Learning from Covid-19 pandemic in the time of Climate Change endemic

During the lockdown, as a response to the Covid-19 situation and as a health measure, we have seen how our local food supply has been disrupted. “In Dhaka and Mymensingh, the diversity of fresh produce such as fish, fruits, and vegetables available in the market has decreased significantly, and items appear less fresh and appealing than usual” (CGIAR, June 9, 2020). Reports show that there were instances of garment workers starving in absence of food. A worker was seen to be saying to the media, “But we don’t have any choice. We are starving. If we stay at home, we may save ourselves from the virus. But who will save us from starvation?” (Business Standard, 14 April, 2020). Although the numbers weren’t alarming, the fact that the incident took place suggests that we need to rethink about our resourcefulness, policies and planning for employment and national growth in a more critical manner. We should remember that the garments workers who have been starving or let off from their jobs are the descendants of farmers. 

In the past few years, various reports have shown that Bangladesh has managed to increase its food production. Of course, it is good news but we must remember what sort of food production has increased. “Food production in Bangladesh has gone up by three to five times than what it was at the inception of the country 48 years ago. It is among the top-ranking countries in the production of 12 agricultural products and yet the number of undernourished people has increased by 400,000” (Prothom Alo, 4 November, 2019). Is this food production contributing to the strengthening of the local economy? Who is the beneficiary of this accelerated food production? 

Most of the garments workers are young. In rural areas, the members of the adolescent and young age group who cannot afford formal education are becoming disinterested in agricultural farming and ultimately, those huge numbers of potential farmers are being recruited as garments workers. There is no exact statistical data on how what percentage of garments workers joined their job by choice. If someone carries out a survey on this, I think that they would find a very small number of workers who work in garments factories by choice. Being from rural area (Bakerganj, Barisal), I have seen hundreds and thousands of young people from rural areas leaving their farmlands and joining garments factories. They cannot afford farming anymore. Today, farmers are mostly dependent on the market for everything –, they need to buy seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and also pay for machineries.  Even 15-20 years back this wasn’t the case as it is changing rapidly nowadays. Farmers, then, were independent in many ways, could preserve seeds and manufacture homemade fertilizer. Farmlands have been polluted with the overdose of chemical fertilizers and various pesticides and herbicides that have emerged along with the hybrid seeds and its industrial production. This part of industrial production based agriculture and its negative impact on small farmers, who do not  own huge lands and farm on other people’s land instead (For e.g., “Borga Chashi” in Barisal), has been completely ignored from our development narrative. Our understanding of development is mostly infrastructural development. We believe in numbers, i.e. the highlighted numbers, but the point is that no number is a number until it’s counted and we don’t count any such incident that doesn’t contribute to the national GDP. 

Experts from the global humanitarian community are emphasizing on local food security and we translate it to mean national food supply, export/import to the international market. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) has suggested “supporting more diverse and resilient distribution systems, including shorter supply chains and territorial markets” in the policy response to the covid-19 impact (FAO, 2020). The pandemic resulted in the lockdown and curtail in local and national food supply. The country started running out of onions. On the one hand, poor garments workers were starving, and on the other, the local farm produce was decomposing, which is the ultimate result of our dependency on the larger market. Earlier, farmers used to produce various crops and vegetables in a year and now they produce only one particular crop based on the demand of the international market. At the same time, the farming land has also been altered by hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, they cannot cultivate any other crop, even if they want to. Farmers don’t exchange their product in the local market anymore; rather they sell their product in the internationally supervised national market. It’s not only exposing the local farmer to greater vulnerability but also destroying the local lifecycle, ecological balance and the adaptive livelihood of farmers. Life does not merely mean life of farmers and their crops; insects, snakes, weeds (that we often use as vegetables), rodents, snails and oysters, everything constitutes the ecosystem and we need all of them. 

The Bangladesh government has taken an initiative to protect the economy from the adverse effects of Covid-19, offering recovery packages worth more than a trillion taka to different sectors, which is a very good initiative. However, the relief has not been sufficient for everyone, and residents of Dhaka have noticed an increase in the number of beggars (CGIAR). At the same time, we must consider our potential and vulnerability as well. Our young generation and the agricultural sector have been the biggest resources for the nation. There have been various changes and developments across the country in employment opportunities with the digitization strategy. At the same time, we have forgotten that we are the most vulnerable nation in the face of climate change, and that food security will be the biggest issue in upcoming years.

The pandemic has a very close connection with climate change, as the eco-system has been intervened into by human action, mostly industrialization.

If we look at the history of pandemics, nowadays it’s becoming so frequent. There is no guarantee that there will be no more pandemics in next 5/10 years. So the question is how do we tackle such situations?

Author

We need a concrete plan on agricultural production in relation to job creation for young people. We need to promote a kind of agricultural production which is adaptive to climate change and has indigenous roots, so that everyone can afford to participate in farming. Of course our RMG sector and other industries have been one of the biggest sources for economic resilience of the country, but we must remember our vulnerability as a result of hyper dependency on the international market.  

Climate change as a narrative is new to the nation but not as an incident. Our people have been fighting throughout their history in this land with various floods and other natural disasters. When we plan for resilience and adaptation, we must recognize our history and learn from the people of this land on how they have been cultivating, exchanging and supplying food in the local market that we call “Haat or Bazar”. There are various projects run by the government, INGOs and local NGOs on employment creation for the young population and most of the programs focus on IT and technology sector. Even in the government initiatives, the digitization strategy has been mostly emphasized.  Now the time has come to promote agriculture and indigenous cultivation methods for strengthening local food security, community resilience and youth employment creation. There can be various training programs and courses under the TVET provision for agricultural farming in an indigenous (Traditional) manner, reducing dependence on industry produced fertilizers, pesticides or (genetically-modified) seeds. If we still do not pay attention to the severe hidden dangers in our modern practices and lifestyle, it shall unfortunately be too late.