People in the hilly districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari are moving away from the traditional jhum cultivation and engaging fruit and vegetable farming.
For 35-year-old Paiya Mro, Saturdays and Tuesdays are the busiest days of the week. His day starts at the crack of dawn, he spends the morning picking fruits from his orchard, and devotes the rest of the day to selling the fruits to a makeshift bazar on the side of the Bandarban-Chimbuk highway, 400 metres down from his house.
This reporter met Paiya when he was setting up his shop under a traffic shed, arranging five maunds of papaya [1 maund = 37.33kg] and 20 bunches of banana.
“For the last eight years, I have been producing fruits and vegetables and selling them at this selling point to fruit collectors who come twice a week,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Fifteen other families in Renisiong Baganpara, Paiya’s village, are involved in fruit and vegetable farming as well, he added.
Paiya owns 2.5 acres of land on the hill. He used 20 decimals of that land to build his house, and the rest to grow a fruit and vegetable orchard.
“I grow different seasonal fruits and vegetables, but papaya and banana are the most produced fruits in my orchard,” he said. “This year, I planted 250 papaya trees, from which I have collected around 100 maunds of papaya so far. I sold each maund at Tk800, making Tk80,000.”
He expects to harvest 20 more maunds of papaya from the orchard.
“My total earning will be Tk96,000 when I sold all of my papayas. This harvest cost me around Tk25,000, so I will have a profit of nearly Tk71,000,” said Paiya, smiling.
The high-return investment in fruit and vegetable orchards has attracted many hill people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who are now moving away from the traditional jhum cultivation.
“I changed my cultivation pattern and started growing an orchard, and it gave the kind of affluence which I never dreamed of before,” Paiya said.
Fruits and vegetable orchards are now a common sight on the hills of the three CHT districts – Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari, home to around 1.6 million people according to the 2011 census.
Sing Klang, the 52-year-old “karbari” (chief) of Tonkaboti area near Ruma Bazar in Bandarban, said 126 families in four villages in the area were engaged in fruit and vegetable farming because they bring in money.
Fruits and vegetables grown in the CHT find market 150km away in Chittagong, and sometimes 400km away in Dhaka.
Papayas, mangoes and bananas are three major fruits that come in large volume to the capital from the hill districts, especially in the last few years, said Md Abul Hossain, owner of Sabuj Fruit Traders, a wholesaler at Karwan Bazar, Dhaka.
“Fruits from the hill districts are a recent addition to the country’s fruit business,” he said. “I have been engaged in this business for the last 10 years. The volume of CHT fruits is increasing in the market [in Dhaka]. I sell papaya all year, and a major portion of my produce comes from Bandarban alone. This year, I have collected Tk4 crore worth of papaya from Bandarban.”
How it all started
Since 1996, both the government and some NGOs have been promoting fruit and vegetable farming to the hill people to improve their income and living standard.
“Our main objective of promoting fruit cultivation was to make the hill districts more productive,” said Jahangir Alam, project director of Chittagong Hill District Development Board.
Currently, two-thirds of the CHT population living close to the roads have engaged themselves in fruit farming, which is a great sign of economic empowerment, he added.
“It is more difficult for people who live far from the highways, because communication is harder and they have little to no market access,” he said.
Better economy, better education
Prenja Mro, 15-year-old son of Paiya, goes to a boarding school in Khulna. This would not have been possible if Paiya had not started growing fruits eight years ago.
“I am able to provide good education to my children now. My son Prenja has been going to school in Khulna for four years because there are no good schools here,” Paiya told this reporter.
Each month, Paiya sends Tk2,000 to his son to pay tuition fees and other costs.
“In total, I spend Tk30,000 for my elder son’s schooling every year,” said a proud Paiya.