|Needless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)|
|Hunger in a fertile land|
In U.S. news media Bangladesh is usually portrayed as an "international basketcase," a bleak, desolate scene of hunger and despair. But when we arrived in Bangladesh in August 1974 we found a lush, green, fertile land. From the windows of buses and the decks of ferry boats, we looked over a landscape of natural abundance, everywhere shaped by the hands of men. Rice paddies carpeted the earth, and gigantic squash vines climbed over the roofs of the bamboo village houses. The rich soil, plentiful water and hot, humid climate made us feel as if we had entered a natural greenhouse.
As the autumn days grew clear and cool and the rice ripened in the fields, we saw why the Bengalis in song and verse call their land "golden Bengal." But that autumn we also came face to face with the extreme poverty for which Bangladesh has become so famous. When the price of rice soared in the lean season before the harvest, we witnessed the terrible spectacle of people dying in the streets of Dacca, the capital. Famine claimed thousands of lives throughout the country. The victims were Bangladesh's poorest people who could not afford to buy rice and had nothing left to sell.
As we tried to comprehend the contrast between the lush beauty of the land and the destitution of so many people, we sensed that we had entered a strange battleground. All around us silent struggles were being waged, struggles in which the losers met slow, bloodless deaths. In 1975 we spent nine months in the village of Katni, collecting material for a book on life in the Third World. There we learned more about the quiet violence which rages in Bangladesh.
Katni is a typical village. The majority of its 350 people are poor: most families own less than two acres of land, and a quarter of the households are completely landless. The poorest often work for landlords in neighboring villages who own over 40 acres apiece. Four-fifths of the villagers are Muslims and one-fifth are Hindus. Except for two rickshaw pullers, all make their livings from agriculture.
Bangladesh is rich enough in fertile land, water and natural gas for fertilizer not only to be self-sufficient in food, but a food exporter, even with its rapidly increasing population size.
To minimize the differences between ourselves and the villagers, we lived in a small bamboo house, spoke Bengali and wore local clothing. By approaching the villagers as equals we were eventually able to win their trust. Jim spent most of his time talking with the men as they worked in the fields or went to the market, while Betsy spent most of her time talking with the women as they worked in and around their houses. The villagers taught us what it means to be hungry in a fertile land.
Bangladesh lies in the delta of three great rivers-the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and Meghna-which flow through it to empty into the Bay of Bengal (see map). The rivers and their countless tributaries meander over the flat land, constantly changing course, since most of the country lies less than 100 feet above sea level. The waters not only wash the land, they create it; their sediments have built the delta over the centuries. The alluvial soil deposited by the rivers is among the most fertile in the world.
Abundant rainfall and warm temperatures give Bangladesh an ideal climate for agriculture. Crops can be grown 12 months a year. The surface waters and vast underground aquifers give the country a tremendous potential for irrigation in the dry winter season. The rivers, ponds and rice paddies are alive with fish; according to a report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "Bangladesh is possibly the richest country in the world as far as inland fishery resources are concerned."1
The country's dense human population bears testament to the land's fertility; historically the thick settlement of the delta, like that along the Nile River, was made possible by agricultural abundance. Today, with more than 80 million people, Bangladesh is the world's eighth most populous nation. Its population density is the highest of any country in the world except for Singapore and Hong Kong,2 a fact which is all the more remarkable in light of the country's low level of urbanization. Nine out of 10 Bangladeshis live in villages, where most make their living from the land.
Bangladesh's soil may be rich, but its people are poor. The average annual income is less than $100 per person, the life expectancy only 47 years, and like all averages these overstate the wellbeing of the poorest.3 A quarter of Bangladesh's children die before reaching the age of five4 .Malnutrition claims many. Over half of Bangladesh's families consume less than the minimal calorie requirement, and 60 percent suffer from protein deficiencies.5 Health care is poorly developed and concentrated in the urban areas. Less than a quarter of the population is literate.6
A United States Senate study notes that Bangladesh "is rich enough in fertile land, water, manpower and natural gas for fertilizer not only to be self-sufficient in food, but a food exporter, even with rapidly increasing population size."7 But despite rich soil, ideal growing conditions and an abundant supply of labor, Bangladesh's agricultural yields are today among the lowest in the world. According to a World Bank document, "Present average yields of rice are about 1.2 metric tons per hectare, compared with 2.5 tons in Sri Lanka or 2.7 in Malaysia, which are climatically similar, or over 4 tons in Taiwan where labor inputs are greater."8 Production has stagnated; today's yields are similar to those recorded 50 years ago.9
Why is a country with some of the world's most fertile land also the home of some of the world's hungriest people? A look at Bangladesh's history sheds some light on this paradox. The first Europeans to visit eastern Bengal, the region which is now Bangladesh, found a thriving industry and a prosperous agriculture. It was, in the optimistic words of one Englishman, "a wonderful land, whose richness and abundance neither war, pestilence nor oppression could destroy."10 But by 1947, when the sun finally set on the British Empire in India, eastern Bengal had been reduced to an impoverished agricultural hinterland.
Many who read Food First: ; Beyond the Myth of Scarcity find among its most shocking revelations the fact that Bangladesh isn't a hopeless basketcase: there are indeed enough resources in that country to provide for all. The media-generated image of an entire people condemned to perpetual hunger is now being challenged. The truth is more hopeful, if paradoxical: despite its current low productivity, Bangladesh may already produce enough grain for all its people. Moreover, it has barely tapped its agricultural potential-among the greatest in the world.
Many people want to learn more about Bangladesh, for they sense, as we do, that Bangladesh provides lessons with implications well beyond its national scope. If hunger is needless in this foremost "basketcase," it is indeed needless in every other country in the world.
Here in Needless Hunger, Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce share their own direct experiences and lessons drawn from the villages of Bangladesh. Hartmann and Boyce, Bengali-speaking Americans and Fellows of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, spent two years (1974-1976) living in Bangladesh and nine months in one typical rural village. Their growing familiarity with the daily struggles and conflicts within the village allowed them to cut through the seeming irrationality of hunger to find its political and economic roots. The authors describe how the few have gained effective control over productive resources, leading to both the underuse and misuse of these resources. We learn of the perceptions, fears and frustrations of those who strain to survive in rural Bangladesh against the weight of unjust social and economic structure.
But the authors do not only present us with a microscopic view of Bangladesh society. They describe in concise terms how the local hierarchy is supported at the national level. Indeed, Hartmann and Boyce demonstrate how we in the West are directly linked to the very forces that generate hunger in Bangladesh. The United States, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Saudi Arabia, Japan, France, Germany, etc., all have large "development assistance" programs in Bangladesh. These programs-together with those of the multilateral agencies like the U. N.'s World Food Program and the World Bank-now total well over $1 billion a year. Hartmann and Boyce show from their own on-site investigations that such aid often undermines the very people with whom we would most wish to ally ourselves - the hungry and impoverished. Similarly, the authors help us understand that no matter how good our government's intentions, the massive food aid we are told is for the hungry in fact ends up feeding and enriching a privileged minority.
But Needless Hunger is not a story without hope. Hartmann and Boyce reveal the strength and potential of the Bangladesh people. They argue that social reconstruction could bring genuine economic progress for all. And they show that there is a way that we in the West can help: we can work to remove the obstacles to social change being built by forces of intervention which shore up the hunger status-quo.
The global analysis of our book Food First is vividly captured here in a single country-in a single village.
Frances Moore LappR>Joseph Collins