Growing medicinal plants in the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh

Read how Mujib Chakma’s family increased their income by cultivating medicinal plants in the minorities region of Bangladesh.
TEXT: Noor Akter Reba, Alexa Mekonen - PHOTOS / VIDEOS: Alexa Mekonen,Noor Akter Reba

The Chittagong Hill Tract, the ethnic minorities region of Bangladesh in the South eastern part of the country, has an estimated population of 1.5 million. The region is geographically distinct from the rest of Bangladesh and is hilly, with communities scattered in remote villages.  In the Hill Tracts, rural and predominantly indigenous communities are often isolated and lack access to basic services.

The family in the village

Mujib Chakma lives with his wife Pudi and daughter in a village of 50 households in the Chittagong Hills Tracts, the ethnic minorities region of Bangladesh.”In 1977 the government provided 100 acre of land to 20 families thanks to the initiative of one professor of Bangladesh Agricultural University, a Chakma representative, who facilitated the process with the local government”, explains Mujib on how he inherited the 5 acres of land that belonged to his parents. The parents were farmers and Mujib helped them in the field since his childhood. At that time they practiced subsistence farming, jhum cultivation,  a traditional technique of shifting cultivation. They practiced a very basic agriculture and didn’t have any advance knowledge or technical skills. “The production wasn’t good and it was difficult for us to maintain a livelihood”, says Mujib. Since 7 years Mujib and his wife have gradually shifted the rice cultivation with turmeric and  banana cultivation.They started cultivating medicinal plant in 2016.

In 2015, Mujib met with Helvetas’ local partner Green Hill and was selected as  lead farmer to have an active role with the project on social, institutional and economic empowerment of rural communities.  Mujib is very active in his village and beyond.  As a local service provider (known as LSP), he provides package of services to producers:  technical, business and financial  services. The incentive of the LSP is to address limited skills and knowledge; weak or lack of functional linkages with public and private sector entities. Most of the service providers are organised in associations called Service Providers Associations at the sub-district level.

Mujib was trained by the Department of Agricultural Extension in banana and turmeric cultivation, to  collect quality input and plant trees. Over the years he became known in the community to provide advices. With the project  facilitation support Mujib formed producer’s groups and trained them to develop and implement business plans to improve production, income and market skills. In 2016, Mujib was trained by ACME, one of the leading manufacture of medicinal plant in Bangladesh.   

Mujib Chakma in his medicinal plants field

Cultivating medicinal plant in the Hills is profitable and require minimal care. “It is very easy to cultivate and almost no care is needed. The animals don’t eat it and the community use these plants for medicinal value and drink it as a juice when they have a cold or cough” says Pudi, Mujib’s wife. As in many other countries medicinal plants in Bangladesh are an essential part of the traditional health care system. The community cultivate basak in the fallow land  around the homestead.

Moni Sankar Chakma and Maloti Chakma are farmers in the same village. They started cultivating medicinal plants since 2016. ”We have started planting medicinal plants as it adds value to our income. Although our production is small, it doesn’t require much work or investment and it is profitable. With this additional money we can now contribute to our kid’s education and afford a more diversified diet and buy fish and meat. ”, says Maloti Chakma.

Since 2007 Helvetas has been working with the private pharmaceutical company  ACME Laboratories Limited on herbal medicines. “A significant portion of the indigenous population in the Chittagong Hills Tracts still relies on traditional herbal treatment due to inadequate health services in the area. Medicinal plants cultivation activities also benefit farmers to fulfill their primary health care needs” says Stamina Halder, project coordinator with ACME and working with Helvetas. Mujib established a demo plot in 2016 to train other farmers in his village. He sold 16,500 cuttings to other farmers in the village for 33,000 bdt (chf388). He provided training on medicinal plant cultivation to other organisation in Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar and earned an additional living training other farmers.

In 2018 Helvetas and the private company organised an inauguration program with the district commissioner, the agricultural department and technical representatives with the aim  to disseminate medicinal plant cultivation and discuss opportunities in the Hill Tracts. “The soil and the climatic condition of the Hills is suitable for growing a wide range of medicinal plant species and there is enough fallow land available in the area for medicinal plant cultivation”, says Stamina. Building awareness of farmers on conservation, protection and cultivation of medicinal plants and their value addition is critical to reduce the risk of environmental degradation and related hazards in the area.

Mujib and other producer’s in the village sold more than 360 kg of dry leaves to the company.  “We want this village to become the medicinal plant village. We wish to sell a lot more yearly. We can achieve our objective through the Service Provider Association and other local initiatives” says Mujib. Pudi is a member of the women producer’s group in her village since 2016 and provides cuttings and advises, discuss improved practices, technology and drying methods with the women producer’s group. Their daughter Pinky is going to school in Bandarban, 3 hours away from the parent’s house. She stays in Bandarban with relatives and comes home for holidays and special occasions. She used to help pick up the leaves and fetch water. When she comes home she helps her parents with their farming activities but her dream is to continue her education and become a doctor.

Pudi harvests medicinal plants in her field

Mujib’s dream is to earn 30,000-40,000 bdt monthly (chf 350-470) to pay for his daughter’s education.  Currently the family make around 12,000 bdt per month (chf 140), an amount that doubled compared to 3 years ago. “Coming from a poor family I have always tried to improve our livelihood”, says Mujib.

Helvetas Bangladesh and ACME Laboratories Limited are working together since 2007.

Read more on how Medicinal Herbs Support the Livelihoods of Poor and Disadvantaged Communities in Bangladesh.