Helvetas helps farming families among the disadvantaged in Bangladesh improve their farming practices, and market their products more successfully by working together. We inform people about their rights and train local officials to provide better public services. This is our contribution to peace in this crisis-ridden region.
Switzerland has a population of eight and a half million people on 41,000 square kilometers. But what if it had 41 million people? What seems inconceivable in our country is a reality in Bangladesh, where over 160 million people live on 160,000 square kilometers.
Nearly one third of them are officially poor, meaning they live on less than $2 a day. Poverty and illiteracy are particularly widespread in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an area inhabited by 13 different minorities. After violent conflicts with the central government between 1977 and 1997, the “tribal peoples”, as they call themselves, lost large parts of their traditional lands to farmers and landless people from the lowlands, who migrated into the hills with the government’s approval. In the Hill Tracts, 50% of the population cannot read and write. And as they do not understand the official language, Bengali, it is extremely hard for citizens to raise grievances to the authorities and claim their rights.
Helvetas is promoting agricultural innovation in 170 villages in the region. Farmers are learning to improve yields on their small turmeric, ginger and banana fields and to grow new and more profitable crops and medicinal herbs. Furthermore, they are teaming up to tap new marketing channels. Those who do not know how to read and write can attend literacy courses. 8,000 farming households have pooled their forces to form agricultural cooperatives. Another 3,500 households will be joining them in the second phase of the project.
The people here are learning about their rights, and how to articulate their grievances and take responsibility for their own community. In addition to traditional decision-makers and members of village development committees, state officials are also trained to do a better job of public service. They are beginning to take the interests of minority groups and individuals seriously and involve them in planning and decision-making processes. This is our contribution to peace in a region in which conflicts between centripetal forces fighting for greater centralization and centrifugal forces fighting for more autonomy are liable to keep flaring up again and again.
Hla Kyo Ching (30), a farmer and father, Tumo Para, Chittagong Hills, Bangladesh