Community Seed Bank (CSB): an initiative to reduce disaster risks in char areas of Bangladesh

ABM Touhidul Alam


Generally, char areas have been created along the bed or basin of the big rivers. Char lands are the sandbars that emerge as islands within the river channel or as attached land to the river banks. Simply, the riverine sand and silt landmasses that are mostly vegetated islands within the riverbanks generally known as char in Bengali. On an average, 5% of Bangladeshi population as well as 6.5 million people live on the chars covering almost 5% of the total land areas(147,570) of the country and miserably it is narrowed as 7200 square kilometer (EGIS, 2000).


Harirampur Upazila of Manikganj district with an area of 245.42 sq km, is bounded by Shivalaya, Ghior and Manikganj sadar upazilas on the north, Char Bhadrasan and Faridpur sadar on the south, Manikganj Sadar, Nawabganj (Dhaka) and Dohar upazilas on the east, Shivalaya, Goalandaghat and Faridpur Sadar upazilas on the west. As of 1991 Bangladesh census, Population of Harirampur is 1, 39,318 of whom female 73,503 and male 65,815. In Harirampur, the main rivers are the Padma and Ichamati and main depressions are Bhatsala and Gharilpur beels.


The life of the Patgramchar in Harirampur upazila, people is closely related to variations in the dynamics of river and Char formation as well as the associated erosion and flood hazards.People living in Char lands endure insecure livelihoods. The livelihood patterns of the people in Patgram Charare much more harsh and full of uncertainties. There are very limited seasonal work opportunities in the char areas. Country boats are the main transport for communication of the people that takes one hour to reach in Patgram Char from mainland.Road communication within the char is worst, no metal road and no electricity there. Forestry has also limited in Patgram char. But the perennial availability of water in the rivers provides year-round opportunities for fishing to many of the char communities.


Patgram Char in Harirampur is more vulnerable to various natural disasters of which recurrent floods and river bank erosion damage settlement, infrastructures, life and livelihoods. Most of the people of this area are vulnerable to flood and experiencing loss. They are forced to move from one place to another as flooding and river bank erosion is a common phenomenon. They have to build new house at new emerged places in Char. Likewise many other Chars, this Char is also extremely vulnerable to both erosion and flood hazards.This area is also vulnerable to thunderbolts as the vast char has inadequate vegetation which is not sufficient to protect the dwellers. Patgram Char also has extensive areas of grasslands. These are used as grazing lands for their cattle. Catkin grass, which grows quite extensively in Patgram char during the early period of vegetation, is used as thatching material.


The economics of Patgram Char is largely based on agriculture; fishing and people are engaged in livestock production. Their production practices are different from the main land. The char dwellers invest their available resource to enhance farm productivity. The small-scale farmers in Char produce varieties of crops among others, rice, jute, pulses, vegetables, bananas and sugarcane in their sandy lands. High yielding Boro cultivation is not gaining popularity due to lack of irrigation facilities. Crop production remains main source of livelihood and employment though this sector is vulnerable due to extreme climate events like recurrent flooding, river bank erosion, scarce of seeds and lack of appropriate varieties suite in Char land. Seed is the soul of agriculture and one of the basic elements of farming. The Char dwellers face seed scarcity immediate after flooding on regular basis in every year. Government’s agricultural extension services or emergency agricultural rehabilitation are minimal and they seldom avail those services. Being located in extreme remote and separated from main land has been worsening the situation.


Only because of detached from main land, the villagers have been deprived from all basic facilities that make them vulnerable in many aspects like communication, transportation, education, health services etc. but none were addressed by the authorities concerned. People reside in char almost are deprived from and government safety net programs for long and often do not have relevant information as well. In addition to the major physical risk associated with the river, people in Patgram char dwellers, in particular, are marginalized from the benefits of the main land. Geographical, social, immoral and political instability and insecurity pushed them to a vicious cycle of poverty. Regular loss of lands and natural disasters often lead to migration. The major issues that they face are inability to resist physical hazards, inadequate saving and soft loan options, poor access to income opportunities and services, and so on. However, the Char dwellers always fight with the hunger, poverty, illiteracy, less farm productivity, climatic disaster, etc.


In this context, women of Patgram Char under Lesraganj union of Horirampur realized first that they need to be united to attain rights and should form a group for raising voice for justice and all sorts of inequality. They discussed with each other and late selected Hazera Begum (52) a women, mother of 3 children, took initiative to gather the women in Patgram to fight for their rights.Shecame forward and formed a women group consists of 10 women initially. Few months later 10 interested men also joined the group and took the name ‘Lesraganj Char Unnayan (development) Krishok (Farmers) Sanghatan (organization). Formally this organization was formed in January 2012. Presentlythere are 20 members in this farmers’ organization who sit in meeting once a month on regular basis. A variety of issues (natural calamities, livelihood, social, educational, economical and cultural) that affects life and livelihood are discussed in the meeting. Among these issues agricultural issue remains the top as it is their livelihood and main source of income.

Such a monthly meeting, just after flood in 2014, Hazera Begum proposed to establish a Community Seed Bank (CSB) because every cropping season they face scarcity of seed. She suggested that the CSB would allow people to cultivate varieties that they require and increase availability of different local varieties which grow well in Char land. She also mentioned that people living in char areas have traditionally relied on cultivating Aus paddy, linseed, lentil, black gram, cowpea, pigeon pea sorghum, millet and local varieties of maize. However, seed of these crops are not available in the local market because they are nearly extinct and scarcely cultivate in main lands. She mentioned that most of the poor farmers in chars are unable to preserve seeds due to natural calamities like flooding or even consume when food shortage. In the same meeting, Hazera was requested by members to come forward to lead the process of reviving the extinct local varieties as she has long been involved in farming and has hands-on experience. With the support and inspiration from community members, Hazera started her work immediately. She turned into a room as CSB in her homestead in 2014. She started with just 10 local varieties of rice that were collected from nearby another seed savers group. At present the CSB has 140 types of seeds including country bean, pulses, spices, cucurbits, oil seeds and vegetables.


Until now, the community seed bank has helped 620 farmers in 3 unions of Horirampur upazila. Through Hazera’s initiative and support, the farmers’ organization has been able to nearly rescue 72 varieties through the recovery, maintenance and has been cultivating in this flood prone region. CSB members established their own rules regarding the operation of the bank. A committee consisting of three members now involved in the day-today management of the CSB and a return rate of same amount of provided seeds to a beneficiary household was agreed upon. However, during lean periods, the CSB members can decide to relax the rules to ensure the sustainability of the bank. The CSB recently planned to start Aus rice varietals selection trials in April this year (2020).The CSB has created opportunities to Char farmers to access seeds to grow crops during the next planting season or they can receive seed as an emergency stuffs when their crops are damaged and destroyed by floods or any other reasons.


As climate change has a significant impact on agricultural production, growing local varieties, which have a high degree of genetic diversity, is highly important because these varieties have the ability to better withstand and adapt to environmental stresses and changes. Setting up CSB has been helping Char farmers to acquire varieties that are adapted to local conditions; generally these varieties are not accessible through formal seed systems. Moreover, diversification of crops and varieties is also highly important in terms ofChar people’s food security, because it reduces the risk of total production failures and contributes to strengthening communities’ resilience. Now farmers, in particular small holder Charfarmers with poor resources, ensured access to locally adapted varieties, which helps them seeds for the next planting season as well as providing with an emergency seed supply in times of crisis.Thus, making them less dependent on the formal seed systems which is one step forward to achieve seed sovereignty.


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