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How Flowering Bamboos Can Cause Famine, War

Posted by feww on April 26, 2010

What has flowering of bamboo plants got to do with famine and war?

They Boost Rats Reproduction Rate, Causing  Infestation, Famine and War

About 130,000 people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in south-eastern Bangladesh, plagued by rat infestation, face serious food shortages. The rats are eating everything in their sight including crops, seeds and the stocks, a report by AlertNet said.

Every 50 years or so, flowers produced by the bamboo plants, if consumed by rats, dramatically increase their reproduction rate, says the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).


Melocanna bambusoides fruit.
“Once every 48 years in the remote Indian state of Mizoram, a strange phenomenon takes over the land, threatening famine and death. Hundreds of thousands of acres of bamboo begin to flower and fruit, sparking a plague of rats. Drawn by the nutrient-rich pear-sized fruit, millions of hungry rats feast — their numbers growing exponentially as they descend into a reproductive frenzy. They devour crops, bringing hardship and even famine upon Mizoram’s farmers. The locals call this biological anomaly the Mautam, and when it last struck in 1959, famine killed thousands and plunged the state into a 20-year guerilla insurgency.” Photo and caption: American Bamboo Org.

“Even in normal years, when harvests are good and bamboo available for collection, food insecurity is especially acute in remote areas of CHT,” said Abigail Masefield, ECHO’s food assistance coordinator for South Asia.

“Discussions with communities have confirmed a significant reduction in the 2009 harvest compared to the normal harvest, with only around 30 to 50 percent of normal production level reported by all the communities visited.”

The CHT, bordering India and Myanmar, are one of the most disadvantaged regions of Bangladesh, where more than 60 percent of the 1.3 million population are living below the poverty line, according to the U.N. Development Programme.

Thousands of landless Bengalis were settled in the 5,500-sq-miles (14,200 sq km) region under a government plan in the 1980s to ease population pressure in the plains, and also to defuse a 25-year tribal separatist insurgency which ended in 1997.

The affected populations have lost all of their crops including rice, bananas and chilli crops, as well as turmeric and ginger, which are the cash-earning crops, according to aid workers.

“To further compound matters, the bamboo dies after flowering and takes five years to regenerate, impacting the income of populations who make a meagre but important income by selling bamboo to a local paper mill.” The report said.


A rodent feeding on Melocanna bambusoides fruit. “But the rats aren’t the only part of the story puzzling scientists. Bamboo itself is an enigmatic plant. Many bamboo species reproduce only once in their lifetime, then die. What’s bizarre is how long they wait before reproducing —20, 50, even 100 or more years, depending on the species. Even stranger: Many species reproduce synchronously: Like clockwork, all plants in a given geographic region flower and seed at precisely the same moment, then die.” Photo and caption: American Bamboo Org.

Masefield said although the number of rats has recently declined,  wild pigs and forest monkeys destroy what little crops are left.

“This means that the traditional lean season—March/April to August—is set to be particularly acute and early during 2010.”

The rats can also carry potentially deadly diseases including bubonic plague, typhoid and typhus, causing major epidemics as the rodents exponentially increase in number.

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