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Soil salinity and falling global prices push farmers to agriculture
An increasing number of shrimp farmers in Bangladesh are going back to paddy farming. They don't find the business lucrative anymore. Reason? "Shrimp farming has rendered our village saline...Even groundwater has become too salty to drink," said Krishnapada Mandal.
His village Khalsi, in Khulna district, is adjacent to the Sunderbans--the world's largest mangrove forest. In the 1980s, when Bangladesh witnessed a boom in shrimp farming, Mandal converted his about-an-acre paddy field into a shrimp pond. Then his village was full of coconut, mango and banana groves. But over the two decades, they have given way to mangroves. "Paddy farming has become impossible," he said. Mandal has joined many farmers from the coastal districts of Khulna, Satkhira and Bagerhat who are protesting against the hazards of saltwater-based shrimp farming.
As per the proposed national shrimp policy drafted in 2008, about 217,000 hectares (ha) is under shrimp farming, of which 80 per cent is for saltwater lobsters. Between September and February, as upstream water flow drops in rivers, they become prone to tidal flooding and get salty. Shrimp farmers open sluice gates and allow the saline river water to flow into the canal. They irrigate their fields with this saline water and cultivate shrimp.
Village residents say years of this practice has increased the soil's salinity and reduced its fertility. Stagnant saline water in shrimp ponds often seeps into the groundwater making it useless. "This has resulted in drinking water crisis," said Mira Ray of Khalsi village. Dakop and Paikgachha sub-districts in Khulna are the hardest hit. "Most people here now collect rainwater and preserve them in large clay pots. Otherwise, we have to travel up to six kilometres to fetch drinking water," said Ray.
There are other reasons as well. "Following the global economic meltdown, the price of shrimp, mostly in demand from industrialized countries, has dropped from US $5 in 2007 to US $3.7," said Gaurango Nandi, a journalist from Khulna town. "This is a major reason for which shrimp cultivation suddenly became unpopular in this region," Nandi said. When paddy was being sown in December, farmers turned 12,000 ha of shrimp farms to paddy fields, said Dakop's agriculture officer.
Two decades ago, many farmers from the coastal districts had converted their paddy fields into shrimp farms. Exports to the EU and the US made shrimp Bangladesh's second biggest foreign currency earner. But soon influential people monopolized the business. They forced small farmers to lease their land. A number of farmers did this at will, but many were forced into the business when big shrimp farm owners flooded their fields with saline water. Initially, it yielded a good profit and was dubbed white gold. Following an outbreak of white spot disease in 2000-2001, small farmers realized agriculture was a better option. But most of them had leased their farmlands and getting it back was not easy. This led to a tussle. Several police cases have been lodged against farm owners and their musclemen for trying to open the sluice gates and flooding paddy fields with saline water.
The issue also had a political impact. During the 2008 national election only those politicians won who promised to fight saltwater aggression. Farmers now demand the government take steps to ensure environment-friendly shrimp cultivation to check further damage.
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