If you have had a pineapple recently, there’s a pretty good chance it came from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. That’s because the three districts account for some 60 per cent of the juicy fruit consumed in the country.
The same goes for bananas. A wide array of seasonal fruits including papaya, mango, jackfruit, litchi and watermelon have been the choice for mass-scale cultivation in Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari for the past decade.
And, thanks to the use of organic fertilisers, there is now a consensus that the fruits from the region have an amplified taste.
The harvest of pineapple and watermelon have already started while in the coming months plucking would start for mango, jackfruit and litchi. April, May and June are the busiest of times for harvests and sales.
The Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) expects farmers to maintain bumper productions as in previous years for the presence of favourable weather.
With their main markets being ever-growing cities like Dhaka, Chattogram, Sylhet and Narayanganj, there was supposed to be no issues of farmers unable to get just prices.
Yet that is exactly what is happening, now exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic.
That is because, when it comes to the trade of the fruits there is still a reliance on an old practice of middlemen.
These traders go out to the cultivators some time before harvests and settle on a price with the farmers for all of their produce. They take the produce to the cities to sell off to smaller traders.
This practice limits offers available to farmers while urbanites continue to dole out high prices, meaning a substantial chunk of the value of the fruits is being pocketed somewhere along the way.
Take the case of Ananta Chakma.
Though he had a good harvest cultivating pineapples on around five acres of land in Chowdhurychhara village under Naniarchar upazila of Rangamati, he believes he would just be able to recover his production cost.
He said the middlemen always offer rock bottom prices citing low demand and now were blaming the countrywide shutdown centring the novel coronavirus pandemic.
He expects to make sales of aboutTk 5 lakh this year.
“I could have earned at least Tk 6 lakh to Tk 7 lakh,” Chakma said.
Another good example came from Basanti Talukder who cultivated bananas on 2.5 acres land in Perachhara village.
The joy of a bumper harvest has been dampened by a lack of buyers. She is even unsure of whether she would be able to sell the bulk of her produce.
Talukder said this time around there were even not enough hands available to get the bananas to the market as people were avoiding social contact to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cht Update got in touch with one of the middlemen who preferred not to be named.
He said truck rental costs had gone up by Tk 10,000 while police were extorting traders at loading points.
Accurate and comprehensive data on harvests are hard to come by for all three districts.
The DEA expects more than 2 lakh tonnes of mango to come from the three districts while another 2.5 lakh tonnes of jackfruit, 75,000 tonnes of litchi and 10 lakh tonnes of bananas.
More than 60,000 tonnesof pineapples and at least 1,000 tonnes of watermelon have been produced in Rangamati this year. In Khagrachhari, at least 25,000 tonnes of pineapples have been cultivated.
That farmers are not getting just prices from middlemen has been acknowledged by Paban Chakma, deputy director of the DAE in Rangamati.
The DAE was providing support though police and the civil administration so that businesspeople could take their consignments to Dhaka and Chattogram smoothly.
According to Md Martuz Ali, deputy director of the DEA in Khagrachhari, the supply chain managementwasstill properly functioning as the local administration was providing support as per directives of Prime Minister’s Office.
“We are providing support directly to farmers to ensure good harvests and prices,” he said.
However, he admitted that farmers in some cases might not be getting prices they had been expecting for the shutdown.