Land and People
Michael Chew / BPSN
Land and People
Michael Chew / BPSN
How this book came to be
Bangladesh Krishok Federation Bangladesh Kishani Sabha
A movement for change
My name is Michael Chew, I am a photographer and passionate environmentalist. I have spent the last decade trying to engage people in my home of Melbourne to address environmental issues including climate change. During this time I experienced some little victories and many frustrations.
This book brings together a rich collection of stories from Bangladesh. There are stories of hope and despair, of the difficult realities of life, and of the ways in which these difficulties are overcome. Funds raised from sales of this book will go to two Bangladeshi non-government organisations: Jaago Foundation and the Bangladesh Krishok Federation.
This peasant-run organisation works for the rights of landless people, for agrarian reform and for food sovereignty in Bangladesh together with its sister organisation, Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (BKS). In Bangladesh around 70% of people (over 100 million) are considered landless. To grow food they often have to pay crippling rents to landowners and live ‘hand to mouth’ even though they are constantly working.
At present, more than 33 million children in Bangladesh live under the poverty line. Jaago Foundation is a movement initiated by a group of dedicated young volunteers to break the poverty cycle by addressing illiteracy and malnutrition in children and by providing access to better living environments and social conditions.
In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawkin estimates that worldwide there are well over one million active groups, organisations and movements working towards a socially just and environmentally sustainable future. In Bangladesh there are approximately 45,000 such groups, alongside almost 200,000 co-operatives, reflecting an incredibly vibrant civil society.
Alongside these giants of development are thousands of tiny local groups that work tirelessly for their communities. In many cases, these organisations have been started by people who have left comfortable jobs in order to tackle problems that were previously unaddressed.
Aware that my work in Melbourne was only part of the story, I took an opportunity to work for a year in Bangladesh. This gave me a chance to learn first-hand about the impacts of climate change in communities vulnerable to these risks. During the year I spent in Bangladesh, I witnessed many heart-rending impacts of climate change, from coastal villagers grieving for relatives lost in cyclones, to urban slum dwellers facing increasing water shortages. Often I wished myself back in Australia and for my previous state of unawareness. But amongst the suffering there was also hope – often not in the form of aid from rich countries or trade flows - but rather in the form of people's resilience. Village women gathering together to rebuild their local bridge after it was washed away; families living in slums who bravely took to the streets and faced police to protest the clearing of their homes without notice; indigenous peoples holding onto and teaching their traditional knowledge. Before I left Bangladesh I made a promise to myself to share these stories back home in Australia. Co-founding the Bangladesh Peasant Solidarity Network has been a first step, and creating this photography book has given the opportunity to share my images and their stories.
Jaago currently runs several schools in urban slum districts where children can acquire quality education, alongside heathcare and vocational training opportunities for their parents. In recent years Jaago has launched a new initiative, ‘Volunteer for Bangladesh’ which mobalises Bangladeshi youth to work for broader social causes amongst their own communities. I volunteered with both and was deeply impressed by their determination to address various devastating environmental and social issues that are likely to be amplified by climate change.
Bangladesh’s civil society emerged in the wake of the struggle for independence in 1971, in response to the need to put the country back together. BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, was born then; today it runs 37500 informal primary schools and operates in nine countries, with estimated reach of 110 million people. Another giant, the Nobel Prize winning Grameen Bank was founded by economics professor Muhammad Yunus after he saw the great need for small loans to the poor which the banks refused to provide; today it covers 80,000 villages and disturburses loans without contract, based on mutual trust. It has a 96% repayment rate and its borrowers - mainly rural poor women - own 94% of the bank’s equity.
The photographs in the following pages bare the imprint of these restless people, groups, and organisations - for each image there may be hundreds that are active in that issue, working towards local solutions.
Jaago Foundation works with urban slum dwellers, whilst Bangladesh Krishok Federation works with rural landless peasants. Both communities are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Urban slum communities bear the brunt of overcrowding, heat-stress, and water-shortages. Landless peasants face decreasing crop yields and forced migration from flooded and drought-affected areas. Landless women are particularly vulnerable because they are often economically dependent on men and face gender-based discrimination and exploitation.
BKF and BKS work to secure the rights of peasants through direct empowerment – by running workshops about legal rights, by speaking out about injustices, and by organising public demonstrations and forums. This work is crucial in a country where laws to protect marginalised people are rarely implemented unless there is strong public pressure to do so. While I was in Bangladesh I met many inspiring organisers from BKF. They worked tirelessly on these issues in a mostly unpaid capacity without government grants or philanthropic funds. In this context, small amounts of money go a long way!
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with over 150 million people living in a river delta that empties into the Bay of Bengal. It has been gifted with fertile soil from silt deposition over many millennia and boasts a long and complex history. After suffering under British colonialism, then the rule of Pakistan, Bangladesh finally fought for and won its freedom in 1971. Since then Bangladeshi people have faced many challenges, with ongoing political instability and frequent natural disasters. A spirit of resilience characterises Bangladeshi life. 6
Water permeates both the land and national psyche of Bangladesh. Left: Playing in the Buriganga river in Dhaka. Right: A moment at sundown at Cox’s Bazar, near the Myanmar border.
Left: A woman sells tea along the long road to the river port city of Barisal, having taken over the profession after the death of her husband. According to Unicef, 74% of women marry before they are 18 in Bangladesh. Right: Taking a rest in the ruins of the country’s first capital, Sonargaon, a few hours from Dhaka.
Left: A village potter with a hand-cranked fly-wheel in action in Sylhet Division. This ancient craft has declined in recent decades but is now seeing a resurgence, partly driven by contemporary designs, with over 700 shops in Dhaka selling pottery. Right: Manual labour is the most common livelihood for rural families.
Bangladesh’s low-lying coastline is extremely vulnerable to tropical storms and cyclones. The frequency and severity of such events is increasing due to climate change. Mangroves offer some protection but are threatened by deforestation. Left: Kuakata beach, a popular destination where both sunrise and sunset an be seen. Right: fishermen in the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, which is home to the legendary but threatened Bengal tiger.
A woman sews zips with a pedal-powered machine. Electric machines are prohibitively expensive and useless during frequent power-blackouts. The garment industry produces almost 80% of exports and employs millions of women, most of whom still work from home. Although manufacturing may provide a pathway to greater economic independence, working conditions are often very poor.
Thousands of villages in Bangladesh can only be reliably accessed via waterways, with many roads flooding during monsoon. Friendship, a local NGO, has several hospital ships hosting teams of local and international medical specialists to provide subsidised healthcare to remote villages. In 2011 Greenpeace donated the Rainbow Warrior II for this purpose. 16
Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (BKS) works to empower women to become more active in their communities in what has traditionally been a male dominated society. Workshops aimed at giving women confidence to stand up in public and demand change have been held all over the country. Left: A woman stands in front of an image of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the assasinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding father of Bangladesh. Hasina has been locked in bitter rivalry for over a decade with Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, widow of assasinated president Ziaur Rahman. Right: A woman squatting in an abandoned section of the ancient capital Sonargaon, in a former residence of a wealthy Hindu family. When she was young there was a large Hindu community there, but now only her family remains in the crumbling building.
Waste management is a critical issue in Dhaka. Only half of the waste produced is collected, which leads to frequent disease outbreaks. However, as 80% of this waste is organic, there is increasing use of local solutions such as communitybased composting. This involves multiple families sharing composting barrels. The waste can then be sold to farmers as organic fertiliser, providing an alternative to chemical based fertilisers. In addition, open air composting generates far less greenhouse emissions than landfill.