Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Bangladesh’s Rotten-Mango Crisis
As an apprentice anthropologist, I once had the misfortune of attempting to converse with the Indian critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Professor Spivak, who translated the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and wrote the famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I went to meet her. After patiently listening while I asked a series of dumb questions about discursive practice, she turned and said, cryptically, “I came for the mangoes.”
Ah, the mango. It may be a cliché pitfall for the South Asian writer, but for this academic, famous for her impenetrable prose, the mango brought the esoteric down to earth. Ms. Spivak is regarded as one of the great minds of her generation, but in Dhaka, she was, like everyone else, there for the mangoes.
In Bangladesh, the obsession with the mango comes from its evanescence. The fruit’s intense seasonality means that even the more prosaic varieties are available for only a few weeks of the summer. The most prized is the langra: Its floral, slightly sour flavor is more complex than the overly sweet chaunsa or Alphonso mangoes. Aficionados love the langra in part because it is almost impossible to catch at its peak — too green and your tongue will swell and itch; a few hours late and its flesh turns to mush.
But this year, the langra is nowhere to be found. The markets are empty of the sought-after mango.
On the roads that lead into Dhaka, the precious fruit lies rotting by the truckload. The reason: chemical poisoning. The langras are said to be contaminated with formalin, a strong solution of formaldehyde that is sprayed on the fruit in an effort to extend its life. The government responded by setting up checkpoints on the roads to the city.
It isn't just the mangoes. Earlier this year, the Institute of Public Health found that 47 of 50 food items tested were adulterated. Formalin is used to preserve both fruit and fish. Turmeric has been found tainted with lead. Since June 18, the police have set up mobile formalin-detection units, confiscating thousands of tons of locally produced and imported fruit.
The fruit industry is up in arms, claiming that the police are using faulty devices and crippling the industry. Last week, the fruit sellers’ association went on strike, and their produce rotted in the warehouses of the port city of Chittagong. In the weeks leading up to the month of Ramadan, the tussle has been fierce, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations taking place across Dhaka. And the langra has vanished.
The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate. Bangladesh was born in the shadow of famine, and since independence in 1971, a series of government measures have put increasing pressure on farmers to keep the rice yields increasing every year. This has meant exploiting the land to its limits: intensive farming, extensive irrigation and the unchecked use of groundwater.
A result is that Bangladesh has made great strides in becoming self-sufficient in food, tripling rice yields in 40 years: In 1970, the rice crop was 0.76 tons per acre; in 2012, it was 1.9 tons. The increase is the result of using high-yield, short-duration varieties, which require the greater application of fertilizers and a huge increase in irrigation. In the last 30 years, the use of fertilizers has grown by 400 percent, and pesticides have been widely overused. And as the water table gets lower, the salinity increases and contaminants like arsenic leach into wells that provide drinking water. The land has borne the cost of our need to climb out of famine.
Dhaka’s brouhaha over contaminated fruit speaks to a growing chasm between the urban and the rural. This broken, congested city is where we have placed all our hopes for a better Bangladesh. The capital is where you will find the budding start-ups, the English-speaking college graduates, the cellphone users, the social networkers — all the engines of economic growth. And as we become more removed from the traditional modes of food production, the agricultural hinterland is being treated as nothing more than the food source for a hungry city.
The great irony here is that Bangladeshis romanticize the rural. The greatest compliment you can pay a Bangladeshi is to say she is “matir manush,” a person of the earth. The country, as the American anthropologist James Ferguson put it, provides “alternative moral images,” a counterpoint to the complexities — the allure, as well as the danger — of rapid urbanization. The rural continues to act as a repository of our fantasies about national identity; it is a favorite subject of every cultural artifact, from poetry to contemporary art. Our touchstone is Rabindranath Tagore, the great bard of the pastoral in Bengali literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But when we place checkpoints on the roads into our city, we are saying that we care only if urban citizens are poisoned; we couldn’t care less if the contaminated fruit is consumed outside of Dhaka. Ms. Spivak may have used the mango as a way to express her rootedness, but a taste for mangoes reveals a person to be among the few who can afford to consume them.
The truth is, the fruit is grown by the rural poor and fed to the urban rich. To keep the city sated with mangoes, the crop must be abundant and it must be beautiful. And for that to happen, formalin must be involved.
As Ramadan approached and the langra disappeared, the fruit sellers and the state came to an agreement. The fruit sellers would end their strike so that the population could sit down to its dates and apples after a long day of fasting; the police agreed to look into obtaining new devices to test the levels of formalin in fruit.
Unless, however, we think critically about the moral economy of food, about sustainability as well as growth, our food will remain tainted. If the rationality of urbanism — the city as the treasured engine of growth, the country merely its fodder — continues to dominate, we will merely be polishing the surface of a slowly rotting core.
First published in The International New York Times, July 2, 2014
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”