Photo Credit: Vishma Thapo / Wikimedia
Former USPG mission partner Peter Musgrave reports from Bangladesh where the Church is helping communities respond to the impact of climate change.
The Garo people (the Mande [hill people]) are a vibrant ethnic minority group, and in the Northern Mymensingh district they form the backbone of the Church of Bangladesh. But they miss out on government assistance and are not included in human rights legislation because the government will not classify them as indigenous. (The Garo are categorised as aboriginal, with all the connotations of backwardness that that phrase implies.)
Until the end of the British rule in 1947, the Garo lived in large areas of flatland forests and in the Garo hills on the other side of the Indian border. But rapid development and population pressure has pushed them into the margins, so they now live in small villages in the Mymensingh region close to the border with India.
Wild elephants from India are continually visiting the region damaging Garo villages each year in their search for water and grazing. Twenty years ago, the rivers in India were fuller, and fish stocks more plentiful, but now the elephants must travel further afield for sustenance – a result of climate change.
The Garo are traditionally subsistence farmers. Historically they were able to rely on regular rainfall and harvests. But in the last 30 years, monsoon rainfall has become less frequent and more erratic, so food security has become a problem.
It was tragic to see this with my own eyes during a recent visit to observe the climate-resilience work of the Church of Bangladesh, which includes a food security programme. Local people said weather patterns had changed during their lifetimes, and said they now feel powerless in not knowing how to respond. In their struggle for survival, it is little wonder that many Garo are migrating to Dhaka in search of work – with all the challenges that that presents.
People’s lives are on the line – and the link to climate change is undeniable.
Between October and May there are now frequent and prolonged periods of drought. The monsoon rains that farmers rely on for their rice crops are unpredictable and often delayed.
When the monsoon does come, the rainfall can be extreme and small rivers burst their banks and flood villages. The impact is made worse by deforestation in this region, with trees typically cut down for firewood.
The stony soil in this area makes it difficult to install shallow tube wells, so it is a struggle to irrigate land. I saw brown fields lying idle, with none of the green rice and well-irrigated fields seen elsewhere in Bangladesh.
The church’s climate resilience and food security programme includes a number of initiatives.
- Growing hedges to fence off land and prevent soil erosion;
- Tree plantation, which reduces the need to bring in firewood from India and elsewhere;
- Introducing fuel efficient stoves, reducing amounts of firewood needed for cooking
- Encouraging the use of bio-gas, using many sources, including human faeces;
- Growing crops of herbal and medicinal plants;
- Encouraging the use of sustainable worm compost;
- Educating women’s self-help groups;
- Offering training in improved practices for vegetable farming;
- Providing agricultural advice, and raising of the issues.
This programme is benefiting villagers of all faiths. As well as Garo Christians, the majority Bengali Muslim community is involved in the social development work going on.