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Securing a stable future for Bangladesh’s ‘landless’ communities

The char lands in Bangladesh - low-lying islands that are naturally formed by silt from rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal – rank among some of the most hostile environments for settler farmers anywhere in the world.

These sedimentary mudbanks along the coastline are often flat and fertile, which makes them attractive for farming, but they are also extremely vulnerable to erosion and flooding, as well as the growing impacts of climate change such as devastating cyclonic storms.

Before CDSP began two decades ago, this area was just barren mudbanks. There were no communications, no schools, and limited shelter and fresh water. For a people who could never plan for more than a few months at a time, there is the chance to invest in a settled future.

Mohammed Bazlul Karim

Deputy team leader for CDSP-IV

Challenge

For women, especially, who are often left to farm the land and raise children while their husbands find labouring jobs elsewhere, the chars present an unyielding challenge. Traditionally, they enjoyed no rights if their husband died or chose to take a younger bride. Alongside the threat of displacement due to the region’s unforgiving geography, these resilient communities have also struggled against corruption, land-grabbing and piracy along the coastline. This was an area with no communications or fresh water supplies, limited shelter and poor farming techniques. For many years, the communities were physically, socially and economically cut off from the rest of Bangladesh.

Solution

As lead consultancy firm, we have provided technical assistance to the Char Development and Settlement Project (CDSP), now in its fourth phase. New infrastructure – including embankments, water control, sluices, culverts, roads, cyclone shelters, forestry and canals – were built to provide protection from climate change. Training in hybrid agriculture techniques now ensures food security, while a series of 1,300 deep tubes bring a reliable supply of drinking water. Every family has its own latrine, helping to end diarrhoea as a major health problem. Microfinance and enterprise training are helping the communities to diversify and increase their income.

The programme has achieved notable success in gender development. With guidance from the CDSP, the Ministry of Land is granting secured legal land titles to landless families living on the chars. Importantly, land titles are given and registered in the names of wife and husband with equal (50%) shares in the land ownership, with the name of wife coming first to protect women in the event of death or divorce. This process is unique to CDSP and is contributing significantly in empowering women socially and economically.

The simple act of putting her first in the deed strengthens her position in the family, gives her uninterrupted access to the land and a legal position in many decision-making processes, and protects her in case of conflict with her husband. Now, if she is widowed, divorced or abandoned, she will get 100% ownership of the land.

Outcome

Over the last seven years CDSP-IV has transformed 30,000 hectares of land into a functioning and sustainable homeland for 155,000 people from 28,000 households – effectively ending the constant uncertainty and threat of displacement. By raising the profile of women, there has been a fall in child marriage and violence against women. Women now have a prominent voice in the community, and are already using that platform to vote and stand in local elections. In recognition of the project’s success in using gender equality as a key for unlocking rural transformation, CDSP-IV was awarded the 2017 IFAD Gender Award.

The improvements in numbers

  • 10,000 families who have received land titles, with another 4,000 in the process.
  • 90% households with members of all-women micro-credit groups, receiving loans to invest in farm and non-farm enterprises like tailoring and handicrafts
  • 5 times average increase in value of assets per household
  • 2 times rise in average number of chickens per household (from 6 to 13)
  • 2 times rise in household consumption of meat
  • 3 times increase in both homestead vegetable and fish production
  • 60km embankments to prevent saltwater intrusion
  • 250km new and improved roads
  • 7,000 ha tree plantations to stabilise the chars and protect them from the effects of erosion, floods and storms

Meeting of minds

CDSP-IV is somewhat unique in development terms, in that it successfully brings together ten different organisations. The programme is co-financed by the Government of Bangladesh, the Government of the Netherlands, and IFAD, and relies on the cooperation and cross-sectoral information sharing of six government departments, namely: Bangladesh Water Development Board, Forest Department, Local Government Engineering Department, Department of Public Health Engineering, Department of Agriculture Extension, and the Ministry of Land. Four partner Non-Government Organisations are also taking part: Sagarika Samaj Unnayan Sangstha, Dwip Unnayan Songstha, Society for Development and BRAC.

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