Climate change and the Khasis in Bangladesh

:: Silvanus Lamin


The Khasis in Bangladesh

The Khasi is one of the ethnic communities in Bangladesh living in Bangladesh from the time immemorial. The existence, culture, tradition, customs, language of this community is almost in the last line of marginalization. There are several reasons behind the marginalized situation of this community in Bangladesh. As, in most countries of the world, including Bangladesh, indigenous people are not members of the dominant, majority groups. Although they may consider themselves “nations”, they have no status as States and often have no voice through their governments.

The growing international awareness of the critical situation of indigenous people somehow led the United Nations proclaiming two International Decades for the World’s Indigenous People (first 1995-2004 and second 2005-2014). The international communities emphasize on strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people for years in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health at the time frame of International decades. The growing awareness in environmental issue is not yet up to the mark as government and non-government actors never included the issue and concern of the indigenous people in the initiative they aimed to ease environmental hazards. Thus the lands and forest deterioration still takes place in the area of indigenous people that accelerates the climate change which causes many problems in the life and livelihood of the indigenous people. The Khasi community is well-known for its environment friendly cultivation and ecosystem based livelihood. The concentration of the Khasis is found in the four districts of Sylhet division of Bangladesh. They live in hilly slopes, comparatively high lands, particularly in the forested areas. It is said that where there is forest there is Khasis. Over again, it is also said that where there are trees in the forest, there are Khasi people there. The Khasis have been practicing such sorts of livelihood that they must protect trees, conserve biodiversity and ensure environmental sustainability; otherwise they would face difficulties to carry on practicing it. This has led the Khasis to plant, protect and nourish trees including other herbs and flora and fauna. Thus it could be said that the .Khasi community plays vital role to reduce the emission of carbon through maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem dependent life and livelihood.

What is Climate change? 

According to IPCC, climate is the extreme effect of the global warming. Increase in the frequency, duration and intensity of floods, droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, etc. are sign of the climate change. The climate change problem is related to changes in the concentration of the greenhouse gases (water vapor, CO2, CH4, N2O, and CFCs), which trap infrared radiation from the earth’s surface and thus cause the greenhouse effect. Human activities, such as fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, and some industrial processes have led to an increase in greenhouse gases concentration. However, Bangladesh is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world and will be facing more vulnerability as result of rapid climate change in future if initiative is not taken to slow down the pace of climate change. Climate change induced disaster comprises flood, storms, cyclones, drought and cold waves are now very common. The intensity and frequency of these disasters will increase in the coming years. Including Bangladesh, the countries of the world are striving to find out the most effective means to combat climate change. Bangladesh has already formulated climate change strategy and adaptation paper to address the change where it has set six pillars (food security, social protection and health, comprehensive disaster management, infrastructure building, research and knowledge management, mitigation and low carbon development and capacity building and institutional strengthening) to address the very changes. According to the experts and researchers, climate change is the major consequence of unsustainable development that emits lots of carbon. In other words, the climate change we are experiencing now is brought by humanity’s massive dependence on fuels, particularly carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas which bring about greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is said that previously it was the climate that changed humans but today humans change climate and they are changing it too fast!

It has to be reiterated that indigenous peoples have contributed the least to climate change. Leading a low carbon-based life and livelihood, the indigenous people in the world though contribute the least to the change yet are among the most vulnerable communities. Indigenous people share an intricate relationship with the ecosystem. They depend on the diverse ecosystems for their foods, economic, cultural, social and spiritual existence. So, having close relationship with the nature or ecosystem, the indigenous communities seldom do things that lead to climate change. Actually, their livelihood practices do not emit carbon in the atmosphere.

Khasis’ environment friendly agro cultivation

The Khasi community, as their foremost traditional occupation, farm piper betel leaves in the hillock lands requiring trees to get wine type of betel leaves climbing upon. So, trees are the most important elements for practicing their traditional betel leaves cultivation. Although their agro-cultivation is known as ‘jum’ cultivation to others yet it does not involve slash and burn process. The Khasis when farming betel leaves, need just to clear and clean the dense bushes and grasses of the lands letting the bushes rotten within the lands for fertilizers. They then transplant the seedlings of betel leaves under trees so that piper betel could climb upon the trees. The Khasis then cut off the unnecessary branches of the tree where a seedling has been transplanted to let it getting air, water and sunlight for growth. The total process is done in such way that it lets trees growing and ensures other natural elements to perform their activities in a natural way.

We know that forested area covered with lots of trees contribute to sequestering the emitted carbon. Tree itself takes carbon dioxide and leaves oxygen for its survival. We also know that greenhouse gas is a composition of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and CFC gas. So, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, tree helps to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and makes the earth a better living place. Khasis through their life and livelihood have been conserving, protecting and planting trees from a long time. Bangladesh government in its climate change strategy and adaptation paper has emphasized on ‘low carbon development’ (pillar number-5). However, analyzing the agriculture practices of the Khasis for earning their livelihood, we can easily conclude by saying that they have been implementing a low-carbon, in some cases carbon-neutral livelihood development initiative from a long time though their environment friendly initiative has not yet snatched the attention of the state. Therefore, the state should come forward to assist the Khasis continuing their traditional occupation without interruption.

On the other hand, the betel leave cultivation of the Khasis is an environment friendly cultivation process. It has been illustrated in many research papers that agriculture is also responsible for climate change, particularly the energy intensive agriculture practices. According to some papers, the present modern agriculture practice emits 44-47% of the greenhouse gas which accelerates climate change. But the agriculture that the Khasis have been practicing for years neither emits carbon nor contributes to forest degradation. I have mentioned before that the Khasis conserve and plant trees and other herbs for betel leaf cultivation, so there is no scope of forest deterioration though, for lack of information regarding the cultivation process of the Khasis in Bangladesh, some have accused that Khasis destroy forest. I would like to request those people who accuse and criticize the Khasis cultivation process to visit their (Khasi) betel leaves garden (jum)! Actually, the Khasis consider forest as the most sacred place. They do not destroy forest; kill biodiversity having the belief that forest provides them with all what they need! They also believe that if there is no forested land, their existence would be at stake. Thus one can easily find this fact that there is no abode of Khasis in the plain lands. They could easily build their abode in the plains if they wish but having close and intricate relationship with the forest, they always prefer to live in forested lands. And as said before, where there are many trees there are Khasi people’s abode.

Over again, the betel cultivation of the Khasis is done in an organic manner which could be called sustainable agriculture. They do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides for their betel leaves plants. We know that chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture fields responsible for declined biodiversity. The chemicals and pesticides kill benevolent insects in the soil & fishes in the water, pollute air and soil and create different kinds of diseases that foster biodiversity loss on earth. The Khasis do not use the harmful chemicals and pesticides, they rather use organic fertilizers. They do not need to use pesticides for their betel leaves plant. Because, they have been using their indigenous knowledge to cure their betel leaves plant when get attacked by disease such as Utram. Thus the Khasi by planting and taking care of trees contribute to combating climate change. Their sustainable way of agro cultivation has also contributed to adapting to climate change situation. If they are facilitated, they could contribute more to make the earth a better living place!

Khasis adaptation mechanism to climate change

Indigenous people from the time immemorial have been developing techniques and means to adapt to the change in the atmosphere. They have intricate relationship with natural phenomenon and it is the indigenous community who first observes the changes in the climate and develops adaptation tools to cope with the change and uphold their existence. The Khasi community, nonetheless, living close to the nature has also developed their own ways to adapt to the changed situation. These adaptive tools and techniques have enabled the community to get survived despite the adverse changes in the climate. Earlier it has been said that including other indigenous people the Khasis are one of the most vulnerable communities to current rapid climate change although they contribute the least to this change. The community has counted huge loss being affected by the climate change due to leading an ecosystem dependent livelihood pattern. Climate change induced disasters such as drought, less rainfall, irregular rainfall, hailstones and cyclones have damaged the crops and betel leaves of the community to large extent. Irregular rainfall also affected the crop calendar of the Khasis. June-July is considered the cultivation season of the community due to the availability of rain in this time but climate change has changed the crops calendar. The season has changed making nature dependent livelihood more difficult. In the recent years (except 2015) the Khasis could hardly transplant betel leaves seedling during June and July due to irregular rainfall. On the other hand, disasters such as hailstone, cyclones and drought damage both the crops and production period of the community. The betel leaves of the Khasis got died during March and April due to drought situation created by climate change. The dense fog also damages the betel leaves making them falling on the ground with premature condition. Cyclones and storms uproot trees and hailstone damages the leaves breaking the branches of betel leaves or creating the leaves unsellable due to having many cracks all around being hit by stones.


However, the Khasis have their own ways of adaptation to this changed situation. They instead of June-July transplant seedlings of betel leaves and betel nut during August and September if there is enough rain that time. They this time cut off the unnecessary branches of trees and clears the bushes and grasses in such way that the new seedlings neither die for lack of air and sunlight nor die due to scorching heat of the sunlight. They gather the rotten bushes, branches of trees and grasses in the bottom of trees to protect the roots of betel leaves from scorching heat. This material serves as fertilizer and during night it absorbs the dews making the roots of the betel leaves wet. Thus betel leaves plant get survived despite drought situation. The Khasis pluck the betel leaves in such way that it reduces the loss if hailstone hits the plants. They also try to cure the disease affected betel plant using their indigenous knowledge rather than being dependent on chemicals and pesticides. They cut off the affected branches or leaves from the plant and when they fail to cure the affected plant, they uproot it to let other plants getting free from the attack of disease. They before entering to their jum lands, they wash their hands, feet and bodies so that could ensure that they do not carry germs and other harmful elements that could affect their betel leaves. The Khasis, to adapt to the heat waves build their house in such way that it protects them from the excessive heat. There is ceiling which is locally called Sat between the roof and main structure of their house. It looks like another house inside a big house!

Initiatives to minimize climate change induced loss

The ecosystem based cultivation of the Khasi community has been affected due to climate change. Moderate sunlight, rainfall, sunshade and cool environmental space are the much needed elements for cultivation of betel-leaf. But due to climate change, less precipitation, temperature rise, cold wave, prolonged heat, dense fog are increasing in the area damaging the nature dependent betel leave cultivation of the community. Thus for mitigating loss and ensuring economic solvency the community could do the following things along with their traditional cultivation:

Introduction of mix cropping and crop diversity along with traditional betel leaf cultivation could ease the problems of the community occurred due to the climate disasters. As when betel leave cultivation becomes difficult due to these disasters, particularly water scarcity, they could mitigate the loss by other crops such as long term betel nut cultivation, short time & seasonal vegetable cultivation and fruit cultivation. However, some households of the area have already practiced mix cropping and cultivated diverse crops in their lands which somehow have benefited and assisted them reducing loss due to climate induced disasters. Taking this as a model, initiative could be taken to motivate the entire community adopting mix cropping and cultivating diverse crop along with betel leaves to enable them mitigating loss caused due to climate induced disasters.

On the other hand, being the traditional crop of the community, some households in the area using surface water (stream, canals, and small rivers) do try to irrigate their betel leaves plant during dry season particularly from November to March. This effort has enabled them practicing traditional farming and protecting their plants from drought. By practicing this, they have also succeeded in bringing freshness of the betel leaves which is very important for marketing. Yellow leaves are sold in low price and these leaves could seldom last long from the betel plants. They fall downs early making huge loss for the community but irrigating betel plants has enabled the community harvesting leaves from plants for long period of time. The experience of the success farmers could boost the confidence of other Khasis to use surface water for irrigating their betel leaf lands. Initiative thus needed to assist the community making proper use of available surface water in the area which benefits them.

Climatic impact also found responsible in out breaking of some types of diseases of betel leaves. Utram(leaves becoming blackish), Pocha roag (leaves decayed diseases), Ranga roag (becoming yellowish) Kolayra(affecting stem and gradually contaminates leaves) are the diseases which damage betel leaves. Thus initiative could be taken to conduct research to find the cause of the diseases, particularly Uttram and test the soil of the area to identify which crops could grow well. The result of the research will surely motivate the community resuming their diverse crop cultivation including the traditional betel leaf cultivation.


Every year, climate summit takes place (This year (2015) it takes place in France, Paris) where the world leaders gather to discuss about means and ways to combat the rapid change. The United Nations Environmental Prorgam (UNEP) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were established to deal with climate change. UNFCCC formulated Kyoto Protocol to restrict the carbon emission of the developed countries (annex-1). These institutions have developed some activities and programs to address climate change. Thus we see, Clean Development mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation, REDD(Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and REDD+ and some other activities and programs are being run and implemented to combat climate change. The major objective of these programs and activities is reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the Khasis, through their life and livelihood have been implementing REDD activities. The Khasis neither degrade forest nor deforest the forested areas where they have been living for years. Bangladesh government through its climate change strategy and adaptation paper, 2009 emphasizes on low carbon development. The Khasis has been implementing such low carbon development initiative for years. Therefore, we urge the state mechanism to patronize the environment friendly and low carbon livelihood practices of the Khasis by taking initiative to recognize their community land ownership or making process to provide them land ownership rather than fostering so called development initiatives (Eco-park, social forestation) which accelerate their eviction from the lands they have been living for years. Besides, state should provide subsidies for the smooth development and progress of the livelihood initiative of the community alike it supports other agriculture development.

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