Witnessing children in rural areas marching in parades to commemorate Bangladeshi Independence Day on 26 March was a beautiful sight that filled my heart with joy. And my three-day visit to various communities in the Rajshahi District gave insights into Bangladeshi society. But it also gave us an indication of how climate adaptation programmes will have to penetrate a landscape of entrenched social injustice and feudalism. Will climate adaptation in such circumstances merely be old wine in new bottles, or could it mean a real paradigm shift in development that will help poor people to take the future into their own hands?
What struck me while visiting many of the villages – which were home to some of the poorest and most destitute – was the absence of political leadership. There seem to be few individuals or organisations within the villages able to advocate on behalf of their communities. Local politicians do not seem interested in the poorer sectors, and there is little inter-community or religious cooperation. One tribal community we visited had a water shortage, while their neighbours in the adjacent plot had an abundant supply of water. When I asked one of the women of the community if they could borrow some of their neighbours’ water, I was told that because the neighbours were Muslims they would only sell it to them, and the community could not afford that. ‘But would you have given water to your Muslim neighbours if they were poor and you had the water?’ I asked. ‘Oh no’, they replied ‘Because they are Muslims.’
One important element of community-based climate adaptation in areas such as those in the Rajshahi District, will be ‘reinvestment’ in climate-resilient agriculture. This is essential to ensure communities’ right to food. Agroecological methods can complement conventional approaches, such as breeding high-yield varieties, and contribute to broader economic development. Scaling-up of successful experiences that have been documented is the main challenge today. But public policies are also needed to create an enabling environment for these sustainable models of production. If not, local climate adaptation schemes – agricultural or otherwise – will not be able to address the social issues that need to be resolved to achieve equitable development.
If climate-resilient agriculture, based on agroecological principles, is to be one of the pillars of community-based adaptation here in Bangladesh, the country could go a long way towards improving food availability and accessibility and increasing local income.
Bangladesh is one of the developing countries that has made progress in its national plans for climate adaptation. Its National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) was initially formulated in 2005, and updated in 2009, with the involvement of many stakeholders. Accessing international and national climate finance could be just around the corner. But if the new money being made available is to be used for projects that repeat the failed development efforts of the past, we will not have made progress. Land tenure issues, social equity issues, and cultural taboos must all be addressed. If not, corrupt politicians and the lack of a local sense of identity will undermine good intentions.