A memorial service for trees, held recently in Khadimnagar area of Sylhet city, might have aroused curiosity among a section of the city residents. But mourning for untimely deaths of trees is close to religious ritual for inhabitants of a remote indigenous village in Barlekha upazila.

Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (BAPA), Kapaeeng Foundation and KUBRAJ Inter-punji Development Organisation jointly organised the programme on March 24. Green activists and members of the organisations at the programme expressed solidarity with the indigenous communities who have been in mourning after two age-old trees at Agar punji (village) in Barlekha were felled.

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The villagers said they consider trees to be their own children. Livelihoods of 48 indigenous families also depend on trees on which they grow vines of betel leaf — their primary source of income.

But on March 19, two such trees were chopped down along Chhotolekha-Bobarthal road, about a kilometre away from their village. The trees were part of the natural forestry in the area and each was about three to four feet in diameter and aged over 40 years.

Sukmon Amse, headman of Agar punji, said around 20 to 25 people from Chhotolekha Tea Garden factory, set up on about seven kilometres away from the village, entered their betel leaf garden and started marking the larger trees with red paint.

After marking 25 trees, they chopped down two of those. The tea garden men left after the villagers arrived at the scene and protested the felling of the trees.

For their survival, the villagers need the trees for cultivating betel leaf. Besides, they have usage rights on the land where the trees were felled because Chhotolekha Tea Garden authorities leased out the land to them in exchange for money, Sukmon said.

Since he took charge as headman of the village in 2005, a total of Tk 1 crore was paid to Chhotolekha Tea Garden authorities as lease payment. His father, as previous headman, had also made lease payments to the tea garden authorities, he added. 

While visiting areas around the tea garden, established on 1964.50 acres of land allotted by the government, this correspondent sensed a pall of gloom hovering over Agar punji, although the Easter Sunday — one of the major festivals celebrated by the communities there — was only a few days away.

Asked, villager Pius Sangma, said, “We are passing days in immense tension. We will simply die [without income] if the remainder of the marked trees are felled. 

“We love trees like they are our children. Would there be any festivities when a child dies? That’s why I can’t even think about the Easter Sunday.”

When this correspondent reached Shakil Alam, manager of Chhotolekha Tea Garden, over cell phone, he admitted that the land on which Agar punji and the trees are located had been leased out many years ago to the residents of the village by the Chhotolekha Tea Garden authorities.

He, however, claimed ignorance about the amount of the lease payment they had been collecting from the indigenous communities of Agar punji and about the identities of the ones involved in the tree felling on March 19.

Sekhar Ranjan Das, forest range officer in Barlekha upazila, said they confiscated the two felled logs of Chapalish trees, 57 feet of timber in total, from the area.

Wild animals in the area, which is in close proximity to Patharia Reserve Forest, feed on fruits fallen from naturally grown trees such as the Chapalish, he said, adding that he has heard that 25 such trees were marked by the Chhotolekha Tea Garden authorities. 

Sangkhubdho Nagorik Andolan Coordinator Tofazzal Sohel said more than 90 percent of the vegetation in the area comprises different fruit trees — including Chapalish, black plum or Jambolan (locally known as Kaalo Jaam), jackfruit, Awal, Gutguti, Haritaki and Bahera. Wild animals depend on the fruits of the trees for their food. Hence, wildlife in the area will be endangered if the fruit trees are destroyed.

Advocate Bimol Lyndohkiri, a law practitioner at Moulvibazar court, said land belonging to a tea garden has to be demarcated with boundary fence, which is absent in the case of the land where the trees were felled.

Furthermore, the authorities of a tea garden cannot lease out its allotted land. Therefore, the leasing of the land to the communities living in Agar punji would be illegal, he added.

Contacted, Barlekha Upazila Nirbahi Officer Shamim Al Imran said prior to felling any trees at allotted land, authorities of a tea garden are required to obtain permission from Bangladesh Tea Board.

An investigation into the matter was underway, he also said.

At the memorial service on March 24, Father Joseph Gomes OMI, coordinator for Justice, Peace and integrity Creation (JPIC) in Bangladesh; Flora Bably Talang, indigenous rights leader; Abdul Karim Kim, executive member of BAPA; and Uzzal Azim, land and law secretary of Bangladesh Adibashi Forum central committee; spoke among others.

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