Changing Economics of Santals Through Agriculture (ChESTA)
Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture Bangladesh (SFSA Bangladesh) is working for the improvement of livelihoods among resource-poor Bengali and ethnic Santal communities in northwestern Bangladesh. The project Changing Economics of Santals Through Agriculture (ChESTA) is focused on the ethnic Santal community, aiming to enhance Santal livelihoods through agribusiness development. ChESTA educates smallholders about modern profitable high-value crop selection, group-based safe food cultivation, and post-harvest technologies, as well as agricultural marketing and facilitation. ChESTA project has been implemented from the core fund of SFSA and designed for five years from 2018. This project is a continuation of the Sustainable Agriculture for Santal Communities (SASC) project which was started in 2011 by Syngenta Foundation Bangladesh. Currently, this project covers the Santal communities of Dinajpur districts only.
The Santals are one of the oldest and largest indigenous communities in the northwest of Bangladesh. They are disadvantaged, vulnerable, poor, and often suffer exploitation and injustice. They are detached from the mainstream and dominated and discriminated by the local majority communities, which are led by mahajons (landlords). The Santals do not have any real access to education or income-generation activities. Santals are predominantly dependent on agriculture; the whole family works hard to farm what it can. Many are keen to learn new farming techniques, such as using modern agricultural implements and methods, and planting better-quality seeds. However, help from the government or private organizations is rare.
SFSA Bangladesh is seeking to improve their livelihoods by engaging the Santals in commercial agriculture. It has designed both on- and off-farm activities for project farmers and helped them to prepare annual and seasonal production plans with selected crops, supporting them thereafter in implementation. The key activities are:
- production planning
- technical support
- product aggregation
- engagement in livestock rearing
- local service provider development
- linking farmers to markets.
In this project, both women and men are equal participants. Women’s economic status is enhanced and group efforts are empowering communities to mobilize socially for their rights. Lives and livelihoods are changing and improving in terms of economic development, food security and nutritional status , as well as social respect. A local NGO, Grame Bikash Kendra (GBK), is implementing this project in the Dinajpur District – a locality with a highly concentrated and visible presence of Santals.
In August 2017, heavy flooding caused major destruction in many areas of Bangladesh. They included those in which we work, particularly with the poor Santal communities. The SFSA Bangladesh moved rapidly to help the Santals recover their shattered livelihoods (s. link below).
The ChESTA project has enhanced the livelihoods of 1,500 Santal households by improving their economic status, creating access to information and markets, and improving nutrition. These households are directly benefiting from project activities such as Group Based Commercial Cultivation, Local Service Provider Development, and the Adibashi Krshok Club/Farmers’ Hub, etc. Group-based commercial cultivation of safe vegetables and medicinal plants; Homestead nutrition gardening; off-farm activities and local service provider development that the Santals were making progress with commercial vegetable cultivation, and their lives are changing dramatically as a result. Groups of seven to fifteen farmers unite to cultivate high-value vegetables commercially, and this model is serving as an example of unity and hope for the Santal community. As of 2021, there are 25 Farmers’ Hubs owned by the Santal Youths and engaged other Santals to work there.
Another example of unity through cultivation is the roadside Basok plantation. Around 800 Santal households, contracted with the company Square Pharmaceuticals and ACME Laboratories have been divided into several groups to cultivate the medicinal plant Basok (100K+) along a 40-kilometer stretch of road. This simple, uniting group initiative brings them an additional income at no cost. Besides this, the crop-based group also cultivates vegetables, linking them to markets through the Farmers’ Hub. Around 80 small and medium Entrepreneurs and Local Service Providers have been developed and around 200 farming families have been engaged in livestock rearing with the help of these projects. As a consequence of one or more of these activities, all project beneficiaries have seen their household incomes increase. It has been reported that the Santal are using their additional income in four key areas:
- child education
- agricultural reinvestment (such as leasing land, purchasing livestock, expansion of crop cultivation)
- improved food uptake