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Friday 7 October, 4.00 pm

Rice, Soil and Strength: Food and Ecology in a Freshwater Village

Camelia Dewan, UCL

This event is free, but places must be booked. To book tickets please go to: http://cameliadewan.eventbrite.co.uk

My overall doctoral thesis problematizes the idea of Bangladesh as a ‘climate change victim’ by ethnographically examining the lived experiences of Bangladesh’s coastal population and how this is entangled with environmental change and the construction of permanent embankments.

Bangladesh is a low-lying, deltaic flood plain – its people and land subjected to seasonal shifts from abundance of freshwater during the monsoon to water scarcity and tidal saline intrusion during the dry season. Contrary to contemporary depictions, embankments were originally constructed to prevent salinity, rather than to prevent floods, in order to increase agricultural productivity. This paper looks at the lived experience of agricultural change in the context of the coastal zone, where I explore the embedded connections between the changing sense of land, water, food and self. I depart from the Bengali proverb, Maach-e Bhat-e Bangali [Rice and fish makes a Bengali], where both the dietary consumption of rice and fish is seen as integral to identifying the self as Bengali. I show how the introduction of high-yielding rice varieties (IRRI) during the Green Revolution as opposed to desi [local, of the soil, native] rice, evoke different strong emotions tied to sense of self, place, environment and health. During the Green Revolution, ‘modern’ agriculture technologies were caste as key towards achieving ‘food security’ and in order to save costs from annual repairs, embankments annually constructed to stop tidal spills in dry season were redesigned to permanent and large-scale infrastructure. Unlike its predecessors which allowed for flooding during the monsoon, their permanence obstructed the rivers from inundating the flood plains with fertile silt, reducing soil fertility. Local rice-growing farmers and smallholders became increasingly dependent on chemical fertiliser (urea) and high-yielding varieties that in increasing volumes required pesticides. I explore the idea that past rice and fish grown without chemicals were filled with both shakti [strength] and pushti [nutrition], while today’s food grown through chemicals lack strength and nutrition, making current generations weak and ill. I argue that view of separating people, land and food, once seen as intertwined in the transmission of shakti, has instead transformed food into a commodity in a profit-oriented market subject to the widespread contamination of harmful substances (poisons, formalin, ripening chemicals) causing significant problems of ill-health (of the liver, kidney, stomach).