Tree fair in doubt as pandemic casts pall on nurseries

  • Tabarul Huq, Staff Correspondent,
    Published: 2020-07-02 11:50:28 BdST

Since its inception in 2005, the month-long national tree fair in Dhaka has piqued the enthusiasm of nature lovers during monsoon to buy seeds and plants in millions. But the rampant coronavirus epidemic is threatening to put this year's event on the backburner.

According to nursery owners and others involved with the trade, around 10 million seeds and plants worth Tk 300-350 million are sold at the fair each year.

While nature has been revitalised by the arrival of the rainy season, nurseries are yet to reap its rewards as customers are scarce despite the relaxation of the lockdown measures to limit the outbreak.

The constriction placed on people’s movement and their work over the last three months significantly reduced the activities of nurseries and dented sales too. With the odds of getting too many customers looking bleak, nurseries have refrained from producing new seeds and plants.

Nursery owners also lamented the diminishing hopes of the countrywide tree plantation campaign being held this year. This could exacerbate the losses that the sector suffered in the pandemic.

“Our sales are very low. We are selling seeds and plants worth no more than Tk 10,000 daily whereas last year on this day, I made sales worth around Tk 40-50,000,” said Shariful Alam, the owner of Jannat Nursery at Dhaka’s Agargaon.

“People grow plants on rooftops in Dhaka but they are not coming around to buy plants anymore due to the coronavirus,” he added.

Abu Bakr Siddique, who tends to a small garden on his rooftop in Segunbagicha, said he was looking forward to adding new plant varieties to his terrace this year. But the coronavirus outbreak has put paid to his plans.

“I don’t get out of my home for fear of contracting the coronavirus infection, except to buy the daily necessities. I need some plants for my rooftop, but there is no decent nursery around and I’m not bold enough to go to Agargaon,” he said.

The drop in sales, which is around 60 to 70 percent according to some owners, has triggered unemployment in the nursery sector during the pandemic. Nursery owners now await government intervention to recover the losses.

There are almost 20,000 nurseries across the country where workers produce seeds and grow plants. Seeds produced by local farmers and imported from abroad are also featured for sale.

But many stakeholders have bemoaned the government's lack of initiative to help the investors in this sector to recuperate their losses. Nursery owners demanded free distribution of fertilisers and insecticides to rescue the sector.

“This is a loss-making year for us. Nursery sales have dropped drastically since the coronavirus emerged,” Md Masbah Uddin, the president of Bangladesh Plant Nurserymen Society,

“The seedlings we had gradually sold out but the problem is we haven't produced new ones. Due to this, the nurseries don’t have as many plants as before and the ones we have are mostly the bigger plants which are more expensive.”

People are buying plants from a nursery in Dhaka's Banasree. As the coronavirus epidemic rages on, many have taken to gardening as a respite from the ongoing crisis. Photo: Mostafigur Rahman

People are buying plants from a nursery in Dhaka's Banasree. As the coronavirus epidemic rages on, many have taken to gardening as a respite from the ongoing crisis. Photo: Mostafigur Rahman

They would have been able to prepare seeds had the government provided fertilizers and insecticides to the nurseries like it gave farmers, according to Masbah.

"People involved with nurseries are not making new investments to produce seedlings in fear of incurring losses. This will affect tree-planting across the country,” he said.

Mesbah Uddin, the owner of Rangaban Nursery, believes that organising the tree fair now would not make up for the financial losses caused by the pandemic. The dangers of encouraging public gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak and closing the fair before evening every day would not be much of a help to owners in reality.

“Two applications were submitted to the Prime Minister's Office over this fair. The last application appealed for a postponement of the fair,” he said, adding that around 100 government-owned and private nurseries take part in the National Tree Fair in the capital.

The event is also held at the district level but the lack of preparation makes it unlikely to happen this year, he added.

Gonbinda Roy, the deputy chief conservator of forest, acknowledged that two applications were submitted regarding the tree fair but he played down the chances of the event being held.

Pointing out the adverse impact of coronavirus on social forestry, including nurseries, he said, “We can see that it affects forestry. But due to the lack of field-level information, we cannot determine the scale of that impact.”