Friday, March 27, 2009

Chittagong Chow (rural): Follow the fish, shrimps, salt and rice

Thanks to Caritas, we were able to make a second field trip into the very remote areas between Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar that were most affected by the 1991 cyclone and are most vulnerable for future cyclones. All still recovering from stomach upsets, we set off (by local bus) to cross the great Karnaphuli river once again en route to the highway cum embankment to Cox’s Bazar. The bridge, originally donated by the Dutch in the 70’s, was destroyed by a flying crane (!) in the 1991 cyclone. It was repaired, but will soon be replaced by a fancy new concrete bridge donated by Kuwait. The construction is under a lot of pressure, as the ends of the bridge must meet before the cyclone season starts (in April) to avoid history repeating itself…

We carried out our fieldwork in the disaster stricken areas of the Pekua and Moheshkali upazilas (subdivisions of the Cox’s Bazar district). The focus of the fieldwork was to gain insight into the vulnerabilities of different livelihoods in the area, seeing as economic migration is one of the main spatial tendencies in Bangladesh.

We stayed in Chaukaria town, a typical linear city so characteristic for Bangladesh. From here we went on life-threatening bus trips, off-road CNG drives, jaw-rattling rickshaw rides and cross-river rafting adventures to some of the most remote areas of the country. Everywhere we traveled we were met by smiles, apologies for not being able to provide more hospitality, and emotive stories of friends and family members lost in the Gorky cyclone of 1991.

Interestingly enough, many of the villagers that were interviewed had migrated to the area from other disaster areas (river erosion and embankment failure). The ‘leftover’ land that they had chosen to settle on was extremely vulnerable to cyclones, a fact they all experienced in 1991. Despite the great tragedy this disaster brought about, most people returned to the government-owned squatted land after the disaster due to strong family ties. Hardly any of the villagers actually owned their own land. Besides this, most also appeared to have multiple livelihoods; usually consisting of a main livelihood and renting out services as a day laborer to make some extra money.

There also appeared to be a strong hierarchy in livelihoods; for instance the shrimp farmers seemed to be much better off than the pure day laborers. We found this was closely linked to the disaster vulnerability of the different livelihoods. Salt farming seemed to be the most resilient as salt can be stored underground during a cyclone and the harvest isn't dependant on the yearly seasons. Shrimp cultivation tended to take more than 2 years to regenerate; despite this it was a profitable business (shrimps are seen as a luxury product and are for a larg part exported). Fishermen could store their nets and boats in the channel between the mainland and the off shore islands to save them from destruction. However cyclones tend to affect the fish population quite drastically. Rice farmers came out most vulnerable after a cyclone; the saline water completely destroyed the land for several years after a disaster. In extreme cases making the land so barren that the land owners didn't bother to try to cultivate the land again but switched to mining salt (which in turn made the land even more saline).

The different livelihoods directly found their ways onto our plates as well in the local restaurants: the menu seemed to be one of rice, fish, shrimps and vegetables. Local fruits widely available were bananas and coconuts. For some reason on the bazaars everywhere in Bangladesh you only find fancy imported fruits like grapes, apples and oranges. We wound up our trip with a visit to Cox’s bazaar: the world’s longest beach and being voted on as we speak to become one of the new 7 world wonders!

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