Forest dweller Utpal Nokrek, who is now at 32, has been restricted to a wheelchair for 13 years.

It was 3 January 2004 when Utpal was shot during clashes between the forest dwellers and police over acquisition of thousands of acres of forest land by the government in the name of an eco-park at Tangail's Madhupur forest.

"As the forest dwellers of Garo and Koch communities protested the eco-park project, rangers and police opened fire. I was shot during the clashes," Utpal said.

Forest dweller Utpal Nokrek, who is now at 32, has been restricted to a wheelchair for 13 years. Photo credit: Philip Gyne

 

Utpal survived the injuries, but a certain Piren Snal was killed during the clashes. The incident then gave rise outrage across the country, forcing the government to stop the project.

The project was banned, but the forest dwellers are still fighting to save their habitats.

The forest dwellers, rights organisations, and environmentalists said not only Madhupur dwellers, people in the hill tracts and greater Sylhet regions are facing similar circumstances.

Different development initiatives taken by the government and international agencies, social forestation projects, and forest encroachment are causing destruction to the forests.

Natural rubber garden in Bandarban. Photo credit: Philip Gyne

 

According to the forest department, Madhupur forest stretches out over 46 thousand acres. Meanwhile, 25 thousand of acres have gone under illegal occupation while 7,800 acres of forest land is being used for rubber cultivation and 1000 acres for the Air Force's training camp.

The forest dwellers alleged that the social forestation project funded by Asia Development Bank is the major cause for destruction. Under the project, the government cultivated eucalyptus and acacia trees, clearing away natural forests, said one of the dwellers, Jerom Hagidog.

"This forest, the main source of our food and fuel, has been destroyed. The forest animals have become extinct too."

"Many animals such as tigers, peacocks and pigs, no longer exist here," he lamented.

Tangail forest officer Md Masud defended the social forestation project and said plantation of the eucalyptus and acaciia represents Bangladesh's reality.

Satellite picture of Madhupur National Park, 1967. Photo credit: The Swiss Seismological Service (SED)

 

"The Garo community doesn't want development of the forest. It is the government's forest, it does not belong to the Garo people. If they join this development project, it will be good for them."

Hill Tracts destruction

The hill districts also face the fallout of deforestation. In 1980, the government started rubber cultivation at Baishari village in Naikhangchhari of the district.  Now the dense forest is bare.

The rubber cultivation caused great destruction to their lives. "Our swidden or 'jhum' cultivation has totally been wiped out by rubber companies," said Dhun Chha Wang, a resident of the village.

Swidden cultivation, locally known as 'jhum', is a widely used traditional farming method in the hilly areas. Headman, who is chief of a mouza, a certain area of the hilly habitat, gave permission to cultivate jhum for a certain period of time. If anyone wants to acquire swidden land, they should take the headman's permission first.

Mong Chha Nu Chak, headman of the Baishari mouza, said, "No one took permission from me."

The forest department also planted trees on 264,000 acres of forest land to provide pulp to the government's Karnafuli Paper Mill. This also has brought woes to the forest dwellers.

Satellite picture of Madhupur National Park, 2007. Photo credit: The Swiss Seismological Service (SED)

 

The chief of the Chakma circle, another ethnic group in the hilly areas, Debashis Roy said, "The state has not given any recognition to the land rights of the forest people."

"The rights of the forest dwellers have not been ensured in any development project that's why they are suffering."

Khashis are afraid

Following the discovery of the body of a Bengali labourer Rimon Mia on 10 February this year, local Bengali people staged a protest rally under the banner of 'United Locals.' The protesters claimed that local Khashi and Garo people had killed him. Later, a murder case was filed against some unidentified people, scaring the Khashi people of the Balaima, Amli, Newrangini, and London villages.

One of the chiefs of Khashi community, Monika Khongla said, "The men of the punji (village) don't dare stay at their home at night. The situation is remains the same."

Moulvibazar police superintendent Shah Jalal said, "The Khashi people have no reason to be afraid."

Greater Sylhet Ethnic Forum president Pidison Pradhan Shuchiyang said, "The parts of the forest under the forest department's control have no trees. If there are any trees, there are at the Khashi habitats."

"The Khashi community is being tortured, to destroy the forest."

He said there are 92 Khashi villages in the Sylhet region. People of the 13 villages are facing eviction and fake litigations.

Environmentalists said the oppression and litigation against the forest dwellers are part of a great conspiracy. The indifferent attitude of the state is deepening the crisis.

"Crimes against nature and forest dwellers are continuing. Some institutions including the forest department, are involved in the crimes," said Philip Gain, who has long been conducting a study on forest and forest dwellers.

*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Toriqul Islam.

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