On political economy of agrochemical industry in Bangladesh

Nahid Riyasad | Updated at 06:06pm on September 01, 2018

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Delowar Jahan at Prakritik Krishi outlet in Salimullah Road, Mohammadpur, Dhaka.

Delowar Jahan, a young farmer and agriculturalist in action, hailed from the southern sandbars of river Padma. His ancestors actively took part in the Indigo revolt or Nil Bidroho of the late 19th century. Delowar thinks that revolutionary spirit in his blood always prompted him to challenge the damaging role of agro-chemical industry in our country. Nahid Riyasad talks to him on the political economy of this industry and his initiative Prakritik Krishi. Nahid Riyasad talks with him for New Age Youth.

New Age: Tell us how you have become so keenly interested in the political economy of our agriculture system?

Delowar Jahan: I came from a farmer’s family. My ancestors, as far I can trace, were farmers. Our family title was ‘Mondal’ or farmers with a lot of land. Inevitably, farming, agricultural practices were significant part of my childhood. As a child, when my peers were playing, I had gone to the nearby villages, connecting with the nature, exploring its different aspects and most importantly, searching my history. My father took a small loan from the local moneylender, but the interest was high. For long, he had to hand over the major share of his harvest to the moneylender.

My great-great grandfather, who lived somewhere in the southern sandbars of River Padma, actively participated in Nil Bidroho (Indigo revolt against the British colonial power). During the struggle one high government official was killed, then they had to leave their ancestral homes forever and settled down in Kushtia. Their blood still flows in my vain and I think, this is the reason, why I question the current agricultural practice. However, I heard the calling during my university education.

New Age: Tell us more about this calling?

Delowar Jahan: I received my school and college education in Kushtia. Then, I went to Chittagong University for my tertiary education in journalism. Later, I perused my MPhil at Jahangirnagar University in archeology. I submitted my research paper almost three years ago, however, due to some internal politics, I haven’t received my degree and I don’t want that anymore anyway.

During my second year, I had a group of friends, all hailed from peasants families. We had similar history and ideas of the world. We felt that the knowledge we gathered from our relation with the nature, our agricultural practices and sustainable lifestyle of our ancestors, all are missing from our academic discourse. Moreover, all the text books were filled with western narratives. This absence, disconnect with indigenous knowledge gave us impetus to research our culture, practices of my ancestors and their ways of life.

Conversation session with experienced farmer about rice species in Angurpota Haor area, Netrokona.


New Age: Is this how Prakritik Krishi started?

Delowar Jahan: Prakritik Krishi came into being in 2012. This is the result of nearly eight years of research. A young team with dreams of bringing a change in the agriculture sector started the initiative. As we progressed with our research on history and culture of agriculture, we felt that now we need to translate our research into action. It was 2011. However, we did not want to invest our research in the academia. Rather, we wanted to go directly to the field. In 2012, we took a small piece of land from a farmer in Amtali village, Daulatpur, Manikganj and started organic eco-friendly farming.

As all of us already had a familiarity with agriculture, we easily identified the mistakes that our parents made and other farmers are now making. However, we did not prescribe any methods, nor did we point out their mistakes — we were there only to observe. After observing for months, we began to learn from the farmers, they possess a distinct kind of knowledge that is absent in the academia. Sadly, their knowledge is systematically erased or labeled as backward by the agrochemical industry. We also observed their overgrowing dependency on this industry. Even if they wanted to grow organic food, the question was how would they market their product with chemically grown crops? This was the time the idea of Prakritik Krishi as a marketing outlet came into play. In 2014, we brought the idea into a reality.

New Age: In your work, historical knowledge of agriculture is very important. Many a times, you have insisted that it is the rupture with the history that turned out to be really costly for our agriculture and ecology? Please explain further for our readers.

Delowar Jahan:  Partly, I blame this on the ravenous agrochemical industry and the rest is on the agricultural institutes of the country. To be honest, our agriculture graduates are nothing but agents of the agrochemical industry. Let me explain this, a boy from a peasants family gets a degree from an agricultural university, where, he was taught a way of farming which is heavily dependent of chemical substances and genetic modification. Now, when he goes back to his village, his father’s knowledge seems archaic to him. And the farmer father thinks that his son got a degree and he must know better than me. As a result, the century old knowledge is being replaced by the genocidal industry practices. Moreover, passing the agricultural knowledge down the family line is becoming more problematic as the young generation, after their exposure to the academia, becomes extremely reluctant to take agriculture as their career.

New Age: The way our agricultural system is completely dependent on the agrochemical industry, what are the affects do you see in the field?

Delowar Jahan: To be honest, our entire agricultural system has been kept hostage by the agrochemical industry. For example, if you use chemical fertilisers and pesticides in your land, it will not be able to produce food without those chemicals in the future. Moreover, these substances kill billions of microbes living in the soil’s ecosystem thus rupturing the biodiversity of a land. Let me give you an example, it is a simplified version though — if a frog eats an insect which is killed by pesticide, the frog will eventually die of poisoning and the snake that eats the frog will die of the same cause. That is the deadly cycle of intoxication.

As seed crisis is extremely acute in our country, the farmers have no choice but to use genetically modified or hybrid seeds, which will bring more problems. Those seeds, will eventually, need more chemical substances that are produced by the same industry. At the end, that piece of land will lose its ability to produce without the help of chemical substances. This is the political economy of our agrochemical industry. It is in this vicious cycle that our agriculture is left with. More ominous, rather more ironical, is the fact that the same groups of people, who own agrochemical industry, also own the pharmaceutical industry of Bangladesh.

New Age: What steps do you think we should take to overcome this situation?

Delowar Jahan: We have to take a three-step measure to combat this situation. First, we have to take an initiative and invite agricultural graduates of this country to unlearn the knowledge that basically helps to implement the agenda of the agrochemical industry. Second, we have to re-introduce alternative methods to the farmers. For example, you can substitute the need of urea fertiliser with cow urine, something that many farmers will be able to get their hands on without any extra charge. And most importantly, we need to create a market for organically produced food.

New Age: Who are frequent visitors of Prakritik Krishi outlet?

Delowar Jahan: We are currently at Salimullah Road of Mohammadpur, so many of our Prakritik Poribar (we choose not to treat our supporters as customers) members live nearby, though people from all over the capital come to get fresh organic produces. Without their help and good wishes, we could have never come this far. In fact, their lifestyle choices and consciousness of our current agricultural system keeps us going.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.