The eastern end of the village of Gorasin, on the edge of the Louhajang River in the district of Tangail, in the nation of Bangladesh, has no store that we would recognize, no car, no electric lines, no television. No telephone. There are just small fields, a cow, some chickens, barefoot children, banana palms swaying in the breeze. The call to prayer from a nearby muezzin drifts over the croplands. It is about as far from the center of the world as you can possibly get. And that may be the point.
Hovering over all the issues about the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and the spread of genetically modified crops, hovering over everything that’s happened since the 1999 Battle of Seattle is a big question: Is there really any alternative to the General Course of things? Is there some imaginable future that does not lead through the eternal Westernization, the endless economic expansion, that is the gospel of our time? Is there some alternative to Progress?
Gorasin is one of those places that suggests there might be. “Suggests” is about as strong as I’d like to get. Alternatives get quickly overwhelmed in the modern world, co-opted or submerged beneath the staggering flow of business as usual. But, at least right now, life in Gorasin is worth a look.
If we think about Bangladesh at all, it is as a basket case. A hundred and thirty million people crowded into an area the size of Wisconsin. Constant flooding, with the regular scattering of killer cyclones. A 10-letter word for woe.
If you ask the World Bank what needs to happen in Bangladesh, their answer—detailed in a report called “Bangladesh 2020″—is to turn it into another Thailand or, better yet, another Singapore: to ramp up its growth rate, produce crops like cut flowers for export, “manage” a “transition” to urbanization, and exploit its huge supply of cheap labor to allow a leap up the development ladder. “There is no alternative to accelerated growth.” If you ask Monsanto, the key is high-yielding varieties of rice, including new genetically engineered strains: “golden rice,” say, designed to eliminate vitamin A deficiency. If you ask international donor agencies, the secret is more microcredit, like the pioneering Grameen Bank projects that have captured worldwide attention in recent years. “If you want to work on misery, Bangladesh is the ultimate misery you can have,” says Atiq Rahman, of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, a local NGO.
Those are the standard views: that Bangladesh lives in a state of backwardness that can be “fixed” through an application of technology, capital, exposure to the discipline of the markets. To quote from the World Bank report, “Backwardness in the form of cheap labor gives Bangladesh a strong competitive potential edge.” In other words, an inexhaustible supply of poor people willing to work at low wages is its greatest asset. In the words of Rahman, who co-authored the Bank report, Bangladeshis are now at a “survival” stage and need to make a “quantum leap” to some higher level of development, a leap that inevitably leads to urbanization, an export-oriented economy, more fertilizer, big electric power plants. And when you look at the country’s sad statistics for nutrition, for life expectancy, for literacy, then it’s easy to defend the conventional wisdom: The average person dies at 60, and the infant mortality rate is 10 times that of the United States.
But there is another way of looking at things, a Gorasin way, one developed closer to home, less despairing and less grandiose at the same time. “People say that it’s a miracle Bangladesh can survive its food and energy crises, that it somehow perseveres,” Sajed Kamal, a solar energy educator, told me as we walked the town’s fields. “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.” So Bangladesh, it’s worth noting, is able to feed itself.
Our guides that day were the people who lived in Gorasin, who lived in small huts, smaller than trailer homes. They were showing us sesame seed plants, loofah sponge gourds, eggplants, sugarcane, bamboo. Onions, pulses, all manner of local leafy greens. All grown without pesticides, without fertilizer, and without seed imported from the laboratories of the West. Gorasin sits in a large self-declared pesticide-free zone, one of several organic oases established around the country by adherents of the Nayakrishi, or “New Agriculture” movement. The movement arose in response to numerous environmental hazards that the villagers believe were traceable to pesticides.
“When we women went to collect water, we would be affected,” one villager was saying. She was twentysomething, beautiful, gregarious. “Our skin would absorb the poisons. We would get itchiness, get gastric trouble. Now we’ve adopted our own solution. The water is pure again.”
“The cows used to eat the grass and drop dead,” one man added. “And then the villagers would fight each other.”
“We grew up with a saying: ‘We Bengalis are made of rice and fish,'” said another man. “Then the fish started catching diseases. We are not scientists, but we made the connection between pesticide and fish death. Since we’ve started organic farming, the fish are now healthier and more plentiful.”
“A fertilized plant jumps up fast and falls right over,” said a third. “Our plants are strong and healthy. Theirs, you eat it and you get sick. The minute you say ‘Nayakrishi’ in the market, though, people will pay more, because they know they’re saving on health care.”
A few miles away, at the Nayakrishi training school for the Tangail district, 25 varieties of papaya are growing. A hundred and twelve varieties of jackfruit, all cataloged by the farmers by taste, size, color, season, habitat. Wicker baskets and clay pots in a darkened shed contain 300 varieties of local rice, 20 kinds of bitter gourd, 84 varieties of local beans.
“Do you know how much it costs to build a gene bank like the ones where botanists store plant varieties?” asks Farhad Mazhar, a founder of the Center for Development Alternatives, known by its Bengali acronym, UBINIG, the Dhaka-based NGO that helped launch the Nayakrishi movement. “No scientist can afford to catalog hundreds of varieties of rice. But farmers are doing it as part of household activity. Our little seed station has more vegetables than the national gene bank, which spends millions. But we can do it for free.”
For free, and in the process, they insist, they can rejuvenate village life. Farida Akhter, Mazhar’s partner running ubinig, is one of Bangladesh’s leading feminists. She set up the nation’s only women’s bookstore and led a long fight against contraceptive abuses by international agencies. But if you ask her what single step would do the most to improve the lot of Bengali women, she does not hesitate: “I’d want rural women to have control over seeds again. That’s women’s power, or was before the multinationals started selling their new varieties in the last few decades. Traditionally, the woman is the one who knows what a good seed is, what will germinate, how to store it. Maybe they like the sound of the seed when they flick it, the weight of it on the winnowers, how it looks. They’ll cut a seed with their teeth and listen to the sound it makes. They know how to dry it, how many times to put it under the sun, and whether to use the morning sun or the afternoon sun. 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.”
Farhad Mazhar was in Seattle for the WTO protests. “I strongly believe in globalization,” he says. “I’m not a national chauvinist. We need more interaction at the international level. We need cultural exchanges, all that sort of thing. But that’s not happening here in Bangladesh, and it’s not happening in all the other countries like us. We’re just a source of raw materials.” Certainly not a source of ideas. Ideas flow the other way.
Bangladesh became a country in 1971, following a brief civil war. “Civil war” is actually a misnomer: Pakistan, backed rhetorically by the United States, carried out what may have been the most efficient genocide of the 20th century, killing as many as 3 million Bengalis in nine months before a resistance army aided by Indian troops drove them out. That carnage was followed in short order by famine and cyclones. Then a military coup shut off the new nation’s political life. Since then, Bangladesh has made the world news only sporadically, usually when the waters of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra overflow their banks. (Two or three thousand need to drown before it makes the back pages of American newspapers.) As a relatively calm Muslim country, without geopolitical significance and with a minuscule economy, it would be hard to imagine a less newsworthy place. But 1 human in 50 now lives there, and its grand history stretches back into the mists far enough to qualify it as a cradle of civilization. Still, for the rest of the planet, its only outstanding feature today is poverty.
“Poverty is the most salable commodity we have here,” says Khushi Kabir, a longtime grassroots organizer. Experts jet in, stay at the Sheraton in Dhaka, issue reports, and leave. Local academics vie for “consultancies,” making bids that sometimes require kickbacks to government officials. And the expert advice has often gone spectacularly wrong. A huge Flood Action Plan, for instance, called for ever-higher embankments to keep the rivers at bay. But Bangladesh is not Holland: The huge silt deposits kept raising riverbeds, and the floodwater that eventually topped the dikes had nowhere to drain. “One area in the southwest was underwater for 10 years,” says Kabir.
Later, in an effort to curb diarrheal disease, UNICEF helped drill thousands of deep tube wells around the country and ran advertisements urging people to stop drinking surface water. But they neglected to sample the subsurface geology, and so tens of millions began drinking water contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic. The water has killed some already; others, disfigured by the melanoma lesions that arsenic causes, can no longer be given in marriage. UNICEF’s new ads tell people not to drink from the tube wells.
Other international aid has worked better: The country’s fertility rate has fallen quickly and the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research has cut the incidence of cholera, which is endemic in the region. But local activists say the benefits aren’t worth the costs: “Absolutely we would be better off if everyone trying to ‘help’ us just went home,” says Mazhar. “If they did, then the people in the country would be able to come up with their own ideas.” Those ideas would, necessarily, center on village life. Though Dhaka, a chaotic megacity with a population uncountably north of 10 million, dominates the political life of the nation, 80 percent of Bengalis still live in rural areas. Which is not to say that they live in Iowa, or the Punjab, or any of the other places that the word rural conjures in our minds. In the first place, Bangladesh is almost as much liquid as solid. There is water everywhere you look, and much of the year many villages are accessible mostly by canoe. Land holdings tend to be tiny, many under an acre. And the place feels, to a Westerner, almost unbelievably crowded. The population density dwarfs that of India or China; it approaches the density of Hong Kong. Even in rural farming districts, there is simply no such thing as a lonely road. Rickshaws, bicycles, buses, draft animals, and pedestrians jam every vista. One Bengali said the reason his country did not excel at most international sports was simple: “Where is the room for a soccer pitch?”
That picture of a standing-room-only floodplain sounds pretty desperate to our ears, as if the population of our Eastern seaboard were ordered to somehow make a living in Chesapeake Bay. But at least for the moment this huge population of Bengalis manages to feed itself. Partly that’s a result of the “Green Revolution,” the rice strains that, whatever their toll in pesticides and fertilizers, have boosted grain yields. But mostly that’s a function of the simple biology of a hot delta. Floods regularly renew the soil, the sun shines most of the year, and so fruit trees grow in two years to a girth that would require five decades on a New England hillside. Plants jump from the ground. There’s an almost obscene lushness everywhere. And the large population means that there are plenty of people to manage that lushness, to help make the most of it.
Here’s what I mean. We were sitting one day on the front porch of a one-acre organic farm about an hour from Dhaka. It was a hobby farm, whose owner was mostly concerned with his rosebushes. Still, without getting up, we could see guava, lemon, pomegranate, coconut, betel nut, mango, jackfruit, apple, lichee, chestnut, date, fig, and bamboo trees, as well as squash, okra, eggplant, zucchini, blackberry, bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, and sugarcane plants, not to mention dozens of herbs, far more flowers, and a flock of ducklings. A chicken coop produced not just eggs and meat, but waste that fed a fishpond, which in turn produced thousands of pounds of protein annually, and a healthy crop of water hyacinths that were harvested to feed a small herd of cows, whose dung in turn fired a biogas cooking system. “Food is everywhere, and in 12 hours it will double,” Kamal said.
So what do you do with that kind of fertility? The World Bank report recommends that you figure out ways to grow “higher-value” crops for export; they cite the Colombian cut-flower industry as an example. It could supply vegetables to other parts of Asia, “graduating from a minor supplier at present to a major player in the long term.” That would probably generate the most money, cash that would be plowed into expanding the industries that could take advantage of the country’s cheap labor pool. Or you could follow UBINIG’s advice and focus on farms like those of Gorasin. “Any ‘development’ policy here must give agriculture priority,” says Farhad Mazhar. “Don’t destroy it any further, because you’ve got no way to take care of those people.” The choice you make will depend on your sense of the future. The sheer growth in human numbers—Bangladesh’s population may double again by 2020—could mean that you have no choice but to make a mad dash for modernization, figuring out every possible way to convert your country’s resources to cash. But it will also depend on how you see the people living in Bengali villages. Are they desperately poor? Or is, in Mazhar’s words, “the whole Western construction of poverty” suspect? “The real question,” he insists, “is, What are the livelihood strategies of the bulk of people, and what kind of development enhances or destroys those strategies?”
That is, do you want a few lightbulbs run off rooftop solar generators, or do you want to run electric lines to the three-quarters of the country that currently lacks them? Do you want more people moving to the cities, or do you want to develop an organic agriculture that can absorb more labor? Those are questions, not answers. Rahman, the development expert, says that rooftop solar is only a beginning: “Once people have the ‘little power,’ they want ‘big power’ from electric lines,” he says. Even though big power in a poor country can imply expense, pollution, dependence.
Here’s another way of asking the same thing: How do you address the problem of vitamin A deficiency? Large numbers of poor people around South Asia suffer from a variety of micronutrient deficiencies—their diets lack sufficient iron or zinc or vitamin A, also known as beta-carotene. If you don’t get enough, you can go blind. In 1999, European researchers announced they had managed to genetically modify rice so that it would express vitamin A to anyone who ate a bowlful, as surely as if they had popped a vitamin pill. Within a year the major biotech companies had announced agreements to license the technology free of charge to poor nations. As Time magazine put it last year, “The biotech industry sees golden rice as a powerful ally in its struggle to win public acceptance.” An industry group ran a massive ad campaign touting the new technology with a rapid-fire montage of children and farms against a backdrop of swelling music.
But the advertisements look a little different from the organic farms of the Bengali floodplain, where farmers insist they have a different solution to the problem. The Nayakrishi movement held a small seminar for peasant farmers on the new technology at an open-air meeting hall in the Tangail district one day while I was there. A Filipino agriculture expert discussed the plans—that by 2003 the International Rice Research Institute would be producing genetically modified seeds for them to plant. The farmers— illiterate, most of them—kept interrupting with questions and sermonettes. They weren’t concerned about frankenfoods. Instead, they instantly realized that the new rice would require fertilizer and pesticide. More to the point, they kept saying, they had no need of golden rice because the leafy vegetables they could grow in their organic fields provided all the nutrition they needed. “When we cook the green vegetables, we are aware not to throw out the water,” said one woman. “Yes,” said another. “And we don’t like to eat rice only. It tastes better with green vegetables.”
This is neither simplistic nor sentimental. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to show that as the Green Revolution spread in the last four decades, nutrient deficiency followed close behind. A plant like bathua, a leafy vegetable that provided beta-carotene to Indians for an eternity, becomes such a competitor of wheat once you start using chemical fertilizers that it requires herbicides to destroy it. A steady decline in the consumption per capita of vegetables, fruits, beans, and spices took place in Bangladesh even as the consumption of rice increased. Plants growing wild around the margins of Gorasin’s fields provide massive quantities of vitamins A and C, or folic acid, iron, and calcium. But the spread of any high-yielding variety like golden rice tends to reduce that crop diversity. “There may or may not be issues of biosafety,” said the Filipino expert. “The real question is, Do we really need this?”
Again, the answer depends on how you see the world. Maybe it’s too late for Bangladesh to go back to a balanced diet, particularly in urban areas where bathua and amaranth are hard to come by. There’s a kind of inevitability to the argument for a technological, capital-intensive future that comes from a scarcity of successful counter-examples. There aren’t many places that have chosen an alternative path. Kerala, perhaps, the state of 30 million people in the south of India that has achieved Western levels of life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, and fertility on an average income per capita of $300 per year. But the World Bank and Monsanto don’t talk about Kerala; they talk about Thailand and Singapore.
“The Nayakrishi fields can be twice as productive as ‘modern’ agriculture,” says Mazhar. “But I can’t get anyone from the World Bank to come out and test my claims. We don’t fit with the model.” The Nayakrishi movement is small, with only tens of thousands of farmers in a nation with tens of millions. And although it is growing, it remains insubstantial against the sheer scale of Bangladesh. But Nayakrishi hints at other ways of addressing other issues, like energy: The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee has begun using microcredit programs to help peasants finance solar systems for their rooftops, and biogas generators for their cookstoves. The dung from three cows lets you cook all your meals for a day and frees you from crouching by the fireside to feed rice straw to the flame. That’s a kind of progress that doesn’t show up easily in anyone’s statistics, but you can feel it in the strain on your back at the end of the day. It’s a kind of progress that could conceivably mix with newer technologies. In his recent primer, Food’s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution, Richard Manning notes that Western researchers are just beginning to focus more intensely on how people have grown food for generations.
There are few certainties when talking about the future of places like Bangladesh. Here’s one, though: The most important Western export to Bangladesh in the next few decades will almost certainly be the higher sea level caused by global warming. When the Bay of Bengal rises a foot or two, the waters of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra will back up when they flood, unable to flow smoothly into the ocean. The Bay of Bengal rose a few inches higher than normal in 1998, and that year the floodwaters covered vast swaths of the country for as long as three months. Forget the fertility-promoting “normal” floods of the Bengali summer; this was 90 days of wading through thigh-deep water—more or less because Americans can’t manage to stop driving Explorers. That near-geological force may be enough to end all these debates, to shut off the experimentation and innovation that offer curious and unexpected twists on what we’ve taken to calling development. Which would be the biggest shame of all.
The night we left Gorasin, we sat in the courtyard by everyone’s small huts. The whole village of 35 or 40 people was on hand. Two babies were using a grapefruit as a ball, which every person in the village would roll back to them with great smiles. It takes a village to raise a child, indeed, and to raise a crop. And to raise a song, as well: One of the men, Akkas Ali, mentioned that he had written a hundred songs praising organic agriculture, tunes he and the other men had sung at local markets in an effort to convert other farmers. We ate fat bananas, and rosy grapefruit, and listened as the sun set. “Nayakrishi has corrected my mistakes,” he sang in a reedy Bengali, as the rest of the village clapped rhythmically. “Food from Nayakrishi is so much better. No longer do I eat the poisons. Why should I eat that life-destroying stuff? Bangladesh will come to an end, Unless you turn to Nayakrishi. If you use organic fertilizer, the Almighty will be behind you, And you’ll be having no more gastric problems.” As I say, the sun was setting over Gorasin. I have no idea if this represents a vision of the future, or a fragment of a fleeting past. It depends on how you look at it.