Sitting at a Hakim Chattar tea stall in Dhaka University campus, a friend from the haor basin, Sohel Talukdar, was telling stories about the land he is from. When he was a little boy, he used to see a paddy variety which grew taller with rising water in the monsoon.
People in his area do not cultivate that variety anymore, for several reasons.
Sohel was recalling how his grandmother, a self-educated housewife, superbly grasped the hydrology of the land she lived in.
She told her grandchildren that when the British built the railway bridge on the river Meghna near Bhairab, the river choked due to river training works. Consequently, the water level at the haor area rose in the monsoon as drainage was affected.
Over time, the riverbeds rose because of continuous siltation and got clogged. So the first rainwater started entering the haor basin instead of draining out through the river system. The age of embankments began. The Water Development Board now builds embankments every year to temporarily block the monsoon water from entering the haor to protect the crops.
These embankments are cut in places to allow water in and out every year. Besides, due to poor construction, they collapse. In both cases, the soil of the embankments washes into the rivers, further aggravating the situation.
Nowadays, the haor areas are inundated under 20 feet deep water in places, where it used to be five to seven feet, according to Sohel Talukdar. Also, due to poor drainage through silted rivers, the monsoon water comes earlier, and faster. Water level rises very fast.
The inundation period has also increased. Sohel heard it was four months in the past, now it is about seven months. As a result of these changes, cultivating deepwater aman rice varieties in haor is not a possibility nowadays.
"Back in the day, farmers would sow the seed in the field, and months later harvest the yield. The land was fertile, and those native varieties needed little to no input," Sohel recalled.
But modern high-yield varieties need fertilisers and pesticides, so profit is marginal. On top of that, if the embankments break before the crop is harvested, it breaks the back of the farmers.
As a result, many people in the haor area are losing interest in paddy farming. Landowners are leasing out their land to other people.
"But these professional farmers have little love for the soil," Sohel complained. They use excessive fertiliser and pesticide, which destroy the soil's life. Sohel reckons it poses danger for the future.
Hearing the story, I began a search for this marvellous rice variety. I looked for it whenever I went on a field trip- in Teesta basin, on the coast, in the areas near Dhaka. Everyone had one same answer to give: They had this variety, but not anymore.
So I talked to a mid-level bureaucrat friend working at the agriculture ministry. He said the variety fell from the government's good book long ago because the production of such aman varieties is very low compared to high-yield and hybrid varieties. "To ensure food security, the government must promote high-yield rice varieties," he explained.
Asked whether the government takes into consideration the production of straw, which is a food for cattle, the bureaucrat fell silent for a moment and answered in the negative.
There is a dearth of pasture in the country. The monsoon flood only deteriorates the situation, and the traditional farmers struggle to feed their cattle. Bangladesh currently imports animal feed from abroad to fulfil the demand.
This year, another friend, Masud Sarkar Rana, from Daudkandi in Cumilla, informed that deepwater aman is common in his area.
For the last two months, Rana has been sending pictures of the rice plants growing with the water level. In one picture, he used himself as a scale to show that the seven-feet plant has grown above flood water. "This could be 12 feet or taller if flood went higher," he said.
As Bangladesh has been under monsoon flood for one and half months, many water-sensitive plant species- from fruit trees to paddy plants- are dying due to submersion. But this unlikely plant has not only survived the flood but is also thriving.
The plant simply sticks its head above the slowly rising water. In case of sudden flooding, the plant can live underwater for at least two days.
The plant is already providing for the cattle. Rana said the leaves of the plant can be collected for cattle feed from one month of age to one month before the paddy appears on the plant, i.e. from June to September. That means the variety is suitable in the backdrop of the shortage of grass in the monsoon.
After the harvest, the long straw is stored as cattle feed, and the remaining stalk is used as a soil cover in the potato field to preserve moisture. Finally, after the potato is harvested, the stalk is used as fuel.
According to Rana, the straw produced from this variety is much better than short high yield varieties. So it sells at a higher price. Rana keeps mentioning more benefits of this variety. Deepwater aman plants catch silt better than uncultivated farmland. This is in stark contrast to most low lying fields left bare during monsoon, which allows erosion.
In an article titled "Rethinking embankments: Natural design versus human interventions" published on The Business Standard on July 2, we showed how embankments lead to silt deposition on the riverbed instead of adding to land, hereby increasing flood risks.
Paying attention to natural design and planning agriculture and other "development" projects (which often lead to loss of natural capital) accordingly would surely be more beneficial to human and biodiversity of the planet.
There is more to the story. Farida Akhter, executive director and one of the founders of UBINIG, an organisation which has set up a large community seed bank, pointed out the cultural side of preserving native rice varieties.
"The government and scientists think people cultivate paddy only for having cooked rice. In fact, rice has many other uses and cultural implications. Different puffed rice items, i.e. muri, khoi and chira are prepared with different variety of rice. Different rice cakes or pithas also need different rice varieties for the highest quality that is maintained traditionally in the villages," said the seasoned native rice variety preservationist.
"If you look at the cultural role of rice, Binni dhan is an absolute necessity in the wedding rituals of many ethnic communities. They believe this variety consolidates the tie between the two families. Even the marriage proposal will not be accepted if they do not take Binni dhan with them." So this is imperative that we preserve all the rice varieties we had, Farida Akhter emphasised.
Not all the deepwater varieties are low-yield, she added. "There are several varieties like chamara, jhapashail, bajail, etc., which produces six to seven tonnes of paddy per hectare; in addition, 18 tonnes of straw is produced with it."
Deepwater varieties need very little input too, reducing the cost, Farida Akhter echoed with what Sohel Talukdar had said. Fresh flood water brings all that this paddy needs. Even straw has different usage. Certain mango producers use soft straw from certain paddy; even to cattle, native deepwater straw is like a special treat.
Asked how important these deepwater varieties will become in a utopian future, where people of the world in general and Bangladesh in particular will become wiser and move toward nature-friendly river management where there will be no embankments and barrages, Farida Akhter said that Nayakrishi farmers' movement is already working on to preserve these.
"We encouraged farmers from different parts of the country to cultivate native varieties, arranged exchange of seed among farmers, and thus, we have collected 3,000 paddy varieties since 1992. We did not even have to give them any money."
"We cannot convince the policymakers because they are overwhelmingly focused on the quantity of production, at whatever cost. But this modern agriculture is giving people cancer, diabetes etc. So we are working directly with farmers so that they themselves take charge and preserve the native rice varieties," the UBINIG co-founder said.
Sohel emphasised that in order to keep haor basin as a major food grain producer of the country for a really long time, we need to stop constructing roads through the middle of haor, remove the embankments, unclog the rivers, and thus restore natural order.
The construction of Itna-Mithamoin-Astagram highway through the haors of Kishoreganj in recent times, and its immediately gained popularity as a tourist destination show that we have a long way to go before we can appreciate natural design.