Bangladesh is a riverine country. Due to the adverse effect of climate change, the rivers change their courses frequently. As a result, charlands have become a common scenario in Bangladesh and the number of cultivable lands is gradually reducing. There are around 109 char upazilas in 32 districts across Bangladesh. In these charlands, sandbar cropping is the top-notch step that has made a positive impact in making these uncultivable lands arable.
Charlands, which are dried-up riverbeds, are usually under the ownership of the government as unsettled land, but in reality most of them are claimed by the local people. The worst scenario is that most of the time, a huge amount of charland is in the grab of local leaders and landlords. As a result, the poor farmers become deprived of their rights to the land. Sometimes multiple claimants for one land may arise, then the land can be accessed by the extremely poor farmers through negotiating in the presence of local governments and administrations but the process has become very complicated.
Sandbar cropping is a fascinating innovation, which is simple as well as cost-effective and uses a pit cultivation approach to produce crops. Varieties of crops such as pumpkin, squash, and watermelon are cultivated in the charlands.
At the end of the rainy season in mid-November when sandbars start to emerge, farmers use sandbar cropping technique to bring the lands under cultivation. In this method, farmers dig holes that are approximately 1 meter in diameter and 2 meters apart from each other and then fill them with manure compost. Seeds are placed in the pits and extra manure is used where the groundwater level is very poor.
Irrigation is not necessary on a large scale as the sandbars usually remain close to the river and water channels are created when the river recedes. During the dry season, when the surface water dries out then the groundwater can be used for irrigation. Another alternative way for irrigation is to reserve water in a reservoir which is made by using a polythene sheet. However, the quantity and frequency of irrigation depends on the type of crops and soil. The pits are monitored carefully for the next five months. After nurturing and careful observation, the silver sandbars turn into a green landscape.
Climatic factors play vital roles in sandbar cropping. For example late availability of sandbars delays the whole cultivation process; severe winter or cold waves may reduce the germination rate of the crops; early flooding is devastating for the production; and lack of micronutrients may reduce the production if sudden rainfall occurs after germination of seeds.
Marketing the sandbar crops in charlands is the most challenging issue nowadays. As most of the farmers do not have proper educational background, they do not have proper understanding of market mechanisms. Limited access to the market and information often deprive them of getting fair price of the crops.
The extension services should be broadened to support the farmers in the sector of input supply that includes seeds and planting materials, information on market and price, post-harvest management, etc. They can also provide technical assistance to teach the farmers in improving their use of land resources. Extension services should act as the linkages between the processors and exporters.
If sandbar cultivation process becomes capital intensive, the problem can be addressed through group savings, linking with financial institutions, banks as well as providing financial support from government organisations.
Nowadays, the agricultural sector is enriched with the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) but the majority of farmers in the charlands depend on peer-group farmers and their key source of marketing-related information is the union digital centre.
Sandbar cropping is a great initiative which provides multiple benefits in many ways, including transforming the unproductive, unutilised lands into productive and tillable. Sandbar cropping also helps thousands of displaced families facing extreme poverty.
Though sandbar cropping is a useful technology but farmers face a long list of challenges like (a) it is challenging for the farmers to give time in this temporary cropping cultivation in lieu of their regular work as most of them are day labourers in different sectors, (b) it is laborious and difficult for the farmers to work under the scorching heat of the sun, and (c) during the harvesting period, the fruits need guarding from theft. Other challenges are unavailability of agricultural inputs, including seeds, fertilisers and irrigation. Of late, possession of the cropping land from the so-called local landlords has increasingly been a main challenge.
There are many avenues that need investment in increasing the production in sandbar cropping. Management of water resources and improvement of drainage systems, and climate resilient infrastructure for communication are the common aspects of upliftment. The charlands which are under illegal possession should be recovered.
In the case of crop varieties, there is a huge scope to cultivate strawberries in the charlands. The cropping system should not be limited only in pumpkin or squash production. For that the farmers need technical knowledge and training. It is evident that the government's necessary steps to formulate policy instruments to promote this farming system can make an agricultural revolution in the char areas throughout the north-western districts.
Strengthening of institutional dimensions can play a massive role in flourishing sandbar cropping. Key dimensions include ensuring proper distribution of the charlands among the farmers to reduce the asset inequality; and enhancing growers’ access to markets, resources and finance to boost adoption of this farming. Providing demand-driven education and training to the char farmers is crucial to increase their knowledge, skills and experience and foster sustainability of this production. In this regard, women participation must be institutionalised by strengthening access to education and training.
Sandbar cropping technique is the proven initiative that has brought noteworthy changes, transformed the mini desert into productive croplands and brought food security, nutritional security and improved livelihoods for the extreme poor farmers in the charlands of Bangladesh.
In sum, paying specific focus on institutional dimensions of pro-poor and inclusive growth is critical for successful expansion of sandbar cropping across the riverine and coastal charlands.
The writers are Professor and MS student respectively, in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.