Bangladesh and its environment

MANKIND cannot help but embrace the survivors of the devastating cyclone that ripped through the islands of southeastern Bangladesh over the weekend. Relief efforts are now under way by the government of Bangladesh. Overseas nations can also speed appropriate food and financial assistance to Dacca, as the United States has announced it will do. Bangladesh is often referred to as the world's ``poorest nation'' -- at least, when considered among the more significant nations of the globe. And that designation, measured just in economic terms, cannot be ignored. The country has roughly 100 million people crammed into an area about the size of Wisconsin. The country's main natural economic asset -- its rich delta area, which creates a remarkably fertile agricultural region -- is also its main environmental challenge. Population pressures, as well as a need to constantly increase food production to feed a population growing at a rate between 2 and 3 percent annually, result in thousands of persons spilling into islands and growing areas that are unfortunately prone to cyclones and other adverse weather conditions. Thus it is that when such tragedies occur, the fatalities tend to be recorded in high numbers.

It would be unfortunate for the world community, however, to become hypnotized by what so often appears to be a continuous cycle of misfortune and disaster in Bangladesh. Saying this is not to minimize the weekend's tragedy. But it is to bring some perspective to newspaper and television reports that may well be inadvertently presenting an exaggerated picture of the nation: that Bangladesh is a society, as one current report has it, that ``has become a synonym for disaster and human suffering.'' There is much more about Bangladesh that needs to be observed as well.

Since the mid 1970s food and agricultural production had increased significantly. Granted, the nation must still import food stocks to feed its growing population. But at the same time, cereal production has been growing at least 3 percent a year in recent years. Wheat production, in particular, has increased substantially.

A modest green revolution is under way throughout the nation. High-yield variety seeds are being planted. Fertilizer use, for all its problems, has become fairly widespread. The government has put into place a market-oriented pricing system for agriculture that compares favorably to pricing systems in many other third-world nations, particularly in Africa.

Yes, much still needs to be done. Reports of hoarding, corruption, and economic inefficiencies persist. More fertilizer is required. The birthrate must be slowed further. Nonagricultural production is sorely needed. Foreign aid must be better utilized, as the World Bank warned Dacca earlier this year.

But each nation must work within the confines of its own historic and geographic setting. In the case of Bangladesh, the economic and agricultural setting is admittedly difficult, with a land literally washed by the sea. It is that setting that remains the nation's opportunity -- and its problem. And in that context, a person would have only part of the story who failed to recognize the enormous progress that has been made by the people of Bangladesh in seeking to better their lives.

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