HISTORICALLY, people of this land have intimate relationship with forests. The Maitai, Manipuri, Mandi or the Bengalis, their canonical literatures revolved around forests. In the Mahabharata, when the god of fire, Agni, lost his appetite, he was prescribed to eat forest-burnt meat (bonpora mangsa). Agni consumed the Khandava forest, which burned for 15 days, sparing only Aswasena, Maya, and the four birds called sarangakas. While the Mahabharata is a story of the past, the unholy appetite of eating up forests is very much a tale of our time. The forest department or business quarters are breathing fire on forests for their profiteering interest. Forest after forest is disappearing before our eyes. Forest lands are encroached. Trees are illegally sold. From the Sunderbans to the coastal areas, the forests in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, swamp forests in Sylhet, the Bhawal forest of Madhupur, Salban of the north, the forests near the border areas of greater Mymensingh, the rural forests in the Varendra area are still home to 60 or more indigenous and other occupational communities including honey collectors, boatmen and fishermen communities. The indigenous and occupational communities, roughly about 35 lakh people, are still dependent on the forests. Yet, the strong socio-economic tie of these subaltern communities with the forests is not officially acknowledged. We know that civilisation cannot survive without natural forests and the well-being and sustenance of the forests depend on how well the forests rights of these communities are ensured.
In Bangladesh, some of the endangered forests are officially labelled as national garden, reserve forest, protected forestland, animal sanctuary, game reserve and more. At the same time, the work of building military and civil establishements, industries, tourism development projects in forest land are continuing indiscriminately. The life and livelihood of the Koch, Kanda, Ganju Sing, Lohar, Hajong, Dalu, Bishnupriya Manipuri, Mai Tai, Laleng, Chakma, Tripura, Rakhaine, Mrainma, Khasi, Mandi, Banai, Kharia, Mahali, Lusai, Bangali, Bede-Mangta, Koda, Dher, Rajoar, Bheel, Mro, Pangkho, Bam, Munda, Rengmitcha, Teli, Khatriyabarman, Chak, Pahariya, Tanchangya, Khumi, Khiang, Kol, Kurmi, Jaintia, Malo, Mushar, Rabidas, Mahato, Malpaharia and other indigenous communities are inextricably linked with forests. Many indigenous citizens consider themselves as the children of the forest. They do not think they are the protector or ruler of forests, rather, the keeper. Their philosophy, ritual, religion, tradition, literature and knowledge system revolve around the forest. Almost all indigenous communities have their own forest science. They have their own tradition of nurturing the part of the forest, water bodies and its biodiversity they consider sacred. They do not consider forest as private property. They do not think the forest is a commercial good with monetary value. Indigenous people and forests are inseparable subjects — twin lives. Forcibly tearing them apart kills the possibility of their individual survival.
The colonial empire globally and regionally, however, violently disrupted the notion of forests, wild animals and humans being mutually dependent and maintaining relations of reciprocity. In 1778, the notorious captain James Cook repaired his merchant ships in the Nutka land of north-western America. With that began the use of forest wood for ship building and repair. Later, the building of spars for ships with the wood from the Vancouver forest and exporting it to China from Canada became a successful colonial enterprise and with that the commercialisation of forests was historically initiated. Up until the 18th century, this was the main mode of colonial exploitation of forests. Later, colonial rulers started to use wood to build their houses and with that the scope for the commercial exploitation of forests expanded. In Asia, the British colonial rulers established their control in the local forests. This is how the process of hurting the conjoined spirit of forests and their people began.
We saw the end of the British colonial period, faught the war against the intercolonial Pakistani regime and earned an independent Bangladesh, but successive governments continue to uphold the colonial psyche when it comes to managing the forests. Sadly, even in the eyes of the independent government, forest land remained the site of extracting raw material for the market and a source of profit. Some forest conservation, animal sanctuary and national forest programmes are there. Such programmes of eco-park, eco-toruism, social forestry, oil exploration in forested land, tourist resorts, rubber plantation and other similar projects have, however, disrupted the organic ties that indigenous people have with the forest and they have always challenged such initiaves. Today, the world is talking about the conservation of the Asian elephant, but nearly a century and a half ago, the Hajong community waged a movement in Susang Durgapur of Netrakona protesting against the ‘Hatikheda Begar’ system and the capturing of wild elephants for commercial purposes.
In Sylhet, the Khasi community challenged the British colonial attempt at mining construction rocks. To protect the hills, forests and habitats from the Kaptai Dam began the long struggle in the Chattogram Hill Tracts. History says, once an Amrita Debi took the blow of the king’s machete to save a date tree. In Madhupur, Piren Snal took a bullet to save his Salban forest. But the state never cared to understand the harm it has done to the forests and the suffering it has inflicted on the people dependent on forests. It never acknowledged indigenous people’s role and their contribution in nurturing the forest and vice versa.
On the golden jubilee celebrations of our independence, what are we witnessing? What is the state of our forests and wetlands? Who is responsible for the rapidly disappearing forests? Fifty years is a long time, now we have no choice but to fight back. To keep our forests alive, the knowledge and struggle of the indigenous people must be acknowledged and included in state policies. In this discussion, I write about the forest movements led by indigenous subalterns in the post-independent Bangladesh. The movements I am referring to here are the ones I was involved with. There are other environmental movements that are equally important and I apologise to all whose stories are not included here.
Bloodstained Nahar Tea Garden
ON JUNE 30, 2008, the ministry of environment and forest dubiously issued a permit in favour of Nahar Tea Garden in Moulvibazar allowing it to chop down a total of 4,000 trees in exchange for Tk 47.51 lakh as revenue to the public treasury. To save the trees, members of the Khasi community from the nearby hill areas started to organise. On September 20, 2008, the authorities concerned began to forcibly cut down trees. The movement continued. On October 19, 2008, they had to stop the destruction. On August 27, 2009, a seven-member investigation committee was formed to investigate the matter and they visited the garden. Later, on February 2, 2010, Md Delowar Hosain, an official from the Forest Department in Sylhet gave unconditional permission to cut down 2,350 trees of the garden to Selim Traders. On February 22, 2010, the High Court too gave a directive in favour of cutting down trees. From March 13, 2010, despite opposition from the Khasi community, thus began the ruthless killing of greenery. The Nahar Garden is spread across about 1,200 acres of land, of which they have taken lease of 864 acres and the rest is illegally occupied. Not only that, since 1984, the authority has been unjustly collecting taxes from the Khasis in violation of the law related to the leasing of land for the purposes of tea gardens. Local Khasis in their small ways continued to speak against the injustices done to them and their forests.
Missing ‘Bir’ Singra Salban
Once there was a large Salban forest in the northern Varendra area of Bangladesh. This forest is long gone. In the Vedic period, the Salban forest was a significant feature of the Ganges delta plain. After the colonial occupation of the East India Company in 1857, the Salban was exploited for rail road construction. The first people of this forested land are the Santals. In their language, the forest is referred as ‘bir’ and that is why so many of the places in this area are named after ‘bir’, as in Birganj, Birtola, Balabir, and Birol. The skeletal remain of the Singra Salban is still there by the Narta and Dhepa rivers in Birganj, Dinajpur. The umi mounds charecterising the 1271.81 acres of forest land are visible here and there. The local Santals call these mounds bunum tukke. In this area the Santals had once built a village called Kalidanga. Immediately after the war of independence, the Bengali Muslims from Noakhali grabbed their land. Today, it is a Bengali only village. Indigenous people were forcibly evicted from the Singra forest and the state rehabilitated landless Bengalis in different housing projects, such as the Guchchha Gram and Ashrayan Prakalpa. In 1991–1992, the Forest Department deployed this landless population to plant aggressive Eucalyptus trees. In the name of social forestry, the state policy implicitly fuelled an ethnic conflict between the Bengalis and the Santals. The Forest Department also brought fabricated charges against the Santals under various forest acts. Many Santals ended up spending their last penny fighting these politically motivated cases and were forced to leave the area. The community even lost access to ‘Jaherthan’ (the part of the forest they consider sacred). Against all odds, they try to maintain the forest and its biodiversity. In the margin of the forest, they have an eagle care centre.
Shilkhali Garjan forest
The early name of Cox’s Bazar in the Rakhaine language is Aung Shengtha Mro, which means the land of prosperity and peace. Later, it was renamed as Falongshei Mro, which roughly translates as a state manager’s town. Rakhaines call Teknaf by the name of Kau Sang and the River Naf by the name of Netmrai. Forests in the coastal areas today are used for shrimp or salt farming or as sites for real estate developments. The vast barren 21,000 acres of land in Cox’s Bazar used to be the Chakaria-Sunderbans. Even in 1971, 19,390 acres of this land was forested. In 1981, the size of the forest came down to 8,650 acres and, in 1985, it became 4,072 acres. Commercial shrimp farming swallowed the remaining land by 1995.
The shrimp farming project of the Asian Development Bank ended in 1986 and the World Bank project ended in 1993. In the completion report of the World Bank, it said that the shrimp farming did not cause any environmental damage except for waterlogging in selected areas. However, the report of the ADB mentioned that 800 hectares of mangrove forest had disappeared because of shrimp farming activities. These forests were the life and livelihood for the Rakhaine, the Tanchangya and the Chakmas but they have been slowly evicted from the land. The size of the Bengali population is also significant in the area and they too have been affected by the deforestation. With the refugee settlements of the Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar, conflicts over animal resources within the communities have intensified. The Asian elephants’ natural habitat is also at risk.
In the 2007–2008 financial year, the Local Government Engineering Development took a plan to construct a 30-kilometre road from Teknaf to Baharchara and allocated Tk 20 crore for it. The LGED approved the chopping down of 36-years-old Garjan trees in the Jahazpura conservation forest in Teknaf for the project. The forest spanning across 200 acres of land is home to century old 5,024 Garjan trees, about 1,500 Telshur-Chambar-Civit trees and many wild animals including elephant, monkey and deer. In the face of collective protests from all ethnic communities in the area, the local government was forced to build the road without taking down the trees.
Anti-ecopark movement in Madhabkunda and Muraichara
BARALEKHA upazila, situated near the border area of Moulvibazar in the Sylhet division is surrounded by forests, hills and hillocks. The popular tourist destination Madhabkunda waterfall is located in this upazila. The world’s largest haor Hakaluki is also a part of it. The Madhabkunda Ecopark is built around the waterfall. The park is on 634 acres of forest land, a nearby Khasi habitat is incorporated into the park area. On April 15, 2001, the then envioronment and forest minister inaugurated the park. At the time, the government had plans to set up ecoparks at Muraichara and Kulaura as well.
To protect the hills and forests, the Khasis and Mandis in the area began a movement against the ecoparks. At the time, the head of Muraichara (Punji Pradhan), elderly Anil Youngyoung began a fast unto death programme at the Central Shahid Minar in Dhaka demanding an immediate cancellation of the ecopark project in the said area. The government abandoned the plan for Muraichara, but the Forest Department inaugurated the ecopark entrance gate on May 3, 2005. Inside the Madhabkunda ecopark, there are three villages of the Khasi community — Madhab Khasipunji, 7 Nambar Khasipunji and Katajangalpunji. The water from the Madhabkunda falls has been the source of water for the Khasia and Mandis. They use the water for drinking, bathing and other household purposes. But the district office has now imposed a restriction on their use of the waterfall. Today, the Madhabkunda falls is leased out and to enter the area people have to pay a fee.
Many tourists, meanwhile, visit the ecopark everyday. They do not think it necessary to seek permission to enter the Khasipunjis or their panjum (betel leaf gardens). Tourists randomly take photographs of the Khasi people invading their private space. With the outsiders came a virus called ‘utram’ that destroyed betel leaf gardens. Many Khasi families lost their livelihood and were forced to leave their ancestral forest.
Menkifanda movement against aggressive plants
MENKIFANDA is a Mandi-Hajong dominated area in the border area of Durgapur, Netrakona. About 133 acres of land used to be inhabitated by the Mandis, they lived on 10–12 hillocks of this area. Increasing control of the Forest Department in this area has forced the Mandis out of 5–6 hillocks. Thirty families faced legal cases. The chopping down of trees in this area began under the Pakistani regime. In 1960–1961, the Forest Department tried to replace the Salban with aggressive Achin trees, but was unsuccessful after opposition from the indigenous community. Later in 1972–1973, two forest guards, Md Dewan and Md Abdus Sattar cut down many trees in the Menkifanda forest. The trees were mainly used in nearby Bengali-owned wood burning brick kilns. That was the early days of deforestation in the area.
Ajit Richil, an elderly teacher, first began to organise against deforestation in Menkifanda. One day, he stopped 14 trucks filled with felled trees of the forest. On April 4, 1993, the Forest Department from the Batenshahi forest beat brought about 400–450 Bengalis to Menkifanda. Their objective was to create a conflict between the two ethnic communities. The eviction of the Mandi village would have paved the way for the Forest Department to plant Acacia, Eucalyptus and Mangium trees in the forest. The forest department arrived with Bengalis, who were armed with sticks and other things. The BDR (Bangladesh Rifles, now Border Guard Bangladesh) men also followed. On that day, the Forest Department led an aggressive gathering in the Menkifanda valley. The BDR was verbally abusive, and they threatened members of the Mandi community to leave the place immediately saying that their life will be at risk otherwise. Ajit Richil was indomitable; they put their life on the line to defend the dying forest.
Lauacherra against gas exploration of multinationals
THE Lauacherra national forest is one of the seven animal sanctuaries and ten national forests, but it is now dying. In 1996, under the Wild Animal (Protection) Act 1974, 1,250 hectares of the Bhanugach reserve forest were declared as the Lauacherra national forest. On June 14, 1997, the explosion at a gas field in Lauacherra, which was managed by the US-based company Occidental, gravely impacted the forest biodiversity. Later, another US company, Unocal Corporation, was allowed to construct gas pipelines through the forest. In 2008, the government allowed another corporation Chevron to conduct geological survey for oil and gas resources. The corporation drilled holes and injured the forest mercilessly. Ironically, the US corporations that caused harm are now offering ‘aid’ to protect the forest and its nature. In nearby Balishira hill and Satgaon hill, oil exploration is going on under the supervision of Bapex. The ‘explorations’ have endangered the forest and its people. Local members of the Khasi and Tripura communities have always raised their voices against such destructive activities of the multinationals.
Anti-ecopark movement in Madhupur
THE Madhupur Salban is one of the oldest forests in the region. The first people of this forest known as the ‘Garh’ are the Mandi (Garo) and the Koch-Burmans. In the Mandi language, this forest is called ‘Balsal Bring’ and the Madhupur garh is ‘Ha.Bima’. Ha.Bima means mother’s soil. In 1962, under the rule of Ayub Khan and Monaem Khan, to evict the Mandis from their land 20,827.37 acres of forest land was fenced and declared as national forest. In 1977–1978, a part of the protected forest was used as a bombing range for the Bangladesh Air Forces. In 1982, under the Attia Forest (Protection) Ordinance, another 55,476.38 acres of land was declared as the Attia Reserve Forest. In 1984, the Forest Department in Madhupur issued eviction notices to local Mandi and Koch families. In 2000, a controversial ‘ecotourism project’ was initiated with building a wall around 3,000 acres of core forest area. The fencing and erecting of walls prompted protests. On January 3, 2004, Piren Snal was killed in the hands of forest guards and police while protesting against the ecopark. Utpal Nakrek, a child, bore bullet injury to her backbone. On August 21, 2006, the indigenous people in Madhupur witnessed another violent episode as forest guards opened fire at them. On the fateful day, Fazli Dofo, Falidut, Shishilia Snal and 8–10 others were collecting fallen leaves near the Rasulpur Range of Sataria area. In 2016, 9,145.07 acres of land of Aranakhola mauja was once again declared as reserve forest. In this mauja alone, there are 13 Mandi villages. They are the first people of this forest, yet they live in constant fear of eviction in the face of hostile government policy and action. And, we see the indigenous people of this forest take to the streets as the state celebrates the golden jubilee of Bangladesh.
The lost forest of Bhawal
MUCH of the Bhawal forest is now gone. Local Koch, Mandi, Rajbangshi and Khatriya communities are evicted from their forest land. Risking the ecosystem and biodiversity of the Bhawal forest, army cantonment, mint, weapon factory, and the Ansar Academy have been established here. Without any consultation with the people who inhabited the land for years, the Bhawal national forest was created. The monoculture of Acacia trees was introduced which is slowly destroying the forest. Indigenous communities lost their right to forests along with their knowledge linked to the animals and plants living in it. The state forcibly, but silently, eliminated words from their everyday vocabulary. Women’s tradition of collecting wild potatos or picking medicinal plants is also long gone or some would say, killed. The Forest Department routinely engages in conflicts with the local population. Still the indigenous people, whenever they can, raise their voices demanding their forest rights.
China cutlery and tiles ate the forest
IN SCIENCE Laboratory, Kataban, Hatirpul and Bangla Motors area of Dhaka, the booming business of tiles and cutlery hides the story of a lost forest. The decorated, colourful cutleries and tiles carry the tragedy of the hillocks and forests situated in north-eastern Bangladesh. Bakshiganj in Jamalpur, Jhinagati and Nalitabari in Sherpur, Haluaghat in Mymensingh and Dhilban areas of the Durgapur border area are mercilessly taken apart to extract white sand (chinamati) and it is this destruction that has fuelled the growth of the ceramic industry in Bangladesh. Hajong, Mandi and Koch communities were evicted from the forests and hillocks only to become the labourers of the sandmining companies. In Nalitabari, white sand mining began in 2001. Peoples Ceramics, Standard Cermics, Sanghai, Hoaitoai, Monno Ceramic, Madhumita Ceramic, China-Bangla Company, Sweety Enterprise, Fuwang and many more came and took control of local farmland and hills. On the hillocks, some rare plants still survived. This is the natural habitat of the Asian elephant. Stone quarries and sand mining have scaled down the size of the elephant habitats. In the Rangtia hill of Sherpur, there are Galeattha, Rashe Kanta, Markora, Jakhaitita woody vine that local indigenous people still take care of. However, if the unregulated sandmining and stone quarries continue, soon there will be no hillocks and forest in this area. The ceramic companies even occupied the 1.14 acre ‘Kalisthan’ in Shomchura, Sherpur. The united struggles of the Koch and Bengalis saved the Kalisthan from the greed of the ceramic companies.
Movement to save Chimbuk
IN 1986, when the Soil Resource Development Institute made a list of hills in the Chattogram Hill Tracts, majority of the hills were named in the Pankhwa language. The naming practice here considers the local biodiversity, ecosystem, culture, or any event from the social memory significant. For example, the Chimbuk hill of Bandarban. This hill is named after Chimbak Mro. Although, the Mro people know the hill as Youngbonghung. Another nearby hill is named Shongnamhung in Mro. In Marma it is Naitong. Now, the Bengalis named the same hill as ‘Chandra Pahar’. And on this hill, a vested quarter is planning to build the five-star Mariott Hotel. Fearing eviction, local Mro and other communities have expressed concern. Young people from across the country raised their voice against such a commercial enterprise that proposes to build a tourist resort risking the eviction of the Mro people from their ancestral land. On November 8, 2020, the Mro community organised a cultural showdown in which they played the traditional Plung flute on the Bandarban–Chimbuk–Thanchi road demanding the immediate cancellation of the plan to build the hotel.
Law to protect indigenous people’s forest
THESE are some stories, sparks from the indigenous people’s movement to secure their right to forest. The other reason why forest land is disappearing and indigenous people’s access to forest is being restrained is the lack of understanding of indigenous production systems and relations. The state has been very actively trying to ban jum cultivation. Except for the Chattogram Hill Tracts, in all other cases the state has prohibited jum cultivation. The green revolution of the 1960s and the banning of thrash and burn cultivation have changed forest ecology and contributed to deforestation. In order to restore indigenous people’s right to forest, particularly for the ones in the plain land, a special law must be enacted. The drafting of this law must take into account the deep ties indigenous people have with forests and their unique production system and relation. On the golden jubilee of the independence of Bangladesh, the government must recognise their forest-based knowledge and struggle to protect the forests.
Pavel Partha is a researcher in ecology and biodiversity conservation.