E.F. Schumacher, an economist who founded Practical Action, wanted to help expand aid programs through technology.
Fueled by the idea of developing and promoting appropriate technology to reach a greater segment of the underprivileged population of the world, he published an article in The Observer, on August 29, 1965 titled “How to help them help themselves.” The thought leader contemplated: “The western world spends hundreds of millions of pounds on aid to developing countries. But what if this aid, so far from reducing misery, is actually increasing it?”
How economic theories and humanitarian intentions materialized in Bangladesh
It has been 50 years since Schumacher founded Practical Action. Now, we take the opportunity to look back and reflect: how did his ideas translate into real solutions for those in need around the world? How is technology changing how we address poverty? Out of the many innovations Schumacher’s philosophies inspired, we invite you to join us in exploring the novel idea of “cropping on the sand.” Simple as this may sound, it is an example of how a small idea can have a big impact on building resilience for communities facing some of the world’s most pressing issues.
‘Sandbar cropping’ is an innovative, cost-effective technology that transforms silted barren sandy lands created by flooding into arable farmland. This has helped thousands of families in Bangladesh that are displaced from land degradation and suffer from poverty, hunger, and malnourishment. The technique has experienced widespread adaption in five northwestern districts of the country.
Shifting sands and contorted realities
Bangladesh is a deltaic country formed by the floodplains of the three major rivers: the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna. These rivers drain into the Bay of Bengal, although only 7% of the catchment area lies within the country’s boundaries. Along the river banks on the southern coastlines, and north of the basin, are charlands, accumulations of coarse sands that form sandbars.
While floods are a part of the natural ecology of the watershed, overpopulation and climate change have induced intensified floods and a higher frequency of natural disasters. The northwestern corner, at the confluence of the Teesta River and the Brahmaputra River, is especially vulnerable to flooding and erosion.
Life here is difficult. The erosion is corroding land that once provided space for cultivation and shelter. Basic services — safe water, sanitation, health, and education are minimal, or non-existent. The area is remote, leaving communities socially marginalized. A notable consequence is the significantly higher rates of illness, malnourishment, and mortality in women and children. Furthermore, there is a high prevalence of violence toward women and children, such as child labor, exploitation, early pregnancies, and child marriage.
Something is better than nothing
In 2005, the Disappearing Lands Project connected the dots between the land slipping from underneath impoverished Bangladeshi communities, and the bleak living conditions of their people. Starting in the Gaibandha District, Practical Action encouraged community members to venture onto transitional sandbars to sow pumpkin seeds.
After each rainy season, large sand islands (charlands) appear in the main rivers of northwest Bangladesh. Cropping on the sandbars involves digging small pits in the sand and lining the pits with compost to grow pumpkin, squash, and other high value crops and vegetables. Large-scale irrigation is not necessary as the land (considering it is in the river basin) is close to the river channel.
The pumpkins produced on the sandbars can be stored in people’s houses for over a year, greatly assisting poor households by providing an income source, food security, and a way to manage lean seasons. Sandbar cropping has given displaced peoples a way to transform barren landscapes and ‘mini deserts’ into productive croplands.
This cropping method is low-risk, yet shows an impressive financial return. Minimum inputs are supplied to the beneficiaries to demonstrate the techniques. From monitoring a representative sample of household incomes, cost-benefit ratios are observed to range from 1:5 to 1:7 based on beneficiaries’ social strata and investment patterns. To date, over 15,000 beneficiaries, many of whom are women (50%), have produced over 90,000 MT (MT=1,000 kg) of pumpkin worth over £10 million.
Despite the national law designating charlands as government domain, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh publically recognized the work of Pathways From Poverty Project (EEP, shiree, DFID-GoB), which focuses on the economic empowerment of the poor, as an exemplary development action. In her 2015 praise of sandbar cropping, she encouraged policy makers to look to the technique as a means for addressing food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change adaptation, and poverty within displaced communities and for charland dwellers.
Beyond Bangladesh, sandbar cropping as a development strategy
Sandbar cropping has brought food security, nutritional security, and improved livelihoods for the extreme poor in northwest Bangladesh and other displaced populations in the country. Our experience lends useful knowledge for reducing extreme poverty in similar contexts around the world. The innovation can be applied in other dry areas and, where applicable, could become a meaningful coping strategy in areas adversely affected by climate change.
However, sandbar cropping does have impending challenges that necessitates support from the government and donors. With a growing population, there is increased competition and bargaining for such lands, and a growing need for long term support for technology, access to credit, and institutional linkages with agencies and services that enable sandbar cropping. For governments and donors that are concerned with reducing poverty in river basins, securing access to sandbars for the extreme poor—and involving the participants—should be a policy priority.
These initiatives call for development support and collaboration from multiple stakeholders for wider use of sandbar cropping, both in Bangladesh and abroad. Government, ministries and governmental departments, research institutions, and the private sector must be engaged with local peoples to foster creativity and identify opportunities for building the capacity of marginalized communities, to diversify cropping on sandbars, and to develop a sustainable business model through a market-based approach.
Schumacher’s popular 1973 book: Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered
A Practical Action report on the progress of the Disappearing Lands Project (download here)
Nazmul Chowdhury, an agriculturalist, has worked for Practical Action Bangladesh since 2001 and has been closely affiliated with technology innovation and promotion from its inception in 2005. Chowdhury also provided the photos featured in this post.