Ethnic Bangladeshis lose jobs as mango-mad farm owners shun thirsty rice

by Rafiqul Islam | @pantho000 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 November 2019 07:00 GMT

Three ethnic women work as farm labourers in a paddy field that is soon to be turned into a mango orchard, in Naogaon district, Bangladesh, on September 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rafiqul Islam

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The landless Oraon minority of northwest Bangladesh have traditionally earned a living labouring in local paddy fields, but are struggling as that work dries up due to water shortages

By Rafiqul Islam

NAOGAON, Bangladesh, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kalamoti Kujur used to make good money as a labourer in the paddy fields near her home in northwest Bangladesh. But five years ago, in response to drought, landowners started growing mangoes instead, which need less water and attention than rice.

Kujur, a member of the Oraon ethnic minority in Naogaon district, lost her job and now struggles to support her family.

Many local people like her who do not own land used to earn 200 taka ($2.36) a day labouring in the rice fields.

"But, in recent years, the landlords are transforming their paddy fields into mango gardens, making us workless," she said.

In the Barind region of northwestern Bangladesh, rice has long been the sole source of income for the landless Oraon, who traditionally make a living as farm labourers or sharecroppers.

But frequent droughts, poor precipitation and increasing temperatures in the region - which environmental experts link to climate change - have made growing the thirsty crop tougher.

Mango trees can be cultivated with fewer people, they say, and use up to 80% less water than growing rice.

As rice harvesting season approaches, there are no longer enough jobs for all the Oraon living in Naogaon, Kujur said.

Like many others in the area, her eldest son has left their village for six months to find work in another district.

"The male members of our families are compelled to migrate for work, so we have to stay home alone, which makes our lives difficult," said the 45-year-old mother of three.

Oraon minority woman Kalamoti Kujur sits at home after losing her job as landowners turn rice fields into mango orchards in Naogaon district, Bangladesh, on September 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rafiqul Islam

Tajul Islam, a farm owner in Porsha sub-district, has replaced his 5 hectares (12 acres) of rice with four mango orchards.

Amid drier weather and higher temperatures, rice farming was losing him too much money, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We know shifting to mango farming from paddy (rice) cuts off work for ethnic people, but we prefer mango farming as it requires less labour," Islam said.

'NO RAIN, NO CROP'

The Oraon people were brought from India to Bangladesh by the British colonial government to construct railways in Bengal.

They and other ethnic minority groups in Naogaon make up about 7% of the district's more than 2.5 million residents, official data shows, although local charities and minority rights groups say the real figure is higher.

Water scarcity is a common problem for ethnic minorities in Barind, known as "plain-land people", a moniker distinguishing them from other groups in Bangladesh's hilly areas.

The region is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a February study by environmental engineers at Hajee Mohammad Danesh Science and Technology University in Dinajpur and Rajshahi University of Engineering and Technology.

Temperature extremes in the region have increased, while annual rainfall has decreased, leading to a reduction in water availability, they found.

Mango-grower Tajul Islam explains why he has turned his paddy fields into more protitable orchards in Porsha sub-district, Bangladesh, on September 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rafiqul Islam

In Naogaon's Porsha sub-district, the entire ethnic minority population of about 15,000 is affected by water shortages, according to local non-profit Barendrabhumi Samaj Unnayan Sangstha (BSDO), which works with those communities.

Barind's ponds, lakes and canals are severely depleted, while groundwater is also disappearing rapidly, noted BSDO programme coordinator Ataur Rahman.

In the dry season, groundwater levels drop so low that even tube wells as deep as 200 feet (60 metres) do not reach water, he noted.

The monsoon used to bring enough rain to sustain the area's paddy fields until harvest, but that is no longer the case, say locals and environmental experts.

A study last year from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed average rainfall in July 2014 - the middle of the monsoon season - in the three driest Barind districts, including Naogaon, had dropped to just over 220 mm (8 inches), about a third of its level in July 2005.

Sukur Oraon, a 50-year-old ethnic minority sharecropper in Naogaon, said last year his rice harvest was only a quarter of usual levels as his paddy fields dried up due to lack of rain - and half his crop goes to the owners of the land he works.

"We have planted it this year too, but I do not know whether we will be able to harvest it," he lamented. "No rain, no crop."

Two ethnic women collect grass to feed their cattle as they struggle with a lack of work in drying-up rice fields in Naogaon district, Bangladesh, on September 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rafiqul Islam

WATER AND HEALTH

The authorities and development groups are working to combat water shortages in Naogaon district.

In 2014, the Department of Public Health Engineering installed 400 deep tube wells, each providing an average of 50 households with safe drinking water.

And two years ago, UNDP set up five water-harvesting plants under a pilot project, serving 25 households in total.

But those measures are not enough to meet water demand in drought-prone areas and often do not benefit ethnic communities with less education and fewer resources, said BSDO's Rahman.

While struggling with water shortages and job losses, the Oraon also face health problems due to a changing climate.

Locals say the aquatic animals that make up the bulk of their diet are dying off as the area's lakes and canals dry up.

"In the past, we (ate) eels, fish, crabs, turtles and snails, which were abundant here, to meet our nutritional demand. But those have disappeared for lack of rainfall," said Parbati Akkata, a 35-year-old Oraon woman living in Naogaon.

As a result, about 80% of Oraon women and children suffer form malnutrition, noted UNDP climate-change specialist Mamunur Rashid.

He believes authorities should help ethnic people find alternative incomes, such as selling fertiliser or handicrafts.

The government could also set up mango-processing plants in Barind to create job opportunities, he added.

"If they could be educated and trained properly, the ethnic people would be able to enter the national job market," he said.

Sirajul Islam, deputy director of the Department of Agricultural Extension for Naogaon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation his department was still seeking solutions to the lack of work for ethnic communities in Barind.

Landowners, meanwhile, continue to give up rice for mangoes.

In fiscal year 2013-2014, mango was cultivated on about 9,150 hectares (22,600 acres) in Naogaon - by 2018-2019, that figure had more than doubled, Islam said.

As she waits for work, Kujur can only lament how water scarcity has made her life harder.

"From our livelihoods to our food habits, even our tradition and culture - nowadays poor rainfall takes a heavy toll on us," she said.

($1 = 84.7400 taka)

(Reporting by Rafiqul Islam; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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