Shyam Chakraborty kneels to examine cauliflower plants in a well-tended field and then points to tree seedlings nearby, recalling what Bangladesh’s Noakhali district was like more than 30 years ago when he began working with MCC’s new agricultural program there.
“All the land was fallow (in the winter) and no farmers were working here,” he says. “People were selling their labor outside the area, maybe they were rickshaw pullers. That was the way they were maintaining their families.”
MCC’s work in Bangladesh began with emergency assistance after a devastating 1970 cyclone in what was then East Pakistan. In 1972 — a month after Bangladesh became an independent nation — MCC set up its first permanent office in Noakhali.
At that time, families relied on rice. With incomes low, they were able to eat little else. Nutritional surveys found that 90 percent of households were deficient in Vitamin C, 80 percent lacked protein and 70 percent lacked Vitamin A, remembers Derek D’Silva, who joined MCC in 1974.
MCC researched ways to introduce nutritious, sustainable crops to the area, especially crops that could be grown in the dry wintertime, and worked to encourage farmers, already experiencing hunger, to experiment with foods completely new to them.
“When you’re spending 20 hours a day scrounging to live, there’s no time to think. MCC’s job was to be out there in the field with those people, to be a catalyst and help them develop resources,” says D’Silva, who retired after almost 38 years with MCC and lives in Noakhali.
In the beginning, people were skeptical. Mafizul Islam, a long-time MCC worker, remembers the new vegetables that MCC introduced, especially carrots, being “totally unknown.”
Dozens of demonstration gardens were set up in villages, at schools and MCC offices. MCC organized workshops for farmers, who watched as unfamiliar crops — tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage and soybeans — were cultivated and harvested.
Cooking demonstrations showed how to use the crops, but it was the promise of new income that convinced many families to start growing them.
“When they saw what could be sold in the market they became very happy,” Chakraborty says. “Then they knew they could get not just food, but income from their land.”
Yunus Miah learned how to cultivate vegetables from Chakraborty 20 years ago. Since then he has been growing cauliflower, tomatoes and other vegetables alongside traditional crops such as rice.
“At one time we couldn’t maintain our meals, not even two meals a day. Now we can do that, we can eat vegetables and we are healthy,” Miah says. “And we are financially very sound.”
The cultivation of these vegetables spread and became an established part of farmers’ ways.
MCC also trained farmers to collect and preserve tree seeds and cultivate seedlings. Today many of the nurseries selling tree seedlings are owned by people who learned from MCC trainings or worked for MCC-trained farmers.
Another previously unknown crop, soybeans, is sown through most of Noakhali’s coastal areas and provides a living for farmers and people such as Nurul Amin, a former MCC staff member.
Soybeans, used primarily for poultry feed but also for soy milk or cooked with sauce, are popular enough that each harvest season, Amin purchases some 110,000 pounds of them from farmers and sells them to wholesalers.
“It is my main business to feed my family and it has helped educate my children,” says Amin, who has one son in university and another in a technical school. Other local dealers purchase and resell even larger quantities of soybeans.
Islam, who began working with MCC in 1977, delights in the bounty he sees now in markets in Noakhali.
“We cannot give all of the credit to MCC for the introduction of vegetables and other crops, but we were the pioneers. Others then built on this work,” says Islam. “I am so encouraged by all of the vegetables I see in the market now. I am so happy to see this.”
Chakraborty estimates that the average family income in Noakhali has increased five-fold since those early days. He is now a peace coordinator with MCC and works with people in the area on conflict resolution.
“If people are hungry they say ‘I need food, I cannot talk about peace,’” Chakraborty says. “But now when I come here people are not hungry, and they are so happy to see me. We have graduated from talking about vegetable gardens to talking about peace.”