Farmers in parts of Bangladesh's southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) face a seed crisis that is undermining the food security of thousands, the World Food Programme (WFP) says.
"The challenge that the villagers are now facing is the lack of available seeds due to non-cultivation for two years," Christa Rader, country director of WFP in Bangladesh, told IRIN from Dhaka.
Seed prices in Sajek Union - about US$11 per kilo - have increased more than five times since 2006, while interest rates are up to 100 percent.
These two factors are contributing to CHT's food insecurity - estimated at more than 30 percent - according to the UN food agency.
"Over the last four years, the frequency of crises in Sajek has been intense" - starting with crop damage by the rodent attack during 2007-2008, restrictions on Jhum cultivation since 2009 and communal conflict in 2010, which continues in 2011, reports a WFP assessment conducted at the end of April.
No Jhum for Jummas
The seed crisis started when the region was infested by a rat population that bred four times faster than normal during the bamboo flowering season from 2007 to 2008.
The rodents consumed all the grains and cash crops from the fields and in storage, forcing people to eat seeds they would normally save for cultivation.
The following year, in 2009, the indigenous Jumma people, comprising 11 different ethnic groups, were forbidden from farming in forest areas of Sajek Union using their traditional shifting cultivation methods, also known as Jhum cultivation.
The United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), a political party based in the CHT, enforced the ban to protect the land from over-cropping resulting from an influx of Bengali settlers over the past three decades.
"What [the UPDF] did is to discourage Jhum cultivation in certain specified areas to protect the environment and animal habitats," Sachib Chakma, a member of the UPDF's central committee, explained.
But Jhum farming is also central to the way of life of the one million indigenous people living in the CHT.
"The very name of these people, Jumma, comes from their cultural tradition of shifting agriculture, locally known as Jhum. They were able to sustainably live for years using Jhum cultivation," Sophie Grig, senior campaigner at Survival International, a London-based indigenous rights NGO.
According to Survival, it was not possible to keep the land fallow for the five to eight years as required for soil to regenerate in shifting cultivation, but was instead cropped every two to three years. Moreover, the most fertile land was taken by Bengali settlers, further affecting the Jummas' ability to farm.
"The Bengali settlers took the most arable land away from the Jumma, internally displacing them further north into Sajek Union," Grig said.
Nearly 600,000 Bengali settlers have arrived in the CHT since the 1980s leading to land theft and forced relocation of more than 90,000 Jumma families as of 2000, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
"The illegal taking over of indigenous peoples' land by Bengali settlers and the inclusion of their land in forest reserves [has led] to a decrease in the land available for doing shifting cultivation," said Christina Nilsson from the CHT Commission International Secretariat based in Copenhagen.
In a further shock to local livelihoods, recent clashes at the end of April over land led to nearly 100 Jumma houses being burned down.
"All their movable assets, including rice and seeds, perished in the fire, leaving them without food," said Chakma.
And with the price of seeds increasing, many farming families could well find themselves in greater debt if they borrow at today's interest rates, resulting in what WFP warns could become a "famine-like situation" unless livelihood options improve.
"The situation is critical," Rader said. "People may have to sell all their livestock and other assets in order to eat."