Abu Taleb Talukder is training individuals to transform many of Bangladesh's nearly two million ponds into organized pearl cultivation centers. What is revolutionary about his approach is that the project not only encourages the economic development of Bangladesh's rural population through pearl cultivation but also provides an opportunity for training and education and a valuable source of protein.
The New Idea
Wild oyster pearls have been collected for thousands of years in Bangladesh. Abu Taleb Talukder is pioneering a way to harness the tremendous potential of family and community-based pearl cultivation as a combined source of food and income. Having overcome both technical and organizational obstacles, Abu Taleb is now demonstrating and preparing to disseminate his approach.His demonstration involves training a cohort of rural farmers to establish, maintain and harvest oyster colonies in a productive and ecologically sound manner. With this group to show as an example, he is integrating aquaculture technology and ecological issues into the primary school curriculum. Thus school children become through one of the means which the word about pearl culture gets out to heads of household, who are encouraged to learn more about the program. The practical training for school children is also a strong incentive for children to stay in school. The potential benefits of his method are considerable. A one-third acre pond, of which there are nearly two million in the country, can produce at least US$2,300 worth of pearls every three years. In addition to the increased income, which is siginficant for a country with GDP per capita of $1,331, the method also creates a significant protein source from snails, clams, and fish and oysters in the ponds.
Thirteen species of oysters that thrive in Bangladesh's waterways produce pearls of high quality. Bangladesh's best known pink pearl is particularly valued in the world market. Traditionally wild pearls have been collected and sold in a rather disorganized manner, but they have not been cultivated on small family farms. There are several reasons for this. Although pearl cultivation is not technically difficult there is no experience with the process. The original investments are not prohibitive, they are beyond the means of most family farmers. There is no system of credit for such investments, partly as there is no organized market for trading pearls. Wild pearls that are collected by small farmers are usually sold to jewelry shops for a fifth of their true market value, a further disincentive.There is also an organizational constraint. The ponds in which oysters might be cultivated are rarely "owned" by one family. Transforming the ponds into oyster beds thus requires the cooperation of several families at the pond level and community and even multiple-village cooperation to create a large enough collective production base to remedy the constraints of initial investment, technical skill, access to credit and obtaining a fair market price. Working at those levels contrasts markedly with the prevailing attitudes among Bangladeshi farmers living in the flood plains, who generally perceive themselves as autonomous individuals struggling to reap a profit from the small individual parcels of land they own.
Abu Taleb is working to change those attitudes and to convince landowners that the ponds are an important shared resource and that the power of collective guided investment can dramatically change their lives. Abu Taleb's pearl cultivation project asks individual farmers to rethink their traditional relationship to their land and neighbors. Individuals cooperate in the development of oyster colonies in shared waters. They participate as partners and share the profits gained from their labor.Abu Taleb harnesses the energy and resources of three groups to realize his vision: trained volunteers, nongovernmental organizations, and the school system. These groups implement his strategy on an increasingly widespread scale. He has begun by training volunteers from sixteen thanas (administrative districts) in the establishment and maintenance of pearl cultivation ponds. These sixteen volunteers will similarly recruit and train volunteers from sixteen separate Unions in their respective thanas. Again, this process will be repeated at the village level: one volunteer from each village that a Union represents will be trained in the methods of pearl culture. In total, this exercise involves a sufficient pilot group to sustain a national expansion.Talukder enlists Bangladesh's many nongovernmental development organizations to thanas and to provide the initial investment to establish his programs. Similarly, he hopes to utilize the resources of Bangladesh's 44,000 primary schools to disseminate pearl culture technology, at the same time providing students with a practical education in aquaculture and the establishment of a sustainable ecological industry.The development and maintenance of a oyster colony is a reasonably straightforward operation requiring minimal labor for a potentially large yield. The cultivation is divided into three stages: (1) the collection of oysters, (2) nurturing the young oysters, and (3) depositing them in the pond. The entire process from collection to harvest takes three years. In addition to pearls and meat, the oyster shells can be sold to produce lime and urea, used in concrete and fertilizer.Knowing that many Bangladeshis would be unable to wait three years for a return on their investment, Abu Taleb added the cultivation of products with a more immediate yield: fish, clams and snails. While the oysters are maturing, investors can harvest fish, clams and snails from the ponds three or four times a year, thus providing some additional income and a reliable protein source. With the cooperation and investment of development organizations and private philanthropists, Abu Taleb hopes to establish a network of training centers, hatcheries and distribution cooperatives to facilitate the growth and spread of pearl producing centers. On the marketing side, he has developed a list of shops that are willing to pay a fair price for the pearls. Members of the project can also sell their pearls to his representatives who in turn sell them in the local jewelry market in Dhaka.
Abu Taleb obtained a master's degree in fisheries from Dhaka University. Throughout his student life he had been acutely aware of the socio-economic problems of his country. As a student, he co-founded the National Fisheries Kindergarten to educate Bangladeshi youth in the management of aquatic resources. After completing his education in Dhaka, he wanted to establish pearl cultivation centers in Bangladesh yet felt he needed more training. He applied to Tokyo University, but was not able to gain admission since its courses in pearl culture were not open to foreign students. Refusing to be deterred, Abu Taleb privately studied the work of the Japanese oyster cultivation scientist Mikimoto and in January 1993 he harvested his first experimental bed of oysters with an impressive seventy percent yield of pearls. In recognition of this success, he received a grant from the Bangladeshi government to establish hatcheries and training programs. Now he is poised to spread his model throughout rural Bangladesh and improve the lives of many millions of people.