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Cablegate: Bamboo Flowering Prompts Food Crisis in Chittagong

VZCZCXRO8829
PP RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #0110/01 0231149
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 231149Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6069
INFO RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 9499
RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO 8278
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 2003
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0437
RUEHAH/AMEMBASSY ASHGABAT 0189
RUEHNT/AMEMBASSY TASHKENT 0188
RUEHDBU/AMEMBASSY DUSHANBE
RUEHTA/AMEMBASSY ALMATY 0109
RUEHEK/AMEMBASSY BISHKEK 0076
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 0054
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 1121
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0091
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAKA 000110

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: AID BG PGOV PHUM PREL
SUBJECT: BAMBOO FLOWERING PROMPTS FOOD CRISIS IN CHITTAGONG
HILL TRACTS


1. (SBU) SUMMARY. An infestation of rats is prompting a food
crisis in communities along the Indian border in the
Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeastern Bangladesh. The cause
of the crisis is the flowering of a species of bamboo that is
resulting in an explosion in the rat population. Post is
working with the Bangladesh government (GOB) to provide
funding to the UN Development Program (UNDP) to address the
crisis. END SUMMARY.

ONCE EVERY 50 YEARS...
======================

2. (U) The area of the Chittagong Hill Tracts abutting the
Indian border is covered with the species of bamboo with the
scientific name melacanna baccifera. This bamboo, which
villagers in the Hill Tracts and the neighboring Indian state
of Mizoram rely on for sustenance, flowers once every 40 to
50 years and then dies off. This sets off a series of
events: after eating the flowers, rats multiply considerably
more than normal, creating an infestation that eats all crops
and vegetables; the bamboo dies after flowering, depriving
the local population of a plant they rely on for a variety of
needs; and the final result is generally a severe food
crisis. International media recently reported that when the
bamboo flowering last occurred in 1959, it took the lives of
thousands of residents of India and the Hill Tracts and
prompted insurgencies in both countries.

3. (U) During a four-day visit to the Chittagong Hill Tracts
in early January, POLOFF and AID officers were informed by
local officials in Rangamati of an emerging food crisis in
the remote eastern parts of Rangamati and Bandarban
districts. Rats have begun eating up all the crops in border
areas, destroying the rice harvest, and forcing local
villagers to subsist on roots and edible leaves. Villagers,
mostly subsistence farmers who usually grow their own rice,
have been forced to buy outside rice at 50 taka per kilogram
-- an exorbitant sum well beyond the means of most Hill Tract
residents. (NOTE: Rice in comparatively wealthier Dhaka
currently sells for approximately 30 taka per kilogram, and
that is considered very expensive. END NOTE.)

4. (U) On a site visit to the indigenous Chakma village of
Beganachari near the Indian border on January 8, local
leaders showed us how their rice crop and other vegetable
gardens along the riverbank had been devastated by rats.
Leaders said they tried poisoning the rats and scaring them
away, but there were too many to have any effect.

BETWEEN 20,000 AND 50,000 AFFECTED
==================================

5. (U) Local officials believe between 20,000 and 50,000
people could be affected by the severe food shortage. The
majority of those affected belong to indigenous tribes that
have had a strained relationship with the Bangladesh
authorities for decades. Several local officials we spoke to
expressed concern that the GOB was ignoring the problem.
Researchers we spoke to said they had been warning the GOB
for the past two years of an impending food crisis, but
authorities had not responded.

COMMENT: EMBASSY WORKING WITH GOB TO PROVIDE RELIEF
============================================= ======

6. (SBU) On January 10, Embassy staff met with
representatives of the GOB's Economic Relations Division
(ERD) to discuss this growing food crisis. Post proposed the
possibility of issuing a localized disaster declaration,
which would provide for an initial $50,000 in USAID Office of
Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) emergency assistance funds
to be programmed through the United Nations Development
Program (UNDP) to provide food aid to affected areas. ERD
agreed, and USAID Bangladesh is preparing the request. We
are also consulting with the GOB's Foreign Research Institute
about how we can work with affected villages to replant their
crops quickly and recover from the dying-off of the bamboo
which sustains them. The food situation in the Chittagong

DHAKA 00000110 002 OF 002


Hill Tracts is exacerbated by the pressures on food supply
throughout Bangladesh caused by high world food prices and by
the devastation of last year,s floods and Cyclone Sidr.
Rollins

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