Despite Bangladesh’s fertile floodplains, numerous communities in the country are beset by poverty and malnutrition. This is especially true of the country’s Adivasi people, a marginalized Indigenous population comprising more than 45 distinct cultural groups.
In 2007, the WorldFish Center, in collaboration with Caritas Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Forum (BFRF), began collaborating with Adivasi communities in five districts in the north and northwest of the country in a bid to establish fishponds and other aquaculture enterprises. Funded by the European Union, the Adivasi Fisheries Project (AFP) worked with these impoverished people to help them meet the challenges of dwindling native fish resources and limited landholding, which were threatening their health and wellbeing.
Between 2007 and 2009, the project saw fish production increase five-fold, fish consumption nearly quadruple, and the average household income of members of this vulnerable population improve significantly, far exceeding all expectations.
Nearly 3,600 Adivasi households from selected communities in the Dinajpur, Rangpur, Joypurhat, Sherpur and Netrokona districts participated in the project. Local Farmer Field Schools (FFS) in 120 communities were established to deliver training in a range of aquaculture and community-based fisheries management practices to suit small-scale landholders as well as the landless. Through regular FFS meetings, the Adivasi learned about pond-fish culture, integrated rice-fish culture and cage fingerling production.
Training in fingerling production, community-based fisheries management, and fish trading was given to the landless, especially the women. Landless men, on the other hand, learned about providing fish harvesting services to fishpond owners. The FFS approach enabled participants to take part in planning, implementing and monitoring the aquaculture interventions in their community.
Among other activities, landless men were encouraged to form netting teams, like the eight-man team from the village of Bimnagar Singhpara. The team has two nets and 18 fish farmers as regular clients. Team members use their rickshaw vans to transport the fish to the wholesale market, where they collect 10-15% of the selling price as their fee. Each team member earned US$60 profit in 2008, which was only half of what they earned from agricultural labor but in much less than half the time.
Another option open to all Adivasi, landless or otherwise, is the rearing of fingerlings and foodfish in cages floated in large ponds owned by either the community or accommodating neighbors. This activity is especially attractive to women, as a manageable cage measuring one cubic meter can produce 20 or more kilograms of fingerlings in less than 2 months.
The making of a successful cage fish farmer
Rajen Hasda was six years old when he lost his father. Barely six years later, he started working for food, and he has been working ever since, struggling to stay alive. A member of the Santal community from Kaharol Upazila in northwest Bangladesh, he owns a small homestead that sits on 0.06 hectares of land, which he purchased with a loan from a local nongovernmental organization. Rajen and his son, both seasonal day laborers, eke out a living to support their family of five.
In 2008, with the help of the AFP, Rajen and his wife, Menok Kisku, began culturing fish, feeding them rice bran in their one-cubic-meter cage in a neighbor’s pond. They were surprised that a household with no ponds could engage in fish culture.
“My wife and I are very happy about the technology as it is easy to handle and requires little work and yields a quick income,” said Rajen. “This helped us through the seasonally difficult period of October and November, because we can now continue the production until November/December, and can harvest in case of need.”
Lessons for life
During Bangladesh’s ‘National Fish Week’ celebrations in 2009, two thirds of the aquaculture awards went to Adivasi households, a tribute to the resounding success of the project. The participatory approach used in the AFP has also become a cornerstone of other aquaculture programs in the region.
The enduring effects of the AFP are still being felt three years after the project ended. A 2012 study on sustainability found that the majority of Adivasi visited were continuing with the activities they had adopted during the project period, and some had even expanded their operations. Others in the community had also adopted the new aquaculture practices.
Which just goes to show that if you teach a community to fish, you feed it for a lifetime.
Photo credits: The WorldFish Center