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Bangladesh considers contract farming in Africa, opens new chapter in labour migration – The Federal

Bangladesh, long blamed for pushing poor and desperate illegal migrants all over the world, from the west to southeast Asia, is now ambitiously exploring a new opportunity for contract farming in Africa. It has already received an offer from South Sudan
Western powers colonised Africa to loot its rich resources and take slaves back home. China is looking to trap African nations in its debt trap, again to gain unfettered access to its huge resources. There are areas like the Horn of Africa, where the west and China are involved in strategic competition for control of key maritime routes. All this is a part of various editions of the Great Game, one would say.
Poor but developing Bangladesh, long blamed for pushing poor and desperate illegal migrants all over the world, from the west to southeast Asia, specially to neighbouring India, is now ambitiously exploring a new opportunity for contract farming in Africa. It has already received an offer from South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, and is said to be in backroom negotiations with few other countries.
The idea is simple: Bangladesh will take over thousands of square kilometres of land, mostly fallow, in African countries, move its hardworking farm labour to these areas and cultivate them. This will address Africa’s chronic food shortage, bring huge areas of the continent under gainful agriculture, keep surplus Bangladesh farm labour gainfully engaged in welcoming countries and ease the population pressure in Bangladesh.
It is a win-win for both sides – not only more food production but also the ‘rub-off’ effect, by which the African tribespeople, still pastoral or hunter-gatherer, will learn modern wet-rice cultivation from the east Bengali farmer.
This has happened in areas around present-day Bangladesh in the last century – when the tough east Bengali farmers (low caste Hindus and Muslims) were inducted by the British to turn large parts of Assam, with its challenging terrain of chars (river islands) and low hills into productive farming zones. Even when experts predicted large areas of Andamans will become unsuitable for farming after the 2004 tsunami, these east Bengali farmers, settled there after Partition, capitalised on the early monsoon to clear the intruding sea water and restore cropping.
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During his recent visit to Bangladesh, South Sudan’s deputy minister for foreign and international cooperation Deng Dau Deng Malek, actually placed the contract farming proposal in a meeting with agriculture minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque.
Malek sought Bangladesh’s cooperation in agricultural production, processing and marketing in the central African country. Razzaque told journalists later that Bangladesh will send an expert team to identify specific areas of cooperation and finalise an action plan. The team will comprise various experts including agricultural researchers, scientists and workers, he said.
Deng told Razzaque that South Sudan has more than six lakh square kilometres of land. “Most of its land is fallow, non-cultivated. There is a possibility of producing many crops by bringing this huge area under agricultural production,” the Bangladesh agriculture minister later said.
The issue of cultivating crops on leased land in African nations by Bangladeshi farmers has been under discussion for a while, not merely with the South Sudan government, but with some other countries as well. During a visit to the Bangladesh High Commission in Delhi five years ago to meet some diplomat friends, I found the late high commissioner Syed Muazzem Ali engaging nearly ten African ambassadors over lunch. I discovered that the main agenda of discussion was exploring the possibility of contract farming by Bangladesh farmers in these African countries.
Bangladesh’s labour is heavily engaged in the Middle East and north Africa, mostly in construction. They survive horrible working conditions in the desert nations, but slog it out to make a living. Often, they use these countries as a staging post to smuggle themselves into southern Europe, many failing to survive in the process.
Two years ago, 38 Bangladeshi labourers were abducted by human traffickers when they protested against working conditions in the Libyan town of Mizdah. Twenty-eight of them were shot after a brawl erupted.
But further south in Africa, where rains are plentiful, the tough east Bengali farmer is likely to do better at what he does best – the cultivation of a variety of crops. Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen is optimistic that if the contract farming deal with South Sudan works out, it could span three related areas – agriculture, fisheries, and aquaculture. “We are working out a draft agreement which South Sudan will consider and finalise,” he told Dhaka journalists recently.
Ever since Sheikh Hasina took charge as Prime Minister in January 2009, her government cracked down hard on human trafficking rackets engaged in smuggling out illegal migrants to India and other Asian countries. Her former minister for expatriates, welfare and overseas employment Nurul Islam, who insisted on writing his BSc degree alongside his name on the visiting card, explained to me the reasons in some detail.
Also read: US sends ‘poor democracy’ message to Dhaka by keeping it out of Biden meet
“Illegal migrants are lost to us because they will never come back or will never send back a penny. If our people migrate legally, they send back hefty remittances and we want that desperately to improve our foreign exchange reserves,” Islam said.
Bringing up the past, Islam said that our military rulers with their ‘Pakistani mindset’ only saw our people as liability, but Awami League sees them as asset. When the World Bank was playing truant with the US $4 billion Padma river railroad bridge project, Hasina called their bluff and decided to build the country’s biggest infrastructure project with its own resources. Expat investment was the main source of fund mobilisation for the project.
No wonder, Bangladesh’s inward remittances have picked up sharply in the last decade. In 2021, despite the global pandemic, it received US$22 billion in remittances, making it the second-largest source of foreign exchange after readymade garments. So after streamlining labour exports and legalising the whole process, the Awami League government took the next logical step – explore fresh pastures.
Contract farming in Africa is one such step. Whether the Bangladesh government would handle this through a government agency or government monitored private agencies will be decided later along with other details. If this works out finally, it will be a new and interesting chapter in south Asia’s history of labour migration.
(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent and author, has worked in Bangladesh as senior editor with bdnews24.com)
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