation: The common practice in the Hill Tracts is to plant crops up and down the slopes which facilitate soil erosion with the onset of heavy rains. However, planting should be made along the contours to prevent soil loss.

Use of cover crops and Use of strip cropping: Row crops (erosion permitting crops) such as rice, tobacco, maize etc are not effective as soil conserving crops (erosion resistant crops) such cowpea, black gram, groundnut etc. Using legumes in the existing cropping system will provide better cover and protection to soil by way of minimizing the impact of raindrop erosion and acting as an obstruction to runoff. Cover Crops and strip cropping should be practiced immediately to control erosion.

Crop Rotation and use of balanced fertilizers: Mono-cropping of erosion permitting crops accelerate soil and water loss year after year. Intercropping erosion permitting and erosion resistant crops or their rotation are very effective for soil and water conservation. Erosion resistant crops should be sown in time to develop adequate canopy by the time of peak rate of runoff. Better crop rotation and organic manures should be applied to improve the nutrient status of the soil. Improvement in soil structure improves the rate of infiltration leading to reduced runoff.

Crop diversification: In the face of shrinking natural resources and ever-increasing demand for larger food and agricultural production, agricultural diversification is the best method for future of agriculture. Crop diversification from low value to high value crops; from water loving crop to water saving crop and from single crop to multiple/mixed crop can provide adequate income and employment to the farmers. Such high value crops can overcome problems of transportation and low input use when markets are developed.

Improved Family Nutrition – The widespread occurrence of malnutrition and poor diet leads to shortened lifespan and lower agricultural productivity. By improving the nutrition of the entire family overall community health and productivity will result. The most direct means of improving family nutrition is through community diet education coupled with teaching the skills needed for low cost production of fruits and vegetables in a home garden.

Regeneration with Diversified Flora and Fauna: As the tropical climax hill forests have some unique behaviour, they need special care to re-establish. Absence of eco-partners i.e., the pollinators, recycling agents, food chain producers and consumers etc., the diversity and productivity of the forests have been reduced significantly. It is therefore, essential to re-establish the forests according to habit and habitat of indigenous flora and fauna and in this process the foods for all dwellers including the ethnic tribes can be secured.

Sustainability of the action: There is a natural reluctance among farmers to change their farming systems that have been well adapted for generations. However, as circumstances have changed (population increase, land degradation, etc.) the farming systems have to be changed. Farmers need all the support that science and cooperation can provide, but it must be carefully integrated into the farmers’ environment. Increasing crop production in sustainable ways, introducing erosion control measures or improving the long-term productivity of the land (such as organic manures fertilizers, etc.) involve direct costs or indirect costs, such as that of family labour. It may also be difficult to sustain or small farmers if there are few short-term benefits as the crop response occurs over many years. Therefore, the constraints exerted on families may be considerable, in particular for those living at little above the subsistence level. Only those practices that give a quick, visible difference or significant cash return should be recommended.

Farmers will not pay for inputs unless they are reasonably sure that their produce can be sold at a profit. Nor will they accept conservation measures unless the long-term advantages will accrue to them. However, the transportation to reach the market and infrastructure are very poor in this area. An agricultural marketing specialist should work with farmers, cooperatives, and Gram Panchayats/local administrative bodies to develop access to existing markets.

The long-term sustainability of these measures will depend upon how useful the local communities feel these measures are compatible with their everyday lives. Given the rising prices of agricultural commodities, the economic justification for adopting improved practices will likely remain for a long time. Awareness and capacity building seem to be important measures for helping sustainability. The main threats to the sustainability are population pressure and scarcity of agricultural land. This problem should have to be met primarily by the villagers themselves although external agencies can extend a helping hand.

It is therefore essential to take appropriate measures to make understand the people of the hilly regions of Bangladesh that the diversified flora and fauna are the part and parcel of our life and they are highly important for our climate. We should respect the diversity of the nature, and diversity is the basis for survivility.

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Director, CGEC International University of Business Agriculture and Technology Bangladesh

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