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By Jane Rasbash

On 18 February 2016 a group of project stakeholders including government ministers, INGO and NGO representatives, and villagers representing 42 communities of Southern Bangladesh met in Dhaka to share lessons learned from the three year project.

The morning of the Conference contained formal speeches about the project and comments from official guests. Keka Adhikari and Boniface Gomes from Bangladesh Association for Sustainable Development (BASD) gave an introduction to the work of the last three years and acknowledged the successful partnership of BASD, CIFAL Scotland, Gaia Education and the Scottish Government who acted as the funder of the project.

Jane Rasbash from Gaia Education provided an overview of the project, emphasizing its characteristic of applying a holistic community led approach considering social and cultural aspects, as well as addressing economic and ecological issues.
Richard Gomes from BASD gave a summary of the considerable outcomes of the project that impacted close to 5,000 beneficiaries in 42 target villages in Banishanta, Sutarkali and Mongla in Southern Bangladesh by building capacity of 140 community leaders through Permaculture Design, Design of Sustainable Settlements Bangladesh and Training of Trainers courses. These leaders have gone on to apply their learning through small-scale integrated farming in their homestead gardens and community self reliance projects like fisheries, composting and vermiculture.

The project also raised awareness on climate change and adapted 75 houses to ensure villagers less vulnerable to future flooding and cyclones. Officials from the Department of Environment and Disaster Management acknowledged the success of the project in applying integrated farming and small-scale adaptation, also reminding of the acuteness of the issues with climate change in Bangladesh, and the vulnerability of the Delta villages. The climax of the morning was a short video clip of Humza Yousaf, Minister for Europe and International Development for the Scottish Government announcing additional financial support for another year of activities in the region to deepen and multiply impact.

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In the afternoon a short film of the project portrayed the integrated farming approach in the villages and the adapted houses, followed by a practical session held by May East, CIO of Gaia Education. She led constellations to provide a space for dialogue between women and men, and between rural and urban participants. Each group shared appreciations and challenges. This was hugely empowering for the female farmers as it gave them the opportunity to share and be heard as for many of them it was their first time in Dhaka.

Pradiut Nayek, Gaia Education’s chief permaculture trainer from West Bengali demonstrated the transformative tools the villagers now hold and are able to apply into practice and continue their journey without agrochemicals. Few of the urban guests stated concern on the means to apply eco-farming approach extensively in rice paddy fields, however the villagers passionately shared their commitment, experience and faith in the non-chemical farming. A positive remark came from an urban guest of the way the perception of Banishanta was changing as previously it had been associated with the sex worker village for the sailors, and now it was becoming known as a centre for exemplary ecovillage activities.

The most powerful part of the Conference transpired through the testimonies of the villagers who had joined training during the project and who were invited to stand up and speak of their small successes in the field. Those who stood up to talk included a Dalit community leader and also a former sex worker; both spoke confidently and passionately about their commitment to eco-farming and their small-scale activities, which manifested their empowerment through the project.

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