Farmer Field Schools: Nurturing a Greener Future for CHT
Ms. Manik Pudi Chakma is a resident in Ratnasen Para, Khagrachari, one of the oldest and most remote farming communities in Panchari Upazila. Farmers in Manik Pudi’s community have a strong agricultural history, primarily in the customary slash and burn practice of Jum cultivation. “The traditional cultivation method is an important part of general practices to our cultural identity. It is a technique that is past down from generation to generation.”
While Jum was traditionally an environmentally sound farming practice, recent constraints on land availability and pressures have seen a marked reduction in fallow periods from approximately 15 through to roughly three years. This has resulted in soil fertility depletion and erosion, in turn translating to reductions in crop yield and a rise in the number of food shortages months faced by many households. Furthermore, insecure land tenure and poor road connectivity and infrastructure have added further obstacles to local farmers.
With the majority of people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and subsistence, sound farming practices are essential to the region’s economic future. Moreover, the unique geography and climate of the Hill Tracts means it has the potential to grow different and higher quality crops than the rest of Bangladesh including ginger, turmeric and certain fruits.
To respond to this need Hill District Councils (HDC) led over 900 Farmer Field Schools have been rolled out across the Hill Tracts since 2009, with the support of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility (CHTDF) and development partner Denmark. FFS are a group based learning-by-doing approach, involving the active participation of farmers and communities in gaining new and innovative agricultural techniques. Training is season long, providing participants with an opportunity to learn about all stages of fish, poultry, livestock, spices and high value or nutritionally-dense crops.
The project is grassroots in focus, with locally recruited Farmer Facilitators undertaking extensive training to better enable them to facilitate and implement the FFS learning cycle in their own and neighbouring communities. Manik Pudi Chakma is one such facilitator. “I was selected to undertake the Farmer Facilitator training in 2014 and spent 60 days learning technical farming aspects…I also learnt strategies for motivating others and facilitating learning. Now I am using compost fertilizer in spice field without using fertilizer and harvesting brinjal round the year…this is a change to traditional practise. I’m seeing more advantages as well in self-confidence.”
Central to the FFS model is its hands-on approach. The field is considered the primary teacher, providing most of the training materials and real-world problems. Consequently, every month farmers participate in three-four sessions on their own land to introduce new methods and practical solutions based on identified needs. Techniques taught include use of hand pollination in cucurbit vegetables, vegetable pit preparation and effective pruning of fruit trees, immunizing cattle and poultry to prevent disease, and the use of Farm Yard manure instead of chemical fertilizers.
The impact of FFS in CHT is real with targeted communities already increasing production and diversifying sources of income, with over half of the beneficiaries being women. In 2014 alone over 4,749 farmers benefited from training and cumulatively roughly 19,700 farmers have gained new and innovative farming techniques. Moreover, the four-six month lean period previously faced has been reduced by many villagers. This is something that Farmer Facilitator Mr. U Ba Maung from Mongmegyao Para, Bandarban, puts down largely to improved farming methods.
“Before Farmer Field School intervention we always faced acute food crisis and as alternative options we have to depend on money lenders with high interest. Now we do not need to borrow from money lenders as we are producing sufficient food. We are now better than before.”
The FFS intervention has been running since 2009 and is currently in its second phase. Encouraged by the impressive results to date UNDP, with the generous support of Denmark, are looking at strategies to deepen the environmental sustainability and profitability of farming activities in the Hill Tracts over the coming years.