Chittagong Hill Tracts is the new fruit hub

A collection of seasonal fruit at Bonrupa Shamataghat in Rangamati town. Farmers have brought boat-full of different types of fruits.Supriyo Chakma

Bipul Chakma, a youth from Khagrachhari started a mango orchard on a five-acre plot of hilly land in 2017. Spending Tk 75,000, he planted 500 saplings of Amrapali mango there. They bore fruit after just two years. Initially, he sold mangoes worth Tk 100 thousand. Now, his average sales every month is about Tk 500 to 600 thousand.

After graduation, Bipul Chakma took up fruit cultivation instead of waiting to find a job. He runs a fruit business as well. Small-scale gricultural initiatives like Bipul’s, is turning the three hill districts -- Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari -- into a fruit hub.

About 38 thousand small and large-scale entrepreneurs are now involved in fruit farming in these three districts. And now 44 different types of fruit including mango, banana, jackfruit, papaya, pineapple and oranges are being grown in the hill tracts.

According to the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), about 15 per cent of the total fruit produced across the country comes from these three hill tract districts now. Fruits grown on the hills are now available in different districts across the country including Dhaka and Chattogram.

Fruit farmers, agriculturists, businessmen and common consumers of these three districts believe, fruit farming in Chittagong Hill Tracts is increasing due to political stability, switching to permanent orchards from Jhum cultivation, with modern agro-technology and marketing becoming easier than before.

Besides, as educated and enthusiastic youths have entered this sector, new entrepreneurs have been created too.

Production on the rise

Even two decades back, fruits were not commercially grown on the hills. The establishment of commercial fruit orchards started mainly from 2004. Gradually, the number of fruit orchards continued to increase. Hilly areas started coming under fruit farming as well.

In 2017, more than 1.5 million (1,559,000) tonnes of fruits were grown on about 92 thousand hectares of land. After four years, the production has reached 1.8 million tonnes with an increase of 15 per cent. And, the area of land used in fruit farming has increased to 99,669 hectares.

Of the three hill districts, Bandarban produces the highest amount of fruit. Last year, 850 thousand tonnes of fruit were produced in this district. Rangamati ranks second in fruit production with 600 thousand tonnes. And, Khagrachhari produces 350 thousand tonnes of fruit. The size of the fruit market spread across these there districts stands at about Tk 85 billion now.

Munshi Rashid Ahmed, chief scientific officer of Hill Agriculture Research Centre in Khagrachhari, speaking to Prothom Alo, said the soil and climate on the hills are suitable for mango, jackfruit, banana, papaya, pineapple and orange cultivation.

Every year, fruit orchards in these three hill districts are increasing by more than 10 per cent, on average. Besides, many are growing fruits especially mango, oranges and bananas in their yards. Many farmers are doing well financially through gardening, he added.

As per DAE’s information, six fruits- mango, jackfruit, banana, papaya, pineapple and oranges make up almost 81 per cent of the total fruits produced in the hill districts. The production of these six fruits are more than 1.4 million (1,467,594) tonnes. Apart from them, 38 different types of fruits including dragon, cashew, olive and 'apple kul' (a variety of jujubi) are produced there now.

Following Toyo Mro’s footsteps

Toyo Mro, a fruit farmer of Chimbuk Hill in Bandarban is now well-known all over the country. He has received agriculture awards from Prothom Alo and RTV as well. He had started his orchard with the farming of red lady papaya. He sells mango, apple kul and dragon fruits worth Tk 1 to 1.2 million, annually now.

Among the communities living in the hills, Boms would grow fruits from before. The others basically joined after the Chittagong Hill Tract Peace Accord. Toyo Mro is prominent among the people who started commercial fruit farming in 2004.

This successful fruit farmer told Prothom Alo, though it all started with mango, jackfruit, banana, pineapple, papaya and orange orchards, fruit varieties have increased now. Fruits from this region are reaching the whole country, he added.

Following in Toyo Mro’s footsteps many have joined the fruit business now. Khagrachhari’s entrepreneur Bipul Tripura said, many of the fruit farmers can deliver their produce directly to the buyers now online.

According to the information of the DAEs in these three districts, of the 1.6 million farmers including marginal, small, medium and large scale ones living in these districts, 23.93 per cent are dependent on fruit farming.

Fruit farmers of the hills are saying, jhum cultivation isn’t that profitable anymore. It doesn’t even produce food enough to last for three to four months. On the contrary, fruit production provides cash in hand.

Paring Mro, a fruit farmer of Chimbuk Hill said, as much as 70-80 per cent families living from Chimbuk Hill to Thanchi along the Bandarban-Chimbuk-Thanchi road are dependent on the production of mixed fruits and vegetables. Fruit and vegetable farming has changed the lives of jhum farmers who used to be poor about 14-15 years ago.

No coordinated toll system

A fruit farmer from the hill districts has to pay toll to different agencies at three places for transporting fruits. Each of the fruit-laden truck of five tonnes from Bandarban pays Tk 3,000 in toll to the district, upazila and union parishad. Tk 2,000 is colleted from the smaller vehicles.

Meanwhile in Khagrachhari, toll has to be paid to the district parishad, Matiranga and Khagrachhari municipalities as well as to the bazar fund. Including all, toll for the small truck reaches at Tk 3,000 while for large truck it soars to Tk 6,000-7,000.

In Rangamati, the municipality, district and upazila parishads collect toll from the fruit trucks. In this way, Tk 1,500 from a small truck and Tk 1,900 from a large truck are collected.

Orchard owners and fruit traders want a coordinated toll system, which will allow a single authority to collect toll from these three districts at the same rate.

Mohammad Mizanul Haque, a professor at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, had worked on different projects related to fruit production in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said fruits produced in hill districts are unable to reach the markets across the country because of the remoteness.

In this case, the market system has to be remodeled and fruit processing factories have to be established. Besides, tolls, hidden charges and such bottlenecks have to be eliminated too, he said.