This is Bangladesh, home to about 150 million people. Here, in one of the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, 30 million people suffer from severe hunger each year. And, most of them depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Rice is their most significant agricultural product and staple food. More than 17 million Bangladeshis are rice farmers, growing rice on 11 million hectares of land. Average Bangladeshis receive around three-quarters of their calories from rice. Rice and agriculture are crucial for this nation.
Life for the rural poor is hard enough at any time. But it gets harder in northern Bangladesh from September to November, when the hunger months, or monga, occur. Monga affects many poor people in five districts of northern Bangladesh. Even though theres food in the market, they do not have enough money to buy the food they need. Most of the people who rely on farm work are jobless during these months. They wait for the harvest of the transplanted monsoon rice crop in December. By the time monga comes, they have consumed all of their stored food and have few opportunities for work.
What can make matters worse is that northern Bangladesh is transected by 21 rivers that regularly overflow, leaving thousands of families homeless. Floods usually arrive in August and September, bringing with them hardship and water-borne illnesses that are only intensified by the monga, which follows closely behind.
People try their best to cope. The men migrate to cities to find work. They can pull rickshaws, sew garments, and transport bananas and logs, but these prospects are few and offer low wages. Families often buy livestock and poultry before the monga comes and sell them during these trying months.
They borrow money or mortgage their land with village money lenders, often at a high interest rate. Farmers offer their services for the coming harvesting season, and receive their pay and a few kilograms of rice in advance.
Even 8- to 12-year-old children are sent to work for landowners. Boys receive about $28 and food for a year in exchange for hard labor in the fields. Girls, who are allowed to do only household chores, are given only food.
In Nilphamari, one of the districts affected by monga, the landless women work in lac production to make ends meet. Lac is a scale insect that secretes a resinous product. This is then harvested and sold as dye and wax to make lipstick, hair dye, nail polish, and other products.
To help ease the suffering during monga and improve farm productivity, initiatives have been developed to create improved options for rural communities. Some of these have been supported and shared through a local alliance called the Northwest Area Focal Forum, comprising government institutions and NGOs, including, among others, RDRS, Intercooperation, GAUS, and Solidarity. The Irrigated Rice Research Consortium (IRRC) based at the International Rice Research Institute, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), and NGOs have teamed up as part of these initiatives. Together, they are developing the means for earlier harvests through shorter-duration rice varieties combined with direct seeding of rice and weed control options.
Agronomist M.A. Mazid heads the BRRI Rangpur station while IRRI weed scientist David Johnson is with the IRRC. Together, they have been working closely with farmers to test the potential of direct seeding as an alternative to transplanted rice in different cropping systems.
Farmers usually transplant rice seedlings from a nursery bed into a field that has been flooded and puddled. In direct seeding, rice seeds are sown directly into an unflooded field. The seeds can be sown dry or as wet pregerminated seeds. Using a drum seeder offers advantages for wet direct seeding. Seeds are sown neatly into rows, making weeding easier. This requires 5060% less rice seed than broadcasting the seed, and can save labor costs compared with transplanting. It takes only 2 days for one person to directly seed 1 hectare of rice in puddled soil using a drum seeder, but it takes 50 days labor to prepare and transplant rice seedlings on 1 hectare.
Dry seeds can also be sown in rows using a hand-drawn traditional tool introduced from the Philippines, called a lithao. Bangladeshi farmers are trying this and directly sowing rice into furrows in the dry soil made with a locally produced lithao. This simple, low-cost plow is drawn by two people. Direct seeding can allow farmers to establish rice earlier than having to wait for sufficient rainfall to puddle the soil for wet seeding or transplanting.
Bengali translation and narration: Syed Jabbar
Script: Trina Leah Mendoza and David Johnson
Video footage: Trina Mendoza