Every year in monsoon, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and their hundreds of branches carry enormous amounts of water and silt and flood at least a quarter of Bangladesh. The scenario is very different in winter. As the water reduces in the main river channels, thousands of hectares of sandbars (sand-covered silty riverbeds) surface.
Sandbar cropping is an innovation, tested and scaled up in northern Bangladesh by Practical Action over the last decade, making these uncultivable lands arable.
A life changing nature-based innovation
In this agro-technology, numerous pits a couple of feet deep are excavated on sandbars reaching down to the silt layer to sow pumpkin seeds. After a few weeks’ nurturing, green plants come out of these pits and spread over the sand. Over the next few months, flowers bloom, fertilized ones turn into green fruits, which ripen into orange pumpkins.
This fascinating innovation transforms the silver sandbar first into a green then into an orange landscape.
This visual metamorphosis of ‘sandscape’ has effectively been used through a series of initiatives over the past 10 years transforming the lives of 15,000 extreme poor families, who were without any land or productive assets, often lived on embankments, earned only a couple of dollars a day, and lacked most basic services.
The fantastic positive impacts of sandbar cropping on the ultra-poor have been achieved by overcoming many social, environmental, technological and systems challenges.
Existing laws of Bangladesh put sandbars, which are dried up riverbeds and temporary in nature, under the ownership of the government as unsettled land. But the ground scenario is different; most of the sandbars are claimed by local people.
Although left unused, getting consent from the land claimants for sandbar cultivation by the landless people can be very difficult, especially when there are multiple claimants. After negotiating in presence of local governments, administrations and NGOs, a sandbar can be accessed by an extreme poor family for free or in exchange for cash or by sharing a part of the production.
Access in exchange of harvest has a downside. Some extreme poor farmers hide their hard-earned pumpkins by harvesting them green. This causes crop damage during storage, leading to lower prices and reduced production.
A fantastic production of pumpkin not only upholds the success of the sandbar cropping technique, but also increases the value of the sandbar. Seeing the production, some land claimants who initially gave free access began to demand a share in the middle of the season. In other cases, the land claimants increased the percentage of the share the following year. In severe cases, no access was given to the extreme poor as the owner decided to practice sandbar cropping himself. All these indicate a ‘success backlash’ to this nature-based venture.
Access to land is further constrained by uncertain geomorphology of the rivers. In the upstream of a river, sandbars are temporary. Their extent and characteristics, like position in the river and depth of sand layer, vary significantly from one year to another. If a piece of land appears without a sand layer, it is leased out for cash crops, like tobacco, maize, potato, chilli, onion and garlic. Such uncertainties make long-term land-tenure arrangement for sandbar cropping impossible. Every year, new negotiations have to be opened up for access to new sandbar or to fix the percentage of share cropping.
To minimize land access challenges, it is important that the local administration and local government formally facilitate the extreme poor’s ‘operational access’ to sandbars, since such a natural-resource-based, innovative cropping system can directly contribute to extreme poverty eradication − the core of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Another challenge of sandbar cropping is the dependency on seasons. The starting of sandbar cultivation depends upon the first exposure of sandbars in autumn (October−early November). Late availability of sandbar delays the whole cultivation process. It may lower pumpkin seed germination rate due to severe winter/cold wave. Sand storm may cover young plants causing stunted growth. Sudden rainfall in March can cause crack on mature fruits just before harvest due to lack of micronutrients, like boron, in the soil. Early flooding in late March−early April may also push for early harvest of crops before they mature properly. All these reduce the overall pumpkin production.
Timely availability of seeds, compost, fertilizers, micronutrients and irrigation has therefore been a basic prerequisite of the success of sandbar cropping. Such need has been met by building farmers’ capacity, establishing effective market linkages, and making financial resources available.
Human capacity and economic aspects
Sowing of pumpkin seed in the sandbar pits usually takes place in mid November and the first harvest of green pumpkins occurs in the late February. It is difficult for extreme poor to cope with this three-month lean period as they need to give time to sandbar cropping in lieu of their regular work.
Sandbar cropping is also labour intensive for a significantly long period. Ability of individual farmer is thus a major factor. It is very difficult to work (e.g. for irrigation, artificial cross-pollination, and pest control) in February−March under strong heat. Ripening fruits also need 24-hour guarding from theft. All these may cause loss of regular daily wages affecting household income. Further, women and adolescents of the family also need to get involved in sandbar cropping, particularly when the male family members migrate the area at the beginning (October−November) or end of the sandbar cropping season (March−April) to work in winter rice fields.
Cultivating some quick-harvesting crops, like squash, on sandbars has been found to be very useful to cover the lean period by earning money within a couple of months. Further, linking the extreme poor families with other government initiatives, like social safety net programmes, could be useful to partially compensate income loss during sandbar cropping season.
Managing and marketing the harvest
Pumpkin, the major sandbar crop, has a long shelf-life. If ripe pumpkins can be stored for a few months, a good price can be expected in the monsoon season. As they mostly have small houses, however, extremely poor farmers cannot store their whole harvest.
Practical Action helped to install simple, low-cost bamboo shelves within farmers’ houses which helps them store much of their produce for several months. Creating a community storage facility has also been considered, but the farmers have expressed unwillingness to keep their produce somewhere distant.
Finally, given a huge pumpkin production in a small area, selling them with a reasonable understanding of the market system is a major challenge. The extreme poor have a limited understanding of market mechanisms as they work in the agriculture sector as day-labourers. When they produce crops, usually they produce for themselves, not in bulk for formal markets. Limited access to markets and market information, and over-saturation of pumpkin market may lead to low prices.
Capacity development of farmers on market systems and value chains, organizing them into formal producers’ associations, facilitating their access to microfinance, and connecting them with big buyers and markets in the region and beyond have therefore been important aspects of sandbar cropping projects in Bangladesh.
A stepping stone
Sandbar cropping has effectively shown its potential and strengths to help the extreme poor. In the long journey of promoting this technology, development organizations and their partners have been crucial initiators, facilitators, advocates and catalysts. But the question remains, whether sandbar cultivation alone is robust enough to push ultra-poor families out of extreme poverty.
Given the uncertainty around the availability of sandbars every year, the low bargaining power of the extreme poor to access sandbars, labour intensiveness, initial and recurring costs, complex market mechanisms, and environmental risks, sandbar cropping may not be practiced by an extreme poor family as the sole livelihood choice year after year.
A mechanism needs to be built in the sandbar cropping promotion, whereby the income from this practice can be efficiently invested in livelihoods diversification and asset creation (see figure above), creating a staircase to get out of extreme poverty. Sandbar cropping is thus an effective ‘stepping stone’ to bring the riverine extreme poor out of poverty.
Dr. Haseeb Md. Irfanullah is the programme coordinator of IUCN in Bangladesh. He used to lead the disaster risk reduction and climate change programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. Haseeb can be reached at email@example.com