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Oraons lose jobs as mango-mad farm owners shun thirsty rice in Naogaon

  • Published at 07:28 pm November 13th, 2019
Map of Naogaon district Dhaka Tribune

Kujur, a member of the Oraon ethnic minority, lost her job and now struggles to support her family

Kalamoti Kujur used to make good money as a labourer in the paddy fields near her home in Naogaon. But five years ago, in response to drought, landowners started growing mangoes instead, which need less water and attention than rice.

Kujur, a member of the Oraon ethnic minority, lost her job and now struggles to support her family.

Many local people like her who do not own land used to earn Tk200 a day labouring in the rice fields.

"But, in recent years, the landlords are transforming their paddy fields into mango gardens, making us workless," she said.

In the Barind region of the country, rice has long been the sole source of income for the landless Oraon, who traditionally make a living as farm labourers or sharecroppers.

But frequent droughts, poor precipitation and increasing temperatures in the region - which environmental experts link to climate change - have made growing the thirsty crop tougher.

Mango trees can be cultivated with fewer people, they say, and use up to 80% less water than growing rice.

As rice harvesting season approaches, there are no longer enough jobs for all the Oraon living in Naogaon, Kujur said.

Like many others in the area, her eldest son has left their village for six months to find work in another district.

"The male members of our families are compelled to migrate for work, so we have to stay home alone, which makes our lives difficult," said the 45-year-old mother of three.

Tajul Islam, a farm owner in Porsha upazilla, has replaced his 12 acres of rice with four mango orchards.

Amid drier weather and higher temperatures, rice farming was losing him too much money, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We know shifting to mango farming from paddy (rice) cuts off work for ethnic people, but we prefer mango farming as it requires less labour," Islam said.

'No rain, no crop'

The Oraon people were brought from India to Bangladesh by the British colonial government to construct railways in Bengal.

They and other ethnic minority groups in Naogaon make up about 7% of the district's more than 2.5 million residents, official data shows, although local charities and minority rights groups say the real figure is higher.

Water scarcity is a common problem for ethnic minorities in Barind, known as "plain-land people," a moniker distinguishing them from other groups in country’s hilly areas.

The region is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a February study by environmental engineers at Hajee Mohammad Danesh Science and Technology University in Dinajpur and Rajshahi University of Engineering and Technology.

Temperature extremes in the region have increased, while annual rainfall has decreased, leading to a reduction in water availability, they found.

In Naogaon's Porsha upazila, the entire ethnic minority population of about 15,000 is affected by water shortages, according to local non-profit Barendrabhumi Samaj Unnayan Sangstha (BSDO), which works with those communities.

Barind's ponds, lakes and canals are severely depleted, while groundwater is also disappearing rapidly, noted BSDO program coordinator Ataur Rahman.

In the dry season, groundwater levels drop so low that even tube wells as deep as 200 feet do not reach water, he noted.

The monsoon used to bring enough rain to sustain the area's paddy fields until harvest, but that is no longer the case, say locals and environmental experts.

A study last year from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed average rainfall in July 2014 - the middle of the monsoon season - in the three driest Barind districts, including Naogaon, had dropped to just over 220mm, about a third of its level in July 2005.

Sukur Oraon, a 50-year-old ethnic minority sharecropper in Naogaon, said last year his rice harvest was only a quarter of usual levels as his paddy fields dried up due to lack of rain - and half his crop goes to the owners of the land he works.

"We have planted it this year too, but I do not know whether we will be able to harvest it," he lamented. "No rain, no crop."

While struggling with water shortages and job losses, the Oraon also face health problems due to a changing climate.

Locals say the aquatic animals that make up the bulk of their diet are dying off as the area's lakes and canals dry up.

"In the past, we (ate) eels, fish, crabs, turtles and snails, which were abundant here, to meet our nutritional demand. But those have disappeared for lack of rainfall," said Parbati Akkata, a 35-year-old Oraon woman living in Naogaon.

As a result, about 80% of Oraon women and children suffer from malnutrition, noted UNDP climate-change specialist Mamunur Rashid.

The government could also set up mango-processing plants in Barind to create job opportunities, he added.

"If they could be educated and trained properly, the ethnic people would be able to enter the national job market," he said.

Sirajul Islam, deputy director of the Department of Agricultural Extension for Naogaon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation his department was still seeking solutions to the lack of work for ethnic communities in Barind.

Landowners, meanwhile, continue to give up rice for mangoes.

In fiscal year 2013-2014, mango was cultivated on about 22,600 acres in Naogaon - by 2018-2019, that figure had more than doubled, Islam said.

As she waits for work, Kujur can only lament how water scarcity has made her life harder.

"From our livelihoods to our food habits, even our tradition and culture - nowadays poor rainfall takes a heavy toll on us," she said.

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