Searching for green chunks of gold in the Tropics

Visit a part of the world where thousands of farmers’ livelihoods depend on a small green piece of fruit.

By Adrian Guerin

It wasn’t easy, but I (eventually) made it to the canals of Kirtipasha, a village in the district of Jhalakathi in south-west Bangladesh. All it took was an overnight ferry from Dhaka, then a bus, then a motorbike (in subtropical rains), a small truck and finally a small boat. Most of the time I had no idea where I was or if I was even heading in the right direction. But as always, somehow, I ended up… somewhere. And due to the effort required in getting there/here (where?), I was very serious about making the most of it.

Kirtipasha is a part of the world where thousands of farmers’ livelihoods depend on a small green piece of fruit. Every day they traverse the rabbit warren canals of Jhalakath in search of the Bengal Apple (aka guava). After they’ve rowed, climbed, netted and packed, they return to the nearby floating markets to unload and sell. The guava will eventually be distributed all over Bangladesh.

I’d been at the floating markets for all of 2 minutes when a couple of guys in a boat rowed over to me and said, ‘In!’. As in, ‘Get in the boat, now!’ Ok ok. I assumed it’d be a quick tour of the markets for a small fee. There was no English, so I couldn’t clarify exactly what this was all about, but sometimes you just don’t need to know.

As they rowed and rowed, I looked back at the market as it slowly drifted into the distance and thought, ‘So, it’s not a market tour. Oh welI, I’ve already seen the YouTube videos. I do wonder where we’re going though’. Soon we branched off from the main canal into a small canal. Then a smaller canal. Two hours later I thought, ‘Ok. I need to know what’s happening. What’s this all about? Have I been kidnapped?’. To be honest, it was bound to happen one day, and this was actually quite a pleasant way for it to be done. Besides, I sometimes get ‘Kidnap Negotiator’ in my insurance plans, so now it’ll finally pay off!

Alas, I was not being kidnapped (more money down the drain). I was instead about to be given a first-hand demonstration of guava picking, the very thing I’d travelled half way around the world to see. We proceeded to head deeper and deeper into a canopy of rich, fluorescent green, spending hours traversing the paradise of the guava gardens.

Guava farming in southwest Bangladesh is an industry that has not been modernised. It relies on a little blood, a lot of sweat, and a few tears to help cool the face. To describe the farmers’ job as simply ‘collecting’ guava, would be a bit like saying an Ethiopian salt miner simply ‘collects’ salt. Fruit picking from neatly choreographed orchards this is not, you gotta work for it, and you gotta work hard. First, we row a small boat in subtropical humidity through the dense, muddy canals. That alone is hard work. Then we find the right guava garden, climb to the very top of the tallest tree, skillfully manoeuvre the net to finagle a few pieces of green gold before ushering them down to the outstretched hands below. Climb down, load boat. Row to next spot. Repeat… all afternoon.

Once the boat is full, it’s back to one of the floating markets at Kuryana, Atghor, and Vimruli to unload and distribute amongst sellers. The guava will either be sold locally or packed for distribution across the country. Approximately 80% of the country’s Guava is produced in the guava orchards of southwest Bangladesh.

Guava Farmer’s job requirement: Excellent climbing skills, tolerance to humidity, being handy with a very long net and ability to walk gracefully in swampy mud.

Guava farmers present photographers with many challenges, such as climbing so high that it’s almost impossible to capture both farmers in one frame with a fixed lens. The higher they climb, the lower I need to crouch.

The best guavas have turned from bright green to a softer yellowish-green color.

The network of streams forming the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers is one of the most fertile regions in the world.

The apple of the tropics, Guava, has 5 times the vitamin C of an orange, which is why if you ask an Orange about a Guava, they pretend not to hear you. They have vitamin envy.

On market day, villagers from the region row their boats to one of the floating markets to sell their guava to wholesalers who distribute the produce across Bangladesh.