Mango growers feeling the squeeze
Amid the coronavirus scare, a lack of buyers due to inadequate measures for marketing and transportation leaves mango growers worried.
Farmers said the authorities had assured them of facilitating marketing and transport amidst the coronavirus-driven shutdown this year.
But days ahead of the mango harvest, beginning in the end of May, farmers said buyers could not visit their orchards to buy mangoes due to a lack of transport as well as harassment and illegal toll collection on roads.
"Besides, mangoes will rot as there is no market. We're not even thinking about fair prices, our best efforts will be put towards recovering production costs," said Anwar Hossain, a mango orchard owner of Rajshahi's Bagha upazila.
Usually, buyers from different parts of the country visit Rajshahi to purchase mangoes every year. While still at the flowering stage in trees, the imminent mangoes are sold and buyers would make advance payments.
"This year, no buyers showed up. Most orchards remain unsold," said mango orchard owner Anwar Hossain Palash.
Some buyers who showed up offered much lower prices -- for an orchard he sold at Tk 3 lakh last year, a middleman offered Anwar Tk 50,000 this year.
"We spend over 60 percent of the average price we receive -- Tk 1,000 per maund -- on taking care of the mango trees. If the price goes down by six times, it will break us."
Shafiqul Islam, of the same upazila in Rajshahi, exported 36 tonnes of mangoes abroad last year. He has little hopes for export this year.
"Yet, I took care of the mangoes. But till now, I haven't found a single buyer. I doubt if I will be able to recover half of my investment in producing export-quality fruits."
SCARCITY OF BUYERS
Mahmudul Hasan Sumon, a trader from Brahmanbaria, visits Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj districts every year to purchase mangoes. Last year, he invested over Tk 5 crore.
"I didn't dare to invest this year as coronavirus changed the situation. No transport is available and even if I arrange alternative transport to go there -- law enforcers will harass the truck drivers on the road and villagers will not welcome us for being outsiders (to avoid coronavirus transmission)."
There is no guarantee that he will subsequently be able to transport the fruit to his district, Sumon said, adding that he has not seen any measures to facilitate the process in this extraordinary situation.
Apart from the logistics problems, mango trader Aminul Islam Polash from Sylhet brings up another issue. What will he do with the mangoes back in Sylhet?
"Who shall I sell it to? With movement restricted, buyers will not come to me. I am not even sure if I can open my shop to sell the mangoes," said Aminul.
Mohammad Yousuf, director general of the Department of Agricultural Marketing, said the department was unaware of traders not being able to visit the mango orchards.
"No one raised the problem. We could have arranged their transportation, but it is not possible now as we lack a database of farmers and traders. Without the database, we cannot contact them," he told The Daily Star.
Despite this, he said, there will be no problems in selling and transporting mangoes as all mango markets, including the country's largest in Kansat of Chapainawabganj and other large markets in Rajshahi's Baneswar, will operate as usual.
In Dhaka, the agricultural marketing department has dedicated Gabtoli Central Market for mango traders.
The market contains cold storage facilities as well as food and accommodation for the farmers for a few days. It also has four vehicles for transporting mangoes to other markets in the city free of cost, he added.
This facility is, however, limited to Dhaka city.
Farmers and traders also allege of harassment and illegal toll collection allegedly by law enforcers on roads -- nothing new but which will only be exacerbated by the current situation.
Transport owners and workers are reluctant to take on their cargo to avoid such hassle on the roads, they said.
Farmers said trucks are difficult to find, even at higher prices than the average Tk 25,000 it takes to transport 400 maunds of mangoes long distance.
Illegal toll collection on roads, amounting to an average of Tk 5,000 per truck, will only add to mounting costs, said mango traders.
Recently, the Rajshahi DC announced mango producers of Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj would be able to use railway parcel services at reduced rates and BRTC trucks at half the rates to transport mangoes to other districts.
LOW PRODUCTION EXPECTED
More than half of the country's total mango production of around 12 lakh tonnes comes from Rajshahi division, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
This year, researchers and farmers say production may fall due to bad weather and lack of upkeep of mango trees.
"Most farmers couldn't properly attend to their mango trees this year because of the coronavirus scare," said Ismail Khan, a mango orchard owner from Shibganj upazila in Chapainawabganj.
Ismail, also general secretary of the upazila unit of the mango producers' association, said less than 60 percent trees of the upazila are bearing fruits this year.
"Even if I took care of my trees hoping for mango exports, I cannot expect more than 50 percent production on my 16 acre orchard," he said.
"During the flowering stage, many flowers dropped in the recurring rains. During the fruit-bearing stage, when the trees need high temperatures, the prolonged winter hampered fruit growth."
The farmers' fears have ground, said Dr Mosharraf Hossain, senior scientific officer of the Regional Horticultural Research Centre in Chapainawabganj.
"This year, the trees delayed bearing fruits for late arrival of summer. The prolonged winter and rains caused some damage."
When Cyclone Amphan struck before Eid, especially the south-western part of the country, the damage extended to the northern districts.
The storm and lashing winds affected possibly 16 percent of mango orchards in Dinajpur, according to a primary assessment by local Department of Agricultural Extension officials.
Farmers and orchard owners The Daily Star contacted fear worse, estimating between 20 and 50 percent of their yields were affected as a result of the storm and winds due to the super cyclone.