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Floating vegetable gardens March 11th, 2018 by

For much of the year Bangladesh appears more water than land. It can also be a chaotic place. Yet such impressions are misleading, and something I wanted to counteract with a genuine admiration for how people make the best of often difficult circumstances. Colleagues commented on my positive outline when I wrote about innovations in rural extension, in a book published in 2005. More recently, I’ve been reminded about the resilience and creativity of farmers after watching a video on floating vegetable gardens, now available on the  Access Agriculture platform.

The video is nicely made, with strong visual shots and compelling interviews with farmers. The dreamy traditional music carries you along in the wake of a wooden boat steered by a Bangladeshi farmer on a shallow, temporarily flooded area.

It takes a lot of work to make a floating vegetable garden, but the video reveals an amazing abundance of crops tended by farmers. For years, Bangladeshi farmers have turned two major recurring problems into an opportunity. The land lost to floods during the annual monsoons is used to grow crops; and the world’s worst aquatic weed, the water hyacinth, is turned into compost.

Scientists have tried for decades to find ways to control this weed, including the release of weevils that feed on its leaves. Governments and local authorities have tried in vain to mechanically remove this weed using heavy machinery, creating mountains of water hyacinth on the banks of rivers and lakes that no one is quite sure what to do with.

In the video, farmers in Bangladesh show a sustainable alternative. Instead of laboriously removing the bulky mass of water hyacinth, the weeds are left in place. A long bamboo pole is placed on top of a thick matt of water hyacinth and with a hook the water hyacinth is pulled from both sides of the bamboo towards the bamboo pole and compressed to make a compact plant bed. After 10 days the compacted leaves and roots start to decompose and a new layer of water hyacinth is added. Floating beds are about two meters wide and vary in length; some are as long as 20 meters.

In the meantime, back home, women have started to grow vegetable seedlings in round compost balls. Once the plants are old enough the gardeners carry them on the boat to their floating garden beds, and insert the compost balls with seedlings in the plant bed. Farmers grow okra, various types of gourds, leafy vegetables, ginger and turmeric. The video also shows how some innovative farmers even connect two floating beds with trellises made of bamboo and jute rope to grow yard-long beans.

Farmers across developing countries, and Bangladesh in particular, have a wealth of knowledge. The many training videos hosted on the Access Agriculture platform pay tribute to these farmers and allow them to share their knowledge and experiences across borders. At Agro-Insight we celebrate these respectable farmers in our weekly blog stories. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

Watch the video

Floating vegetable gardens

Related blogs on farmers’ innovations

Ashes to aphids

No land, no water, no problem

Specializing in seedlings

Tomatoes good enough to eat

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. (eds.) 2005. Innovations in Rural Extension: Case Studies from Bangladesh. CABI Publishing, UK, 307 pp. Download from: www.agroinsight.com/books


The Floating vegetable garden video has been made by the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), one of the partners trained by Access Agriculture to produce quality farmer training videos.

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The early state and the bad old days March 4th, 2018 by

In his new book Against the Grain, Yale University’s James C. Scott argues that early states, like the ones in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, were not most people think they were like. The popular notion of the march of civilization goes rather like this: agriculture was an invention that allowed for more food, more leisure and freedom from wandering. Early farmers were able to settle down in villages and towns and this quickly spared some craftspeople from the toil of farming. Civilization, literacy and statehood soon arose.

The model is deeply flawed, Scott explains. First, in certain environments, such as the alluvium of Mesopotamia, people actually settled down before they became cultivators, because the abundance of wild food meant that people could hunt, gather and fish year round from a single place.

People may have started farming because of climate change or population growth. No one knows for sure why. But whatever the reason, early farming was more work than hunting and gathering.

But farming appeared 4000 years before states arose. During this long period of sustainable agriculture, people lived in farms, villages and small towns where they were able to keep everything they produced.

(I recall seeing just a few small cases in the National Museum in Cairo devoted to the settled villagers who lived well-fed for centuries before the Pharaohs arose.  Museums and their visitors much rather like to see the statues and monuments of kings than the farmers’ sickles).

The first states all arose in grain-producing areas, where farmers could be taxed in wheat, barley or rice, which could be stored and then distributed as rations. There were no early states based on cassava or bananas.

Early states relied on forcing grain farmers to work harder and then taxing them: expropriating labor and food beyond what farmers needed for their own comfort. Early states were based on crushing taxes and bondage. All states took slaves until the nineteenth century. Wars by early states were usually more important for taking captives than for conquering land.

Early states were also fragile. The crowding of ancient cities meant that infectious disease were common for the first time in human history. Early states often collapsed because of pests, crop disease, drought, and war. Scott argues that after an early state collapsed, the people left behind were better off for being left alone.

For a very long time, states saw people as a resource to be tapped, rather than as citizens to be served. Until as recently as the 1800s, three fourths of humankind was living in some form of slavery, serfdom or other form of bondage.

Most of Scott’s ideas are well-known to archaeologists, but he brings them together in an engaging narrative that tells the story in a fresh and compelling way.

Although Scott doesn’t say so, it is only since the mid twentieth century that most farmers have been allowed to keep more of their harvest, and to spend the profit instead of giving it to the tax collector.

I’m writing this week’s blog from Bangladesh, a country I have had the pleasure of visiting for the past 15 years. Things are definitely improving here. I asked one group of farm women how many had cell phones. They laughed at the question. “We all have one,” they said. Just in the last year or two, men who carry the bricks, timber and other heavy loads on cargo bicycles have acquired little electric motors to power their bikes and ease their drudgery. The village shops are stocked better than ever before, with sweets and seeds, with clothes and jewelry.

Life is definitely getting better on this part of the Gangetic Delta, which was also the site of early states. In a world of so much bad news, it is good to remind ourselves that for many rural people, the standard of living is improving, and that part of the reason is democracy, trade and technology.

Further reading

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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To fence or not to fence February 25th, 2018 by

Fences reveal a lot about rural communities. They show  how farmers make good use of available materials, but they can also uncover social tensions. Reading fences and understanding what they do and represent tells you a lot about how people work and live.

In the country-side of Kenya, farmers have a long tradition of fencing their farm with wooden poles. While this practice stems from a time where trees were abundant, competition with fuel wood is gradually changing this practice towards more inclusion of living plants.

In some parts of East Africa, fences contain the so-called pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), grown in Europe as an ornamental. The aim is to discourage potential intruders, particularly those trying to steal livestock.  The fragile branches of pencil plants break easily, releasing a white sap that can blind people when the juice gets into their eyes.

In Egypt, farmers protect their maize from grazing animals by surrounding the field with a row of nightshade (from the same plant genus as potato and tomato). As with Euphorbia, the nightshade’s leaves contain a toxic juice. Farmers can restrain their own animals from grazing afar, but can’t be sure their neighbours do the same. And once cattle get into your maize field, the damage can be huge. A small investment in fences prevents disputes with your neighbours about who pays for the losses.

But fences often do more than keep animals out. Stone walls in Guatemala often contain sisal plants. Without reducing the land available for grazing animals, the space taken up by the fence is used to grow this valuable plant that provides farmers with fibre to make ropes. By diversifying crop, livestock and plant species on farm, farmers ensure a steady supply of what they need to live from their land.

At the highlands of southwest Uganda, a local farmer, James Kabareebe, showed us how he plants Calliandra around his fields, an agroforestry practice widely promoted by projects in the 1990s. Prunings of this leguminous tree are used as mulch to enrich his soil with nitrogen. And above all, it provides the necessary organic matter to soils on sloping land that are highly vulnerable to erosion caused by tropical downpours.

At times, living fences also point to a level of social injustice. Customary land rights benefit male community members, while women are often left to struggle to grow food on smaller plots or on less fertile soils.

In parts of Mali, women have negotiated with their men to grow a high value crop along the border of the field. The juicy, red flower heads of the roselle or bissap plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to West Africa, provide a good source of additional revenue for rural women.

Fences across the world give us insights into how people manage their land. They are like a signature, revealing a little about how people relate to the land, and to each other.


Further reading

Tripp, A.M. 2004. Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: the case of Uganda. African Studies Quarterly. http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i4a1.htm

Related blogs

Mending fences, making friends

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Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage


Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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Tools of the imagination February 10th, 2018 by

A few years ago, I was sitting in the airport in La Paz, Bolivia. At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level the air is so thin you can get light headed. I sat there fighting sleep after a two day trip home from Bangladesh. Then an airline official came to tell me that the police wanted to see me. I was wide awake now, as I followed the neatly dressed official downstairs to a backroom on the first floor where the criminal police search luggage for drugs and contraband. While screening my bag they had found a strange object.

A young policeman was sitting on a stool, holding a tool I’d picked up in Bangladesh. It was a crescent-shaped iron blade, with a metal shaft and a wooden handle, polished smooth with work and sweat. I’d bought it from a man selling used tools in a Bengali village.

“What is this?” the cop asked. His face and demeanor were more of curiosity than malice. I relaxed. I wasn’t a suspect. He was simply filled with that human sense of wonder.

And so I explained that the tool was a rice weeder. It’s called a “nirani,”or “khurpi.” It’s made to work the soil at ground level, while keeping your hand off the ground. People use the nirani to weed the rice while kneeling in the field. They also use it to uproot rice seedlings from the seedbed.

Many Bolivian police and soldiers grow up on farms. The cop listened to my story with the interest of a farmer; then he thanked me for my explanation and said I was free to go.

I think of that experience often, especially when I talk to farmers about videos they have seen. Rural people often recall the tools seen on a learning video, even devices not mentioned in the narration. Farmers notice tools that city people easily overlook.

For example, in Malawi I talked to farmers about rice videos made in West Africa. The Malawians often remarked on the little wheeled, hand-pushed weeders, and wondered where they could get one.

In Uganda, farmers noticed that the Malian rice farmers worked barefoot, and asked if the Malians could not afford gum boots, or if the bare feet were part of the technique. In fact, it is easier to work barefoot in a lowland, West African rice field, where the mud can pull the boots right off of one’s feet.

And in one final example, in my blog last week, “Private screenings,” I mentioned that farmers in Benin searched for drip irrigation equipment after seeing it on a video.

National officials and even some media experts insist that agricultural learning videos must be made locally, so a new video should be filmed for each country. Of course farmers can learn from a video made in their own country. But by watching videos made elsewhere they learn about tools and ideas they would not see at home. They learn how peasant farmers in other countries solve familiar problems with ingeniously different tools. That fires the imagination, and at times even inspires farmers to ask agrodealers to stock the new tools.

Photo credit

Top photo by Paul Van Mele

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