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Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables – people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.


A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

“If people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,” doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

Related training videos

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

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Trust that works

Big chicken, little chicken

Nourishing a fertile imagination

As the waters recede July 1st, 2018 by

Peasant farmers can be quick to seize an opportunity, and when the benefit is clearly high, farmers may skip the experimental stage and go straight to a new practice on a massive scale.

In the lower Gangetic Delta in southwest Bangladesh, people live just centimeters above sea level. Getting rid of excess water can make all the different between harvest and hunger.

In the 1960s, earthen embankments were built around certain large areas of land.

The newly dry land inside these dykes is called a polder. Successful farming in the polder depends on having large draining canals, snaking through the muddy land, to carry water to the river.

In 2000, the 10 km-long Amodkhali Canal silted up. So during the winter rainy season the water had nowhere to go. A vast area in the middle of Polder 2 became a seasonal lake. Villagers hung on, growing rice in the dry season. Many migrated for wage labour in the winter.

Then in May 2017, Blue Gold (a program implemented by the government of Bangladesh) began to re-excavate the Amodkhali Canal.  By July they had dug out 8.4 km. It was a big job. At 2.5 meters deep and 6 meters wide, thousands of cubic meters of mud had to be moved. Some was done by machinery and some by hand. Groups of women were organised into Labour Contracting Societies (LCS) to earn money doing the work.

Local people near the canal saw the work. Even those living far away heard about it, and when the rains came in July 2017, farmers could see with their own eyes that the rainwater was draining away.

Like a river, a drainage canal has a sort of watershed, called a catchment area. This canal drains a roughly tear-drop shaped area some four by six kilometres: a big place. The thousands of farmers in the area didn’t have to be begged or cajoled into planting rice: they just did it.

My colleagues and I met local farmer Nozrul Islam near the banks of the canal. He said that he was so happy with the canal. He has two hectares of land and when the water drained off, nobody told him to plant rice. He simply went to Khulna, a neighbouring district, and bought rice seed for all of his land. He hadn’t planted winter rice for over 16 years.

Nozrul’s experience was replicated all over the area. In the village of Koikhali, a group of women told us that they also planted winter (amon) rice last year.

There was no experimentation, no hesitation. People simply re-introduced a winter rice crop into their cropping system, which they had not grown for almost a generation. The total catchment area is 4326 ha. That first year they planted 2106 hectares of winter rice, and harvested 12,000 tons or rice. Much of this rice was sold on the national market.

Related blog

Robbing land from the sea

Related video

Floating vegetable gardens


The Amodkhali Canal was re-excavated by the Blue Gold Program in Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. I am indebted to Joynal Abedin, Shahadat Hossain, Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones, A. Salahuddin and many others for teaching me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh.

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.


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.

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


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.

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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