Koyes Ahmed used to cultivate cane in Sylhet town, but he shut down the plantation and sold it ten years ago. Since then, he has not cultivated cane.
Koyes said a cane plantation takes five-six year to mature, and the profit is minimal. It is profitable to grow other crops instead of cane. Besides, neither the agriculture nor the forest department provide any help in cane growing.
Like him, many cane growers in Sylhet shied away from cane for the same reasons, contributing to a raw material shortage for the Sylhet cane furniture industry.
The availability of modern and cheaper wood and plastic furniture has also put the traditional business in a difficult situation.
The forest department which began cane cultivation in 2000 is moving away from it, and the number of cane plantations under the department is also declining.
Sylhet was once known far and wide for its intricate cane furniture – a symbol of aristocracy and simplicity. The district used to export them after meeting the local demand.
However, the industry is now struggling for survival owing to the raw material crunch, spiralling prices of imported cane and labour price hikes.
Currently, the export of cane furniture remains suspended.
According to forest department officials, a cane cultivation project was taken up in 2000, and then many new plantations were created. Cane growing under the department started dropping as the project expired.
But still, there are cane plantations at Sylhet Sadar, Gowainghat, Jaintapur and Companiganj.
It takes two kilograms of cane to make a small chair. If the cost of raw material goes above Tk3,000, how much will I sell it for now?
Apart from export suspension, industry people said cane furniture is also losing the local markets due to its spiralling prices. Many furniture exporting businesses had to shut down owing to export suspension and low local demand.
Cane furniture makers said import of per kilogram of cane from Indonesia used to cost them Tk350-400. The cost has now surged to Tk1,200-1,500.
"It takes two kilograms of cane to make a small chair. If the cost of raw material goes above Tk3,000, how much will I sell it for now?" asked Sylhet furniture trader Farid Hosen.
The surviving businesses survive on corporate orders. Farid said general buyers, especially middle-class people, have lost interest in cane furniture as their prices are now out of their reach.
Shah Alam, manager of Manau Rattan Furniture Ltd in Sylhet BSCIC, said they began production and export in 2005. At that time, their annual business amounted to Tk2-2.5 crore.
Shah Alam said their previous monthly sale was Tk20-25 lakh which has plummeted to Tk7-8 lakh now.
Another manufacturer, AB Cane & Rattan Furniture, said it used to export products to American and European markets previously. "But we have lost the markets due to the cane crunch," said the owner of the brand Oliur Rahman Chowdhury.
Both Shah Alam and Oliur Rahman said planned cane cultivation in Sylhet, duty cut on cane import, and tariff waiver on the industry could revitalize the sector. They said there is a huge demand for Bangladeshi cane furniture in Europe and America.
There is a "Betpalli" (cane furniture hub) in the Ghasitula area of Sylhet. There were more than 50 furniture shops there, and they used to manufacture most of the country's cane furniture even a decade ago. However, many entities at the palli had to shut down, and only 20-22 shops with around 5,000 artisans are still holding on to the business.
Besides, another 500 workers are involved in the industry in Sylhet's Balaganj, Moulvibazar's Chunarughat and Sunamganj's Dirai areas.
Cane plants are mainly grown in natural marshy land, rather than in artificial cultivation. Indonesia is the best place for growing cane.
Deforestation has further dampened the hope of revival of this trade in the region. The main area for cane cultivation is the hilly part of Srimangal as the area is swampy, which is an aid to cane cultivation.
The Forest department's Sari Range Officer Saad Uddin said cane used to be cultivated on 20 acres of land in his range. But both the yield and quality has fallen in recent years. Therefore, they do not get the expected prices in auctions.
Meantime, Sylhet Divisional Officer SM Sajjad Hossain of the forest department said they have taken on a new cane plantation project which will begin this year. Old plantations will be revived and new ones will be created under the project.