BIMSTEC and agriculture

Published On: August 23, 2018 01:00 AM NPT By: Bhairab Raj Kaini

As Nepal is chairing the BIMISTEC Summit, it should take initiatives in developing inclusive value chains of exportable agriculture commodities

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)—a sub-regional organization comprising seven member states lying in the adjacent areas of Bay of Bengal—is a home to around 1.5 billion people. It constitutes around 22 percent of the global population with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$ 2.7 trillion economy. In the last five years, BIMSTEC member states have been able to sustain an average 6.5 percent economic growth despite global financial meltdown. 

Unlike many other sub-regional groupings, BIMSTEC is a sector-driven cooperative organization. Starting with six sectors—including trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries—for sectoral cooperation in 1997, it expanded to embrace eight more sectors—including agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change—in 2008. 

Thus BIMSTEC at present has 14 priority areas of cooperation including fisheries and agriculture. Nepal, as its current chair, is holding fourth BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu next week.

The BIMSTEC countries have rich topographic and climatic endowments and variations, where wide varieties of agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, sugarcane, maize, vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, ornamentals, medicinal and aromatic plants, plantation crops, spices and others are grown. 

Agriculture is the mainstay of BIMSTEC economies, which can sustain livelihood of its people. Thus member states should focus on cooperation on sustainable agriculture and food security. But we have not done much in this direction. Expert group meetings on agriculture have been held for six times so far. The first meeting identified nine common agriculture projects to be carried out by member states, which was reviewed and reprioritized in the third expert group meeting. The fourth meeting held in Kathmandu in April 2015 further advanced agricultural cooperation in the region. 

Tapping the potentials 

The meeting of the sixth expert group on agriculture held in Thailand in December 2017 reviewed identified common projects undertaken by the member states. In view of growing demand for pork meat in Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, Nepal proposed to hold a workshop in 2018 on strengthening regional value chain in pork meat marketing. This workshop had already been held in Kathmandu and Nepal presented a paper on the subject, giving emphasis to develop a regional project.

BIMSTEC has been advancing cooperation in fisheries sector as well. Draft concept paper on BIMSTEC cooperation in fisheries is under consideration. The concept paper has identified global and regional issues such as combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, joint activities in fisheries, climate change effects on fisheries, research in inland/coastal aquaculture and capacity building. 

Many collaborative activities have also been conducted in this sector: Meeting of Sectoral Committee on Fisheries in 2001, Expert Meeting in 2004, Workshop on Fisheries Cooperation in 2007, a survey project entitled Ecosystem Based Fishery Management in Bay of Bengal in 2007, and BIMSTEC Fisheries Meeting in 2009.

Hill and mountain economy has been recognized as an important issue under BIMSTEC agenda. Though Nepal has taken the lead role on developing concept note on mountain economy, nothing more has been prepared in the agriculture sector yet. We all know that hill and mountain agriculture is central to the national economy.  Keeping in mind the increasing geographical vulnerabilities of hill and mountain economy, Nepal should have proposed strategies to develop agriculture in a sustainable manner. These regions have strong potential for agriculture development due to their richness in agricultural biodiversity. 

Projects on environmental degradation, agro-tourism, irrigation grid development, and value chain of high value commodities can bring people of this region out of poverty. The main activities of these projects should include rural infrastructure development, good governance, inclusion of marginalized and poor people in the value chain; and strengthening of service delivery system.

Environment degradation is one of the greatest challenges faced by these countries. Some of the major causes of degradation are fragile geological structure, forest fire, avalanches and dry landslides in which increasing population, fragile economy and sometimes farm policies add fuel to it in its natural condition. Natural calamities like landslides in the hills, drought in most of the areas of these countries and flooding in the plain areas are frequent. Most of all, flooding is a major cause of land degradation leading to the poor socio-economic conditions and the deterioration of the natural ecosystems. Projects for improving degraded environment will benefit all these countries.

Focus on agro-tourism 

Agro-tourism is one of the most suitable strategies to improve the income of rural communities in the region. Agro-tourism involves any agriculturally based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch. It provides ‘rural experiences’ to travelers with the goal of creating livelihood and generating revenues for farmers and surrounding communities. It is closely related with the country side of rural areas and nature and has direct relationship with the agriculture activities. In fact, agro-tourism is the combination of agriculture activities and tourism and it has been practiced in Nepal for a long time. However, the selection of right location and appropriate crops or commodities is very important in this business. Awareness programs for rural communities and potential investors on agro-tourism would help add new dimensions on agriculture. 

As Nepal is chairing the fourth BIMISTEC Summit, it should take initiatives in developing competitive and inclusive value chains of exportable commodities of agriculture. We should also push for establishing Regional Hill Agriculture Center in Nepal for promoting hill agriculture. The member states also need to consider the regional cross-country collaboration for developing mega-irrigation projects.

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