Sons of the salty soil
Abu Bakar Siddique

  • On papers, Aboni Kumar Joarder of Shyamnagar of Satkhira is a middle-class farmer who owns 10 acres of land. But in reality he is just as destitute as the female day labourers that he is passing on his bicycle because all his land is now barren from execessive salinity  
    Photo- Abu Bakar Siddique

Unlikely as it may sound, they have tried everything from paddy to shrimp to crab on the same piece of land but are still in search of a sustainable livelihood option because of ever-increasing salinity.

And in the process, people, who were once affluent farmers, have over a matter of a couple of decades turned into poor, some ultra poor, and others into migrant refugees.

Satkhira, like some of the other coastal districts, was once one of the biggest producers of Bangladesh’s staple food.

Aboni Kumar Joarder, 55, from Arpangasia village in Shyamnagar upazila of Satkhira, was once known as “Dhanua” Aboni; dhanua meaning someone who grows and owns a lot of paddy.

He inherited around 10 acres of arable land from his father 25 years ago and used to grow at least 25 maunds (1,500kg) of paddy a year.

But in the last two decades, that has changed and now he is known as “Bhikhari” Aboni, bhikari being the Bangla equivalent of beggar.

The climbing global temperature – alias climate change – has been pushing up sea levels and the land in these coastal districts have been becoming increasingly salty, which of course has not been good for paddy.

Shrimp days

At the turn of the century, paddy ceased to be a profitable crop for the paddy farmers of Satkhira. So, in the new century, they started cultivating shrimp – for which there is a big global market – on the same land.

Initially, shrimp brought back smile on the faces that struggled to grow paddy on unfriendly salty soil for years. The salinity was too much for paddy, but it was just enough to allow brackish water, which is ideal for shrimp rearing.

“Instead of converting all my land into shrimp beds, I converted half of my land. Initially, earning was good,” Aboni said.

“But profit started dwindling 10 years ago as production cost, including price of shrimp fry and labour, began to rise. In addition, a deadly viral infection affected production badly,” he said.

In 2009, cyclonic storm Aila brought salt water from the sea over to mainland and filled all rivers, canals and ditches, turning all available surface water too salty for crops, even shrimp.

“After that, all my land became completely barren. Even shrimp, which sustained by family for a while, ceased to be an option.”

Over the last four years, Aboni has lost all his capital and turned completely penniless.

Moreover, the once-affluent farmer is labelled middle class because he owns quite a bit of land and there has not been able to avail the financial benefits that some development organisations offer to the poor.

Migration

The story is same for all middle-class farmers in the area, which is adjacent to the Sundarbans.

Take for example the case of Mansur Morol, 75, who has never had as much land as Aboni but was still able to sustain his seven-member family by growing padding in his one-acre land and taking three more acres under sharecrop arrangements.

He too cultivated shrimp and tried to go back to paddy but the soil was too salty for the latter.

“For the last two years, my two sons stay and work as day labourers in Dhaka and Khulna for several months of the year, just to sustain the family,” Mansur said.

Experts say these families will gradually be displaced to the urban slums unless the government takes some steps immediately to find alternate livelihoods or ensure a sustainable source of sweet water in the region.

Now crab

Over the last three years, 45-year-old Sirajul Islam Morol has been cultivating crab on his three-acre land in the same locality where he had done shrimp and paddy before.

“By cultivating crab on the same land where I used to do shrimp before, I made Tk50,000 profit last year. That is like a ray of hope amid all the desperation.

“I was even thinking about going to the cities, live in the slums and work as day labourer,”
Sirajul said.

However, nobody knows whether crab is a sustainable option for these desperate agro-based people.

There is no research until know that might suggest the level of salinity that shrimp and crab can tolerate.

Neither is there any research-based suggestion to tell whether crab has any adverse effect on soil.

Still, some government and non-government organisations are trying to encourage the local farmers to switch to crab, which can tolerate more salinity than shrimp.

Although there is a global market for Bangladeshi crab, unlike shrimp, there is no established supply chain. 

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