Hope for Bangladesh

A homegrown movement rewrites rules for Third World development

| September/October 2001


There often seems a kind of inevitability to modernity, a sense in the developing world that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will eventually drag every last village kicking and screaming into the low-wage, high-margin world of global corporatized capitalism. But the people of Gorasin, Bangladesh, aren’t buying it. As Bill McKibben reports in Mother Jones (May/June 2001), Gorasin has become ground zero in a remarkable citizens’ movement that seeks to rewrite the rules of Third World development. "Is there some alternative to Progress?" McKibben writes. "Gorasin is one of those places that suggests there might be."
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At the center of this revolution is the Nayakrishi, or "New Agriculture," movement, which arose a decade ago in response to villagers’ concerns about pesticides. Its goals run counter to the strategies of every major international development agency. Neither grandiose nor despairing, Nayakrishi promotes farming methods developed over millennia to sustain local economies and strengthen local culture, McKibben explains. So, rather than pursue the Singapore or Thailand models of development, based largely on urbanization, cheap labor, and agricultural exports, Nayakrishi puts its faith in Bangladesh’s fertile soil. And why not? Despite a national history dominated by civil war, perennial flooding, and other disasters (Bangladesh is "a 10-letter word for woe," says McKibben), the country still manages to feed its 130 million people. "People say that it’s a miracle Bangladesh can survive its food and energy crises, that it somehow perseveres," says Sajed Kamal, a local solar energy expert. "The real miracle, though, is that you could contrive a way to have a food crisis. If you stick something in the ground here, it grows." And, as the tens of thousands of farmers who have embraced Nayakrishi have demonstrated, it grows without the chemicals that seem to be part and parcel of any international development plan. And it grows without having to rely on corporate seed peddlers who dictate what seeds will go into the ground, a role traditionally played by the women of the village. "The woman is the one who knows what a good seed is, what will germinate, how to store it," says Farida Akhter, a leading Bengali feminist. "Men used to discuss with their wives what kind of crop to raise for next year. But now they listen to the seed seller. The woman has become redundant, a burden." Nayakrishi has restored women to their former role and freed farmers from the constraints of industrialized farming. At a Nayakrishi training school near Gorasin, for instance, farmers have worked together to assemble and catalog a gene bank that includes 300 varieties of local rice, 20 types of bitter gourd, and 84 kinds of beans. "No scientist can afford to catalog hundreds of varieties of rice," says Farhad Mazhar, a founder of the Center for Development Alternatives in the capital city of Dhaka, "but farmers are doing it as part of household activity." The spirit of Nayakrishi is active in other areas of development as well, McKibben notes. Microcredit programs are helping peasants finance rooftop solar systems and biogas generators for their cookstoves. Still, Mazhar finds he cannot convince World Bank officials to seriously consider Nayakrishi as a viable development strategy. "We don’t fit with the model," he says. Of course, that may not be a bad thing, he admits. Maybe it’s time to look beyond the "experts," he says: "Absolutely we would be better off if everyone trying to ‘help’ us just went home. If they did, then the people in the country would be able to come up with their own ideas."

Mother Jones (May/June 2001)

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