Klaus Engert reports on an incredible initiative organised by ecosocialists in Bangladesh.
From the 14th of November to the 2nd of December a “Climate Caravan” was organised in Bangladesh around the themes of climate change, gender and food sovereignty. The caravan made its way from the North of the country to the Sundarbans, the mangrove-forests of the Southern coast. It was organized by the twin-organisations Bangladesh Krishok Federation (BKF) and Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (BKS), two of the biggest peasant organisations in the country.
Since its foundation in 1971, following a war of independence against the former West-Pakistan, Bangladesh was and still is one of the poorest countries in the world. The population is 160 million, with a population density of 1000 inhabitants per square kilometre, the highest on earth. As you cross the country, it becomes apparent that every centimetre of soil is used for agriculture.
However, Bangladesh is also the country most affected by the consequences of Climate Change. The largest part of the country is alluvial soil as the huge rivers Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna form a giant delta in the south, which is mostly flat and barely above sea level. Even Dhaka, the capital, is just six metres above sea level.
The threat is real. A rise of just a metre, which is expected to happen in the next decades as a result in the melting of arctic ice-fields, would lead to permanent flooding of 17% of the whole country. This might be avoided with better coastal protection, but Bangladesh`s political class is amongst the most corrupt in the world and only a small part of the funds to create such defences ever reach the areas where they are needed.
Already now the effects of climate change are clearly visible. Because of the Deforestation in the Himalayas, combined with accelerated melting of the glaciers there, has lead to an increase in the occurrence of disastrous floods. Paradoxically, at the same time there are often water shortages as the huge dams constructed by India, for irrigation projects on its side of the border, cut off the taps in Bangladesh.
Another consequence of climate change is an increase in the number of and severity of cyclones, which may devastate coastal areas. The destruction caused by cyclone Sidr in 2007 is still visible on the southern coast.
So, climate change in Bangladesh is not an abstract theme, but a concrete and daily threat, especially for the rural population. Almost 70% of the population make their living from agriculture in various ways, and a sea level rise of just one metre would mean 15 million people having to leave their homes.
The Bangladesh Krishok Federation is the largest movement of peasants and landless people in Bangladesh. It was founded in 1976 by a small Maoist party, the CPB-ML, which emerged out of splits in the Communist Party of Bangladesh (which nowadays takes part in coalitions with the ruling bourgeois parties).
Between 1977 and 1991 the BKF led various struggles for land for small peasants. It organized hunger strikes, sit-ins, public meetings, demonstrations and blockades of roads and local authorities. Reforms were promised but not fulfilled.
When in 1987 a new law was passed to allow the redistribution of un-used state-owned land, this lead to an upsurge of the movement. When the government did not make any attempt to implement this law, the movement issued an ultimatum and in 1992 thousands of landless peasants occupied 22,000 acres of land. In spite of attacks and evictions by landlords and the authorities, which in some cases resulted in deaths, they managed to keep the land and since then 76,000 acres of land have been occupied and distributed to more than 100,000 landless people.
With more than 2 million members, Between them, BKF and BKS have more than 2 million members. They also organise the most oppressed group in Bangladesh, the indigenous Adivasi people. The reason why there are two organisations is that the founders of BKF recognised the necessity of a separate organisation of women, who, like everywhere, have their specific problems. This is especially so in an Islamic society. So, in 1990, BKF divided in two, setting up BKS as the federation for female peasants.
The goals of the caravan
The problems of small farmers in Bangladesh are roughly the same as in neighbouring India: land grabbing, lack of water, debt, but also the activities of international seed companies like Monsanto, which push industrial and export-oriented agriculture and try to eradicate diversified and sustainable farming.
The caravan did not just inform about climate change and its consequences, but also raised the issue of food sovereignty: diversified, sustainable agriculture for local and regional supply versus export-oriented, industrialised production; like the shrimp farms in the south, where flat basins are filled with saltwater as a result of which the soil is spoiled and nothing will grow for many years. Bangladesh today is the world`s fifth biggest exporter of shrimps, but the small producers are completely dependant on the enterprises which supply shrimp breeds, mostly from big producers in Thailand, and their food, and to which they have to sell the shrimps at their prices. (There are clear parallels here with chicken-production in Europe).
The third theme, in all assemblies, workshops and seminars, was the gender question, in the first place in relation to the consequences of climate change. The special vulnerability of women can be illustrated by the fact, that 80% of the victims of the last cyclones have been women. They tend to stay at home, caring for children and without access to transport and they usually do not learn how to swim…..
Most participants came from Bangladesh itself, but there were guests from outside the region and from the industrialised countries. There were delegates from the membership-organizations of Via Campesina in India and Nepal, as well from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Additionally there were activists from Australia, England, Scotland and Germany.
The caravan travelled by bus on often treacherous roads across the country. Every day there we held public meetings, workshops, seminars and sometimes demonstrations in different locations. Electricity was produced by a portable generator – in the smaller villages there was no electricity. The water came from wells, drawn by hand, and we usually slept on the floors of local schools.
At Dhaka the caravan participated in the South Asia Social Forum, before travelling south.
Everywhere the caravan was welcomed enthusiastically and with great hospitality, and the participation of the local people was overwhelming. Up to 1000 people took part in the different meetings, including the teachers of the local schools, in some cases even of the Koran-schools. At one meeting the local policeman showed up and intervened in the discussion.
And so the caravan was a positive contrast to the disaster of the climate summit, taking place at the same time in Durban/South Africa. Whilst there the usual suspects and climate-criminals blocked any effective measures to curb climate change and mainly talked about technical solutions, the discussions at the Climate Caravan were about solidarity, climate justice and sustainable agriculture as the key to a real solution.
This Caravan was a start and the campaign will continue. In 2013 there will be another Caravan which will go from Bangladesh through India to Nepal. In the meantime we are obliged to develop the struggle for social and climate justice in all our countries.