Planting Mangoes and Churches in Bangladesh

March 13, 2014

The serene Bandarban Hills of southeast Bangladesh are a different universe from the clogged streets of Dhaka, located some 155 miles away. And that´s just how the Maru like it. Threatened by the push of progress, they cling to a traditional agrarian way of life set amidst bamboo houses and Buddhist shrines.

With its tropical climate and ample rainfall, the surrounding terrain is ideal for growing staple fruit crops like bananas and pineapples. It´s also perfect for producing mangoes—the national tree of Bangladesh.

The Maru (also called Mru) are among 11 tribal groups in Bandarban who had little or no exposure to the gospel until about 20 years ago. To this day, many practice a blend of animist and Buddhist rituals that include sacrifices to appease the forest spirits.

When Christian Aid Mission learned of a church-planting ministry´s desire to expand its outreach to the Maru and other hill tribes, the director responded with a surprising request. He asked us to help him purchase mango saplings!

The purpose was three-fold. Planting mango groves in the area would give missionaries the opportunity to live among the tribal peoples and establish relationships with them. Local workers would be hired to maintain the trees and harvest the fruit, thus providing a source of livelihood for village families. The project would also generate income for the ministry, with the potential to produce enough revenue to support ten or more missionaries.

That was in 2006. The ministry planted some 2,000 trees that have been yielding a bountiful supply of mangoes the past two summers. Its project committee oversees the general care of the trees and hires laborers to weed the groves three times a year and harvest the fruit in June. The mangoes are then sold at a nearby market.

What is more impressive, however, is the spiritual harvest that began long before the first mango was plucked from its branch—and which has only multiplied as a result of this project. Since 1994 the ministry has established more than 40 tribal churches in the Bandarban Hill District, including two new churches in Maru villages.

Isolated and desperately poor hill tribes, like the Maru, have traditionally shied away from outside influences—including fellow Bangladeshi who hail from the lowlands and the coast. The mango project provides a practical ministry, a "fertile soil" of sorts whereby native missionaries can build trust with Maru villagers and help them supplement their meager incomes.

Perhaps more than any other group in the region, the Maru have demonstrated a growing openness to the gospel. After becoming followers of Christ, some of them have become church planters and pastors among their people.