Could better market systems help people rebuild their lives after the disaster of river erosion?
Jashim, Mahbub and I drove to Jamalpur in northern Bangladesh this morning. It was a fine cool morning with sunlight dappling the tree-shaded road – and plenty of activity to admire in surrounding fields, fish-ponds and homesteads. After crossing the mighty Jamuna river near Tangail, we took a relatively minor route snaking along tree-lined embankments between paddies rich with fields of winter rice and freshly planted vegetables. The road was busy with bicycles, rickshaws and small lorries laden with jute, but it was a relief to have few of the heavy trucks and careering buses that terrorise the main road to Dhaka.
An hour after crossing the huge river, we entered Sorishabari near a village called Amtola. Suddenly I was surprised to find the road almost walled-in by sheets of corrugated iron assembled on wooden frames. Walls inset with shuttered windows, and bricks stood piled at the edge of the tarmac. I realised I was looking at dozens of flat-packed houses, stacked more or less neatly at the side of the road, like goods in some unlikely, out-sized IKEA warehouse.
Walking between homes a few yards from the road, we stumbled out of the trees onto a desolate scene. Fertile fields ended abruptly at a plummeting edge: the freshly eroded bank of the river. All around, the sad remnants of homes – foundations torn, walls razed, a lonely tube-well, the pathetic remains of a kitchen hearth. A neighbour explained that the families had desperately demolished their homes to save the materials from the encroaching river. “How far has the river bank moved this year?” Jashim asked. “Two kilometres!” the man replied. “It obliterated four villages.”
Later I learned that during an unprecedented third flood event this summer, the main flow of the Jamuna river unexpectedly changed course at this point. It rapidly ate into land that must have felt safe-as-houses to its residents only weeks earlier.
We moved along the bank a small distance, and met a family whose home, but little of their land, had just about survived the summer erosion. An old man, Razib, and his two sons greeted us warmly – optimistic perhaps that this visiting foreigner was an omen of assistance. The women kept a discrete distance. A young deshi cow and her calf were tethered to a wicker manger full of rice straw, and a couple of fat chickens scavenged as close as they dared to a modest harvest of rice drying in the sun. The bank here was crumbling and vertiginous. I could imagine it too, collapsing and sliding in moments into the muddy abyss twenty feet below. How do they sleep at night?
“What are you going to do?” we asked. The old man pointed through the midday haze – over the abyss at his feet and half a mile across the water – to a vast island of sand and silt emerging mid-river. “We will move there, and start again – on the chars.”
Chars is the Bangla word for the sand-banks, mud-flats and islands that form and re-form in the great rivers of Bangladesh: the Jamuna, Padma, Teesta etc. They accumulate during the summer from eroded sediment washed downstream by monsoon rains, and emerge as the flood-water recedes – sometimes forming islands that endure for ten or twenty years before the meandering river consumes them once more. In recent decades, as population pressures on the mainland have grown, chars land in northern Bangladesh has become refuge and home to more than two million people – mainly victims of river bank erosion. They usually arrive with barely any assets.
Rebuilding a farming livelihood on the chars is desperately hard. Having lost any land they held title to, migrating families are frequently at the mercy of local mastaan (or muscle-men) linked to ‘influential’ land-owners and political chiefs, who control the new chars land. Land must be leased (or share-cropped) from often ruthless ‘land-owners’. Most terrain is liable to flooding during the summer months, but due to low water-retention of the sandy soils, also prone to drought for half the year. Men often have to migrate seasonally to cities and richer agricultural areas for work, leaving women-headed families vulnerable to abuse. Meanwhile, the displacement that drove most households on to the chars often disrupts the social networks that women in poorer households rely upon for mutual support.
On young chars, especially, there is usually no infrastructure: no roads, no schools, no medical facilities, no irrigation, no electricity nor other basic services. Transport of goods to and from markets is expensive and slow. In the summer, when waters are high, boats ply between the chars and ghats (landing stages) on the mainland. The ghats too are controlled by mastaan, who levy taxes of their own devising on the farmers and traders. When the river recedes, transport options are usually worse – with char villages often stranded far from the water’s edge across baking stretches of trackless, sandy soil. As a result, despite large (seasonal) expanses of land, markets for agricultural inputs and services are feeble, the economic output of chars land is low and the poverty of most households is intense.
My companions on the journey today, Jashim and Mahbub, are project officers for a recently started poverty-reduction programme called M4C. Making Markets Work on the Chars – a five year joint-initiative between Practical Action Bangladesh, Practical Action Consulting and Swisscontact, that is paid for by the Swiss government (SDC). We were on our way to Jamalpur to help run a workshop that brought together char farmers (like Razib), input suppliers, traders and agricultural service providers to explore how these diverse ‘market actors’ might work out practical solutions to some of these challenges. The workshop used a process called Participatory Market Mapping: creating a space for people, who do not normally talk on equal terms, to understand each other, discuss how different crop sectors (maize, chilli, jute etc) work, learn what each others’ needs and problems are, and begin to build trust and explore different ways of doing business together to make these ‘market systems’ work better – particularly for poorer farmers.
Unlike many donor-funded projects, M4C will not be handing out money or goods to poor households. It will instead be supporting and relying on the char farmers’ capabilities to work out mutually-beneficial solutions to their problems: to work out better deals with each other, and involve the private sector in innovative ways. Helping farmers work out how to coordinate and bulk up their production is one clear opportunity – since this quickly reduces transport costs for input suppliers and traders, and gives them a good reason to enlarge their business activities and provide better services on new chars. This is a key step in enabling chars households better access to income and opportunities spilling over from expanding markets in the thriving towns and cities of the ‘mainland’.
It take time for people to build trust and devise new ways of working together effectively. M4C’s approach is not instant palliative relief, but a long-term strategy for transforming access to services and income opportunities on the chars. We believe that initiatives that stem from farmers’ and other market actors’ own ideas, and that align naturally with their interests, are much more likely to endure, and spread spontaneously to other locations. Entrepreneurial traders, input-suppliers and service providers will copy business ideas that work, taking good ideas to new chars, and extending the impact of our work far beyond what we could ever achieve directly. With this vision, M4C is geared to achieving changes that are intrinsically long-lasting and reach significant numbers of poor households.