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     Volume 4 Issue 22 | November 26, 2004 |

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Cover Story

Cheated Out of
their Own Land

Morshed Ali Khan
Photographs by Philip Gain

The Garos of Pirgacha are a vibrant community, celebrating their traditional festivals and struggling to keep their culture alive. However, in spite of their impressive record of educating themselves and giving women the economic freedom absent in most communities, they are an indigenous people under immense threat. Over the decades, this peaceful community has been cheated out of their most precious possession--their land.

From the very early morning of October 31, hundreds of Garo or Mandi men, women and children, in an amazing display of colourful traditional outfits, started converging at the Pirgacha High School, in Madhupur under Tangail district, about 150 kilometres from Dhaka. As they entered the festooned playground, young Garo girls standing at the entrances blessed each individual, imprinting the forehead with white rice colour. Many brought with them offerings to the church from their harvest of vegetables and grains and lined them up in small buckets before the dais. The visitors listened carefully to the prayers sitting under a large overhead covering. The leaders of the Saint Paul's Church conducted the prayers while young Garo men and women sang devotional songs in the background.

As the October sun rolled towards the afternoon, the prayers were over and the party began with traditional dances, songs and short plays. In the evening, villages woke up to celebrate. Every family cooked traditional dishes and every Garo wore their best dress. Men and women sipped chu, a home made rice beer, until some started singing and dancing in the neat courtyards of the village homes.

For the 10,325 members of the Catholic Garo community living under the Pirgacha mission, it was the day of wangala or thanksgiving. In Garo culture wangala is celebrated every year in honour of the sun god, Saljong, after rice is harvested in the hills. There are other reasons for such an overwhelming participation in wangala in the 32 villages of Pirgacha.

While the literacy rate of the entire population of Bangladesh is recorded as 32 percent, in Pirgacha more than 98 percent of the Garo population are listed as literate, many of them with higher education. The mission runs 24 primary schools educating 1,700 children with 50 qualified teachers, most of whom are female. The high school in Pirgacha has 12 teachers and 550 students, who are automatically introduced to computer education in class 9.

Thanks to the development activities of the church and a host of famous national and international NGOs, including World Vision, CARE, CARITAS, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the United States Peace Corps, every Garo household in the 32 villages represents a model way of living. Every household in the villages has an efficient sanitary system that has over the years almost totally wiped out attacks of diseases caused by worms. Every family has a tubewell system that ensures pure drinking water. Hygiene in the traditional tin-roofed, earthen houses is rigorously maintained. The small open space in front of each house is adorned with flower plants. Animal breeding is very common with villagers rearing poultry, pigs, goats and even turtles. The transportation system too, is efficient enough to allow bananas and pineapples, the two principal produces of the area, to be carried to the market place.

One of the most remarkable things in the Garo community is the level of empowerment of women. The Garo tribe gives all rights of property to the women. It is the groom who moves into the bride's house and lives with her and only with the permission of the wife can he act as a mere administrator of the real estate. All real property and possessions automatically belong to the woman. Garo law does not allow men to own property and so they cannot sell anything without the permission of the wife's side of the family. According to US-born Reverend Eugene E Homerich of the Pirgacha church, who has been officially adopted in the Mandi tribe for his 50 years of services, " This is an avuncular society where the mother's brother has more power over the child than the father. The British, Pakistani and now the Bangladeshi governments have recognised the customary law."

But this is just one side of the story. The Mandis have their problems too. Although for centuries the tribe, originating from Southwest China and Tibet, has lived in the 'Sal' forest with their own religion, culture and way of life, their right to land till date remains uncertain. The first onslaught on the Garo tribe probably came when the British Colonial Government of India granted the entire Madhupur Tract to the Raja of Natore in 1927. The Raja dedicated the forest to the god Govinda under the title "Debittor" or "a gift to the gods". The Garos were allowed to live on homestead plots paying a yearly tax. Garo women tenants were also granted permission to register low-lying land in their names. The registration started from 1892 and incorporated again in the Cadastral Survey of 1914-1918. By an exception of the law, certain Aboriginal Tribes enumerated in the Bengal Tenancy Act were exempt from the Succession Act of 1865. This exemption recognises the Garo Law of Succession and Inheritance. Again, by an Act of Law in 1972, Bangladesh recognised all previous laws. This established the registration of land under the Bengal Tenancy Act.

The bad news for the unsuspecting Garos came in 1984 when the government in a gazette notification placed much of the Modhupur tract under the category of the Government Forest Land. The whole procedure was completed without any notification to the tenants (Garos). When the government move was challenged in the court of justice and in the land settlement office, the authorities allegedly refused to give any opportunity to the Garos to produce their documents. The government then refused to recognise the tenancy rights and barred Garos from paying any land tax, terming their land documents as "bogus".

The events of 1984 sealed the fate of the famous Madhupur Tract and made the Garos defenseless against reckless government decisions of indiscriminate Asian Development Bank-funded tree plantation projects. Successive governments have served eviction notices to the Garos, while depleting the local Sal forests and sometimes replacing them with totally unknown species of imported trees, highly detrimental to environment and local inhabitants. Interestingly, once the Bangladesh Tea Board proposed to remove the entire Garo population to the tea gardens elsewhere under a scheme of 'creating job opportunities' for the tribal population to work as coolies. The government failed to sell the scheme.

Then in October 1996, the government had a new idea about Madhupur Tract, and this time it was the World Bank providing the funds. The scheme envisaged creating 13 national parks and deporting the 16,000 Garos into cluster villages. A high official of the World Bank, Emilio Rozario flew in from the Philippines to launch the project through the Forest Department under the Ministry of Environment and Forest. An outcry from the public representatives and the public put a stop to the planning.

Most recently the Forest Department started enacting a wall around 3,000 acres of Madhupur forest insisting that they were trying to create an eco-park for safeguard of tree species and wildlife. The move to encircle the forest at a cost of Tk 9.7 crore and with a 10-foot-high wall outraged both the tribal and non-tribal residents of the area. On January 3, 2004, 22-year-old Piren Snal was killed and over 25 others were injured when forest guards opened fire on the demonstrators.

Ajoy Amree, Convenor of the Committee for Indigenous People's Land Rights and Environment Preservation, says that the whole government scheme is not only destroying the Garo culture but also threatening their livelihood.

"We have appealed to the Prime Minister to create a permanent settlement for us and to abandon the scheme for a national park," Amree added that the committee was also demanding the withdrawal of false cases lodged by the forest department and its contractors.

Sources say that more than 3,000 cases have been lodged with the Madhupur police station under the Revised Forest Act in which hundreds of Garo men and women have been implicated. Most of those accused now live under constant fear of persecution.

Nere Dalgot, a former teacher is implicated in eight cases, which he described as "totally false and fabricated". He says he has just served 45 days in prison.

"There are Garo people against whom the forest department and its contractors have lodged more than 50 cases and I can tell you all these are totally fabricated cases," says Dalgot.

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