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A turmeric and ginger revolution

  • Published at 06:03 pm December 16th, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:51 am December 17th, 2016
A turmeric and ginger revolution

There is a quiet revolution going on in the hill tracts of Chittagong. Indigenous farmers, who traditionally have been practicing shifting cultivation of rain-fed upland rice, are diversifying their harvests. They are now growing a wider choice of crops that include spices, vegetables, and fruits.

They are also using their homesteads that were previously fallow for these varieties. Food safety is a serious concern in densely populated Bangladesh. Perishable vegetables are often treated with chemicals in order to keep them longer as there is not a reliable system of cold chains in place across the country.

Against this backdrop, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are slowly getting a reputation as a place of origin where food is relatively fresh and clean due to its cooler climate and less dense population. The farmers are responding to these new opportunities with enthusiasm.

Danida and UNDP are working together to help the farmers reap the benefits. This is done through Farmer Field Schools that are learning spaces without walls in the vicinity of the households where the climate, ecology, and institutions are familiar.

Danida funds the project that is carried out by the UNDP through its Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility. The Facility is staffed with seasoned experts that have an in-depth knowledge of the particular complexities of the area.

Indigenous farmers are increasingly producing spices like ginger and turmeric. The plants are cousins belonging to the family of zingiberaceae. They are robust with large lily like leaves that may become a metre tall.

The farmers’ widespread adoption of new practices and techniques that also link them up with markets do demonstrate that there is a space to improve livelihoods and empower marginal groups

After a period of growth of 7-10 months the leaves are cut off and the roots are washed.

In the case of turmeric, the roots are cooked to give it its famous yellow colour. Turmeric plays an important role in the culture of Bangladesh. At weddings the bride colours her skin with henna and turmeric as part of the ritual. It is also used for cooking in curries.

Turmeric is becoming increasingly popular across the world and a healthy spice. It is claimed that the spice could boost health and help prevent a range of diseases from depression to cancer. Some of these claims are underpinned by medical research.

Final proof is not yet there at this point in time but the spice is crossing over into a wider use in terms of cooking, smoothies, and health drinks.

Nomita Chakma is a charismatic and energetic role model for the farmers in the village of Prokolpo close to Khagrachhari. She grows a range of vegetables and spices and has attended one of the 1,633 established Farmer Field Schools.

She is in particular proud of the field with turmeric that stands tall and healthy close to her house. Her field serves as an example to other farmers in the village that seek her counsel in order to achieve a higher yield.

The roots are sold at the market close to the village. Ginger and turmeric from the hill tracts are popular in large cities like Chittagong and Dhaka and established private companies like Pran are involved in the trade.

Farmer Field Schools are not only about technical training. They are also about teaching the women to speak for themselves and to represent themselves in public.

Growing spices and vegetables increases the wealth of the household and raise the status and bargaining hand of Nomita and her female neighbours.

There are issues on the popularity on these spices though. Some farmers do grow them on the slopes of the hills. This is not a suitable land because the use of spices makes the slopes less stable and may contribute to environmental degradation.

Trees and fruits are much better suited to such locations. Field staff therefore work with farmers to find suitable places like homesteads.

The political and social context in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is challenging as key matters in a peace accord from 1997 remain unresolved, including the important issue of ownership of land. The farmers’ widespread adoption of new practices and techniques that also link them up with markets do demonstrate that there is a space to improve livelihoods and empower marginal groups in a situation that is politically and socially difficult.

Recently, an amendment act on the Land Dispute Resolution Commission was passed in order to further resolute conflicts related to land.

This act may widen the space for the farmers and thereby create more economic opportunities for them. Danida and UNDP are committed to working with them on this important agenda for the next five years.

Peter Bøgh Jensen is Head of Cooperation, Danish International Development Agency (Danida) in Dhaka, in charge of Danida’s country program that covers Agricultural Growth and Employment, Climate Change, and Governance.

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