DHAKA (Reuters) - Ambia Khatun, a widowed mother of two, spent the entire day plucking jute. But as the sun began to sink she finally called her son and daughter to help her clean the raw fiber and spread it out to dry near their home.
Once dry, she will take the jute to a nearby market to sell, buy essential provisions and save the rest of the money.
“We are getting good prices this year,” the 45-year-old said, adding that 40 kgs of jute -- popularly known as “golden fiber” -- are going for twice what they did a year ago.
Long a key export crop in impoverished Bangladesh, jute, a fiber derived from reed-like plants, fell from favor as demand for cheap synthetics soared. But now it is seeing a broad international renaissance for use in shopping bags to replace polythene, non-biodegradable and harmful to the environment.
Polythene bags, with roughly 1 million used each day in Bangladesh alone, choke drains, canals and even small rivers, polluting them beyond use. One example is the Buriganga near Dhaka, with heaps of abandoned polythene bags bobbing in its timid flow.
Bangladesh has banned the use of polythene bags and ordered they be replaced by jute bags but the rule is often violated by both dishonest traders as well as the customers.
By contrast, jute, Bangladesh’s second main crop after rice, grows in the monsoon, fed by rain. It is strong enough to stand out in the rush of water that often floods all or much of the country and becomes a source of cash for farmers hoping to ease their grinding poverty.
“Higher price and better yield have encouraged many villagers to increase cultivation of jute,” said Mujibur Rahman, a 67-year-old farmer.
“Besides cash, it gives them an option to use dried jute plants for cooking and putting up fences in their homes.”
Once Bangladesh’s top export, jute -- also used for making ropes, sacks and packaging -- lost its traditional luster over the past couple of decades amid the rise of cheaper synthetics.
As exports plunged, Bangladeshi jute mills suffered huge losses, forcing authorities to shut down many factories, throwing thousands of workers out of jobs.
Among them was Asia’s biggest jute mill, the Adamjee Jute Mills, located at Narayanganj, an industrial town 18 km (12 miles) from Dhaka. Authorities laid off its more than 16,000 workers by paying one-off compensation and overdue wages, but most of those workers are still jobless, struggling for survival and battling grinding poverty.
The present government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has reopened 10 jute mills since taking office in early 2009 and hopes to pull up the shutters on a few more mills still closed as the demand for jute and jute good continues to rise.
Although many old workers have been re-employed, such a fate does not await those at Adamjee, where the buildings were demolished. Authorities even sold off its land.
Overall, though, the jute industry is now in good shape and looking to a brighter future, officials in the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation said.
Export earnings from jute and jute goods reached $1.2 billion in the fiscal year ended in June, 2011, up more than 160 percent from three years ago, a senior BJMC official said.
Exports have also shown a steady rise. The country made $417 million from sale of raw jute and jute goods in the fiscal 2008/09 and $787 million in fiscal 2009/10, the official said.
“We have set an export target for jute of $1.34 billion in the year to June 2012,” said Jalal Ahmed, chief executive officer of the state-run Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau.
“The prospects for jute are becoming brighter day by day as many countries now are determined to stop the use of polythene and instead focusing on the use of environment friendly natural fiber.”
Jalal said Bangladesh exports 80 percent of the total global demand for jute and ranks second to India among world’s jute producing countries.
Now jute and jute goods are the second largest export earner for Bangladesh, after ready-made garments that account for nearly 80 percent of the country’s total annual exports worth $23 billion.
Bangladesh mainly exports jute and jute goods to Turkey and India, as well as some European and African nations. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia also import jute and jute goods in small quantities.
But problems linger. One of the biggest is the fact that middlemen sometimes buy jute from farmers to supply the mills, paying the farmers lower prices.
“We are aware of the difference (of price) but accept it because we cannot travel to the main purchase hubs that are often far from our villages,” said Ataur Rahman, a jute grower in Bogra, 300 km (180 miles) north of Dhaka.
In general, though, farmers are pleased at the revival of demand for a lost crop and the growth of a second line of income, after rice.
“We are happy as the price is higher than production cost,” said Mohammad Salahuddin, a farmer in the east of the country.
Additional reporting by Azad Majumder; editing by Elaine Lies