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Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

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Floating vegetable gardens March 11th, 2018 by

For much of the year Bangladesh appears more water than land. It can also be a chaotic place. Yet such impressions are misleading, and something I wanted to counteract with a genuine admiration for how people make the best of often difficult circumstances. Colleagues commented on my positive outline when I wrote about innovations in rural extension, in a book published in 2005. More recently, I’ve been reminded about the resilience and creativity of farmers after watching a video on floating vegetable gardens, now available on the  Access Agriculture platform.

The video is nicely made, with strong visual shots and compelling interviews with farmers. The dreamy traditional music carries you along in the wake of a wooden boat steered by a Bangladeshi farmer on a shallow, temporarily flooded area.

It takes a lot of work to make a floating vegetable garden, but the video reveals an amazing abundance of crops tended by farmers. For years, Bangladeshi farmers have turned two major recurring problems into an opportunity. The land lost to floods during the annual monsoons is used to grow crops; and the world’s worst aquatic weed, the water hyacinth, is turned into compost.

Scientists have tried for decades to find ways to control this weed, including the release of weevils that feed on its leaves. Governments and local authorities have tried in vain to mechanically remove this weed using heavy machinery, creating mountains of water hyacinth on the banks of rivers and lakes that no one is quite sure what to do with.

In the video, farmers in Bangladesh show a sustainable alternative. Instead of laboriously removing the bulky mass of water hyacinth, the weeds are left in place. A long bamboo pole is placed on top of a thick matt of water hyacinth and with a hook the water hyacinth is pulled from both sides of the bamboo towards the bamboo pole and compressed to make a compact plant bed. After 10 days the compacted leaves and roots start to decompose and a new layer of water hyacinth is added. Floating beds are about two meters wide and vary in length; some are as long as 20 meters.

In the meantime, back home, women have started to grow vegetable seedlings in round compost balls. Once the plants are old enough the gardeners carry them on the boat to their floating garden beds, and insert the compost balls with seedlings in the plant bed. Farmers grow okra, various types of gourds, leafy vegetables, ginger and turmeric. The video also shows how some innovative farmers even connect two floating beds with trellises made of bamboo and jute rope to grow yard-long beans.

Farmers across developing countries, and Bangladesh in particular, have a wealth of knowledge. The many training videos hosted on the Access Agriculture platform pay tribute to these farmers and allow them to share their knowledge and experiences across borders. At Agro-Insight we celebrate these respectable farmers in our weekly blog stories. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

Watch the video

Floating vegetable gardens

Related blogs on farmers’ innovations

Ashes to aphids

No land, no water, no problem

Specializing in seedlings

Tomatoes good enough to eat

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. (eds.) 2005. Innovations in Rural Extension: Case Studies from Bangladesh. CABI Publishing, UK, 307 pp. Download from: www.agroinsight.com/books

Acknowledgement

The Floating vegetable garden video has been made by the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), one of the partners trained by Access Agriculture to produce quality farmer training videos.

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The early state and the bad old days March 4th, 2018 by

In his new book Against the Grain, Yale University’s James C. Scott argues that early states, like the ones in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, were not most people think they were like. The popular notion of the march of civilization goes rather like this: agriculture was an invention that allowed for more food, more leisure and freedom from wandering. Early farmers were able to settle down in villages and towns and this quickly spared some craftspeople from the toil of farming. Civilization, literacy and statehood soon arose.

The model is deeply flawed, Scott explains. First, in certain environments, such as the alluvium of Mesopotamia, people actually settled down before they became cultivators, because the abundance of wild food meant that people could hunt, gather and fish year round from a single place.

People may have started farming because of climate change or population growth. No one knows for sure why. But whatever the reason, early farming was more work than hunting and gathering.

But farming appeared 4000 years before states arose. During this long period of sustainable agriculture, people lived in farms, villages and small towns where they were able to keep everything they produced.

(I recall seeing just a few small cases in the National Museum in Cairo devoted to the settled villagers who lived well-fed for centuries before the Pharaohs arose.  Museums and their visitors much rather like to see the statues and monuments of kings than the farmers’ sickles).

The first states all arose in grain-producing areas, where farmers could be taxed in wheat, barley or rice, which could be stored and then distributed as rations. There were no early states based on cassava or bananas.

Early states relied on forcing grain farmers to work harder and then taxing them: expropriating labor and food beyond what farmers needed for their own comfort. Early states were based on crushing taxes and bondage. All states took slaves until the nineteenth century. Wars by early states were usually more important for taking captives than for conquering land.

Early states were also fragile. The crowding of ancient cities meant that infectious disease were common for the first time in human history. Early states often collapsed because of pests, crop disease, drought, and war. Scott argues that after an early state collapsed, the people left behind were better off for being left alone.

For a very long time, states saw people as a resource to be tapped, rather than as citizens to be served. Until as recently as the 1800s, three fourths of humankind was living in some form of slavery, serfdom or other form of bondage.

Most of Scott’s ideas are well-known to archaeologists, but he brings them together in an engaging narrative that tells the story in a fresh and compelling way.

Although Scott doesn’t say so, it is only since the mid twentieth century that most farmers have been allowed to keep more of their harvest, and to spend the profit instead of giving it to the tax collector.

I’m writing this week’s blog from Bangladesh, a country I have had the pleasure of visiting for the past 15 years. Things are definitely improving here. I asked one group of farm women how many had cell phones. They laughed at the question. “We all have one,” they said. Just in the last year or two, men who carry the bricks, timber and other heavy loads on cargo bicycles have acquired little electric motors to power their bikes and ease their drudgery. The village shops are stocked better than ever before, with sweets and seeds, with clothes and jewelry.

Life is definitely getting better on this part of the Gangetic Delta, which was also the site of early states. In a world of so much bad news, it is good to remind ourselves that for many rural people, the standard of living is improving, and that part of the reason is democracy, trade and technology.

Further reading

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Tools of the imagination February 10th, 2018 by

A few years ago, I was sitting in the airport in La Paz, Bolivia. At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level the air is so thin you can get light headed. I sat there fighting sleep after a two day trip home from Bangladesh. Then an airline official came to tell me that the police wanted to see me. I was wide awake now, as I followed the neatly dressed official downstairs to a backroom on the first floor where the criminal police search luggage for drugs and contraband. While screening my bag they had found a strange object.

A young policeman was sitting on a stool, holding a tool I’d picked up in Bangladesh. It was a crescent-shaped iron blade, with a metal shaft and a wooden handle, polished smooth with work and sweat. I’d bought it from a man selling used tools in a Bengali village.

“What is this?” the cop asked. His face and demeanor were more of curiosity than malice. I relaxed. I wasn’t a suspect. He was simply filled with that human sense of wonder.

And so I explained that the tool was a rice weeder. It’s called a “nirani,”or “khurpi.” It’s made to work the soil at ground level, while keeping your hand off the ground. People use the nirani to weed the rice while kneeling in the field. They also use it to uproot rice seedlings from the seedbed.

Many Bolivian police and soldiers grow up on farms. The cop listened to my story with the interest of a farmer; then he thanked me for my explanation and said I was free to go.

I think of that experience often, especially when I talk to farmers about videos they have seen. Rural people often recall the tools seen on a learning video, even devices not mentioned in the narration. Farmers notice tools that city people easily overlook.

For example, in Malawi I talked to farmers about rice videos made in West Africa. The Malawians often remarked on the little wheeled, hand-pushed weeders, and wondered where they could get one.

In Uganda, farmers noticed that the Malian rice farmers worked barefoot, and asked if the Malians could not afford gum boots, or if the bare feet were part of the technique. In fact, it is easier to work barefoot in a lowland, West African rice field, where the mud can pull the boots right off of one’s feet.

And in one final example, in my blog last week, “Private screenings,” I mentioned that farmers in Benin searched for drip irrigation equipment after seeing it on a video.

National officials and even some media experts insist that agricultural learning videos must be made locally, so a new video should be filmed for each country. Of course farmers can learn from a video made in their own country. But by watching videos made elsewhere they learn about tools and ideas they would not see at home. They learn how peasant farmers in other countries solve familiar problems with ingeniously different tools. That fires the imagination, and at times even inspires farmers to ask agrodealers to stock the new tools.

Photo credit

Top photo by Paul Van Mele

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Fishing changes November 12th, 2017 by

Two million years ago in East Africa, long before humans lived on any other continent, our ancestors followed the receding shorelines of shallow ponds and lakes, during each annual dry season, scooping up the stranded catfish and eels. People have eaten fish ever since, and fishing may have shaped humans more than big game hunting.

From Rome to China, early civilizations would have been impossible without fish, as renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan tells us in a new book, Fishing. Mesopotamians could always rely on fish, even when the flooding Tigris and Euphrates failed to water the crops. When the Nile flooded, it covered the land in fish, as well as water. The pyramids of Egypt were built by laborers fed on rations of beer, bread and dried catfish, caught every year in the shallow, receding flood waters of the Nile.

Ancient sailors in small boats could not carry enough provisions for long voyages. The mariners would never have been able to explore the Indian Ocean and create the trade routes that linked Europe and Asia, without settled communities of fisherfolk, who caught and dried fish to sell or trade.

Fishing would have been impossible without local knowledge. The Tahitians sailed sophisticated, deep-sea canoes to catch large, predatory fish. The big fish and the sea birds both followed dense schools of smaller fish. The Tahitians recognized that the big fish followed the birds to find the small fish. Fishers scanned the horizon for birds, and could tell by the species flying over the water what type of fish to expect there.

Commercial fishing began with herring in the North Sea in the 1300s. Dutch and Flemish crews caught the fish from deep-water wooden ships called busses, which required a large crew and started the season every year on the night of St. John, 24 June. The fish were salted, packed into standard-sized barrels, branded with the seals of the merchants who sold them, and traded all over Europe until 1810. By then the herring were becoming scarce, and salted cod from the Atlantic had captured the market. While there is still fishing in the North Sea, before the 1800s the herring were so abundant they were compared to ants.

As waters were fished out, fishers sailed farther and farther from home. The English were fishing off the shores of Iceland in 1420 and off the banks of Newfoundland in 1600. By about 1880, new technologies such as steam trawlers extended the reach of commercial fishing to deep ocean water. But some modern techniques are devastating, such as the large nets that drag the bottom, destroying the places where the fish spawn.

Many countries have reacted to over-fishing by creating 200-mile exclusion zones and limiting catches. The Canadian government closed the cod fishery in 1992 when stocks hit 1% of their peak. Thanks to the ban, the cod have since partially recovered.

Although subsistence fishing is ancient, it has never destroyed the fishery it depended upon. Salmon and sturgeon once swam up the Danube River to spawn. Communities of fishers had survived for thousands of years at the Iron Gates (on the Danube between Serbia and Romania), until nineteenth century pollution, dam-building and over-fishing destroyed the stocks.

But waters far from home, as in the Antarctic, are uncontrolled and fished recklessly, as though there were no tomorrow. Commercial fishing is now in a slow decline, while artisanal and subsistence fishing are both on the rise. Fish farming is increasing rapidly. By 2012, for the first time in history, more fish were farmed than caught wild.

I saw a glimpse of artisanal, peasant fishing recently in Bangladesh, where many villages have fields interspersed with fish ponds. Farmers throw nets and use various other techniques, bringing home one small bag of fish at a time for the supper pot.

On one especially rainy day, the ponds were over-flowing, and some people were setting up long, gently tapering nets over the drainage ditches, to catch any fish that may have escaped from the ponds. No fish was going to be wasted.

Subsistence fishers are often smallholder farmers. Fishing and farming combine easily. If fishing fed civilization, as Fagan explains, it is the smallholders who will keep fishing alive into the future. The fish ponds in Bangladesh are highly commercial, run by knowledgeable farmers. With the increasing demand for proteins, fish species will continue to feed humanity only with a good balance between open sea fishing that respects quotas (based on science and policy) and fish farming that will require stringent food safety measures, such as guarding against the abuse of antibiotics.

Further reading

Fagan, Brian 2017 Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Have: Yale University Press. 346 pp.

Related blog stories

Cake for fish? hold the coconut, please

Fishing on a hill

Further viewing

Food for fish

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

Growing azolla for feed

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