As the nation's and possibly South Asia's major natural breeding
ground for carp fishes like ruhi, katol and mrigal (Indian carp) from
where fishermen collect spawns, the 98-kilometre Halda River that runs
through Khagrachhari is unique.
The number of fish eggs laid in the Halda has declined over the
years, however, due to various manmade hazards, including cutting of the
river's serpentine bends and oxbow lakes, industrial waste and sewage
contamination, indiscriminate riverbed sand extraction and illegal
fishing. With the river's condition already precarious comes a new
hazard: tobacco farming.
“Due to the unique biodiversity of the Halda,” says Manzoorul Kibria,
an associate professor of Chittagong University's zoology department
and Halda specialist, “reforestation of the river's hinterlands is
recommended, and nearby croplands should use organic fertiliser and pest
control. Unfortunately, unprecedented tobacco farming is moving the
river's ecology towards even greater degradation.”
In the last three years the number of farmers growing tobacco in
Khagrachari's Manikchhari upazila, which lies within the sensitive Halda
catchment, has increased from none to 50. Tobacco requires large
amounts of fertiliser and pesticides. Runoff joins the Halda, as the
river runs along acres of tobacco fields only a few feet away.
“Toxic residue comes from upstream,” says Kibria. “The changing
chemical traits of the Halda's water in the fish spawning zone will have
a serious impact.”
and excess fertiliser of the field wash down to Halda river during rain
which end up harming the fishes in the river.
The new threat comes on top of a long term decline in the abundance
of fish eggs. In 1945 around 5,000 kilograms of Indian carp eggs were
laid in the river. By 2011 this amount had reduced to 210kgs, with a
rise to 354kgs the following year. In 2013 just 70kgs of fish roe were
deposited, while last year's result was even worse at 47kgs, according
to research by Kibria.
The last thing the spawning ground needs is the added menace of tobacco, he warns.
Farmers, however, see things differently. Tajul Islam of Gorkhana
village in Manikchhari began growing tobacco in 2013. “Along with six
other farmers,” he says, “I started to cultivate tobacco when I saw
farmers in the hill tracts were making good profit from the crop.”
Jhontu Mia of nearby Chodurkhil village meanwhile, planted two acres
with tobacco for the first time this year. “I used to grow rice and
vegetables,” he says, “but the profit for those crops is low. Besides,
there is uncertainty in price and buyer availability. But with tobacco
advance payment from tobacco companies is possible and they provide
seeds, fertilizer and buyer certainty.”
Both Tajul and Jhontu note that tobacco requires up to four times more fertilizer and pesticide than traditional crops.
In Manikchhari upazila early this month, The Daily Star found vast
swathes of land under tobacco cultivation. Farmers estimate 150 acres
across the upazila are being used for this purpose, even though the
official record at the Manikchhari upazila agriculture office is around
Fishermen are seen catching fish fries in the same water. The photos were taken earlier this month. Photo: Anurup Kanti Das
“Most farmers don't admit to farming tobacco,” says upazila
agriculture officer Shafiqul Islam. “In remote areas we often find
tobacco fields but growers don't speak with us.”
Tobacco farming is spreading to adjacent villages of Fatikchhari
upazila's Narayanhat union in Chittagong district, also part of the
Halda basin. Liton Debnath, the upazila agriculture officer there, says,
“According to official records no upazila land is dedicated to tobacco
cultivation, but I've heard some plantations exist.”
Traditionally, much of the country's tobacco is grown in the northern
region and in the hills in the Chittagong region, but farmers have
started cultivating it as a cash-crop along the Halda only recently.
This goes against the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
(FCTC) that Bangladesh signed in 2003 and ratified the following year,
becoming one of the first countries to do so.
Sections 17 and 18 of the world's first public health treaty call on
governments around the world to help farmers grow alternative crops and
to take preventive steps to protect the environment and public health
from tobacco damages.
But 12 years on, there is little government campaign against tobacco production and consumption.
With the incentives offered by tobacco companies to induce Halda
hinterland farmers into discontinuing cultivation of traditional crops
in favour of tobacco, the spawning ground of the Indian carp is under
Unless change occurs, it's not unimaginable that a day may dawn when
the Halda is more famous for tobacco than carp, with the native fish
relegated wholly to Halda River memories.