The article was first published in the Dhaka Tribune
Agriculture is the main occupation of many members of ethnic minorities, but climate change has left most of them unemployed
Niresh Pahan, one of many ethnic minority farmers living in Naogaon, is on the brink of starvation and poverty as most of his paddy crop died this year. Of the harvest he will reap, half of it will go to the land owner.
The 30-year old man lives in a village under Ganguriya union of Porsha upazila. Niresh is concerned that the landlord might not be happy with the harvest he reaped, and might stop leasing him farmland.
He, like many others, has fallen victim to climate change affecting the region.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Niresh said: “We usually stock enough rice to cover our needs throughout the year, but what about other expenses? Additionally, most of the landlords have started farming mangoes on their land due to climate change; leaving us without work.
“We are not qualified for any other line of work. So, employment opportunities for us are shrinking rapidly.”
Aside from agriculture, many farmers such as Niresh have no alternative but to work at brick kilns for meager pay.
To further supplement their income, around 40 men, including Niresh, leave their little village multiple times a year in search of cheap labour work at farmlands of: Faridpur, Natore, Pabna, Rajshahi, Tangail, and Dhaka.
Niresh’s wife—Sonali Rani, 21— who also works as a farmhand in a nearby union, said: “We can hardly cover the daily expenses. I make Tk200 per day, but have to spend Tk50 on transportation.”
The scenario is the same in the Saor, Ganguria and Ghatnagar unions of this upazila. Agriculture is the main occupation of members of ethnic minorities in the region, but a few members of the Oraon community also work in other professions.
Effects of climate change
“Around 75% of rice cultivation land is now being used for mango farming, or fruit farming. These farms need fewer workers, and the land owners make significantly more profit,” said Laksman Tikka, 50, who lives in the area.
He added that the average temperature in this region is gradually increasing, and rainfall has decreased significantly. This change in climate is forcing land owners to change their agricultural patterns.
Laksman is presently working as a construction worker in Mahadebpur upazila, after the land he used to cultivate rice was converted into a fruit farm by the owner.
These landless minorities mostly depend on local landowners for work and accommodation. As they do not own any land, loaning money from banks is extremely difficult for them.Panimuni Pahan, a resident of Ganguria, said she tried to loan money from Sonali Bank and Islami Bank but was denied.
“Even if we want to raise livestock at our home, there is no way to get financial support for startup capital. Purchasing a cow, which would cost me between Tk15,000 to Tk25,000, is next to impossible for me,” said Panimuni.
Some of the local population says they can loan money from some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the area. However, paying the weekly installments in a timely manner is difficult for these people, as the community remains without work for multiple seasons every year.
Hefty profits, few concerns
Abdus Sabur Master, owner of Barendra Mango Nursery in Baragarm, told the Dhaka Tribune: “My farmlands, along with the lands of many others, are now being used for fruit farming; as the profit is significantly larger than that of rice cultivation.”
Echoing the same opinion, Prabin Kumar Saha, a land owner in Ghatnagar area said: “A major portion of my farmland has been turned into fruit farms. I earned around Tk40,000 this year, after deducting expenses. I used to make around Tk5,000 from the land while it was being used to cultivate rice.
Addressing the issue, AHM Firoz, project officer of Barendrabhumi Samaj Unnayan Sangstha (BSDO), said: “Plain land ethnic minority communities are slipping into a more vulnerable situation because of: climate change, reduced rainfall, modern farming technology and lack of professional training opportunities.
BSDO is a local NGO working with ethnic minorities’ development and social inclusion in the area.
Upazila Chairman Anwarul Islam admitted that increasingly more members of the community are having difficulty finding work because of ongoing climate change.
“The local administration is working to bring these people under the social safety net. As part of this effort, we have held several meetings with the local landowners, urging them to support the local ethnic minority community by providing them with work,” he added.
Bangladesh Adivasi Adhikar Andolon leader Sanjeeb Drong told the Dhaka Tribune that almost every such community living in plain lands faces a situation similar to that of farmers in Naogaon.
What do the experts say?
Commenting on the issue, Professor Hafiza Khatun of Dhaka University’s Geology and Environment department, said: “Climate change is partially responsible for making the ethnic minority communities’ situation more vulnerable.
“The second major issue is that they have no alternative occupation or professional training, which puts them out of work during off-seasons. The land ownership issue is another vital reason. Additionally, local farmlands remain un-utilized throughout the year, except during cultivation seasons.”
Prof Hafiza suggested that the government pay special attention to improving the lives of the ethnic minority communities by taking steps such as raising awareness regarding climate change, providing professional training, and launching initiatives to maximize the use of farmland.
Many land owners in Naogaon are converting farmlands in fruit farms, as climate change gradually turned rice farming a difficult endeavor | Kamrul Hasan/Dhaka Tribune
“The local ethnic minority community will be able to become self-reliant through fewer restrictions to availing financial assistance, professional training, and the assurance of better land lease arrangements with owners,” she added.
In order to address the climate-induced livelihood vulnerabilities of plain land ethnic minorities, HEKS/EPER—a Switzerland based international NGO—has developed a bilateral partnership with UNDP to implement an IBFCR project that aims to empower women, and a project named Climate Change Adaptation Project for Plain land Ethnic Minority Communities.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, HEKS/EPER Country Director Anik Asad said: “Community-level intervention is not sufficient enough to ensure climate-resilient livelihoods of the plain land ethnic minorities.
“A plain land minorities-friendly policy should be undertaken in order to adapt to and implement it; unfailingly addressing the climate adaptive livelihoods of these communities.”
Meanwhile, Tevita G Boseiwaqa Taginavulau, director general of CIRDAP said: “The negative impact of climate change is already evident particularly in rural areas, since rural people are highly dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services and also highly vulnerable to climate change induced natural disasters and extreme weather events.”
“One key important strategy—which CIRDAP is advocating for in Bangladesh—is to increase livelihood opportunities in non-farm sectors like promotion of agro-processing industries, rural entrepreneurship etc., as a way to diversify the livelihood options for rural people.”
He added that local government’s active engagement and leadership is also important in providing necessary capacity-building to rural people and other functionaries.
In a recent program held in early November, in Dhaka, UNDP Country Director Sudipto Mukherjee said: “UNDP has been working for a long time on climate change issues relating to rights of the plain land ethnic minorities.
“Presently, UNDP has a clear idea, from these interventions, about the vulnerabilities of the indigenous people to climate change. And our interventions…will be expanded to reduce the vulnerabilities of these excluded groups.”