Prisoners of forest | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, August 24, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, August 24, 2009

Prisoners of forest

Around 25,000 indigenous people left in the lurch as all govts ignored forest laws, their rights

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No government has ever complied with the forest laws to recognise the land rights of the indigenous Garo or Mandi and Koch people, traditional inhabitants of the Madhupur Sal Forest, but rather used the forestland for non-forestry purposes.
Around 25,000 indigenous people of 8,630 families now live in 63 villages in and around Madhupur in coherence with the forest and its ecology.
The Garo and Koch people were once the mainstream community here. But the Bangla-speaking people are dominating day by day as the Department of Forest introduced settlers to implement its controversial projects.
"The indigenous people were unable to pay bribe and get involved in the social forestry project. So the Department of Forest involved outsiders in the project and thus promoted the settlers in the forestland," said Ajay A Mree, an indigenous leaders living in Madhupur.
In the process of gaining profit from the forest, the department also failed to protect the forestland, leave alone the rights of forest people.
The department always wanted to keep its control over the forest ignoring the local people, resulting in total degradation of the valuable natural forest and tension again and again in the area.
This forest is very much related to the indigenous people's life, culture and livelihood. The Garos collect 27 different types of tubers for food from the forest during the rains. Moreover, they collect 57 kinds of medicinal herbs besides dried leaves and fodders for their animals.
But the government between 2000 and 2004 tried to fence in the Sal forest prohibiting the forest dwellers from collecting forest resources. The government's National Park Development Project only mounted tension and led to degradation of the natural forest.
However, almost all the money of this around Tk 10-crore project was kept for constructing different concrete structures including brick walls, roads, toilets and development of picnic spots.
The government also implemented many others donor-funded wood tree plantation projects in which the indigenous people did not want to take part. As they demanded their land rights, they went through a contentious relation with the Department of Forest.
The department filed hundreds of cases against local indigenous people accusing them of illegal logging, while the indigenous people allege those cases were filed only to harass them.
The same scenario went on and on for years.
"We can withdraw the cases but they have to promise that they would not fell anymore trees in the forest. But the indigenous people's leader cannot make such promise," says Shah-E-Alam, divisional forest officer of Tangail forest division.
Around 3,200 cases are now pending against the indigenous people. The government in 2006 suggested that the department withdraw the cases which were filed to "harass" the people.
"Still there are more than 3,000 cases against the indigenous people filed by the Department of Forest. They issued warrants against us under the cases filed in 2004 which was only for harassment," said Ajay A Mree.
The proposal of fencing in the forest was eventually abandoned at the cost of lives of two indigenous protesters -- Peeren Slan who was killed by the law enforcers on 3 January, 2004 and Cholesh Richil who was declared dead in custody of the law enforcers during the caretaker rule.
Utpal Nakrek, an indigenous youth, became handicapped forever as bullets hit his backbone during protests against the eco-park project.
HOW MUCH LAND
THEY NEED
The total land claimed by 4,129 Garo families in this forest is 8,171.74 acres, while settlers are occupying about 5,547.17 acres of land within the forest.
This was revealed by a recent door-to-door survey conducted by Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) and the Joyenshahi Adivasi Unnayan Parishad in Madhupur, Muktagachha, Ghatail and Phulbaria mouzas.
The survey detects the land claimed by the Garos and other dwellers in the 18 mouzas -- Aronkhola (4180.315 acres), Pirgachha (3,138.33 acres), Joramgachha (362.395 acres), Fulbagchala (531.21 acres), Chapaid (271.64 acres), Rasulpur (89.64 acres), Chunia (442.36 acres), Sholakuri (419.835 acres), Bijoypur (84.94 acres), Beribaid (2,872.815 acres), Mohishmara (492.61 acres), Molajani (269.6 acres), Idilpur (171.26 acres), Gachhabari (278.53 acres), Mirzabari (8.82 acres), Pirojpur (71.11 acres), Dholpur (13.23 acres) and Moraid (18.87 acres).
Asked how to preserve the natural forest and protect the rights of the local people as well, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, executive director of BELA, cited the experience of the neighbouring countries.
"They recognise the rights of the forest dwellers and manage the forest in participation of the local community. And they have successfully revived much share of the natural forests," she said.
"The indigenous community will never destroy the natural forest as it goes with their lifestyle, practice and knowledge. Just the authorities have to change the approach," she added.
HOW THINGS GOING
SINCE BRITISH ERA
The first onslaught on the indigenous people came in 1927 when the British colonial rulers granted the entire Madhupur tract to the Raja of Natore.
The Raja dedicated the forest to the god Govinda as endowed property.
However, the Garos were allowed to live on homestead plots paying a yearly tax. The Garo woman tenants were also granted permission to register low-lying land in their names.
The registration started in 1892 and was incorporated again in the Cadastral Survey of 1914-1918.
In 1982 the government of independent Bangladesh in a gazette notification placed much of the Madhupur tract under the category of the government forest land.
The entire procedure was completed without issuing any notice to the 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 successive governments served eviction notices to the Garos while depleting the Sal forest and even replaced the local trees with unknown species, highly detrimental to environment and local inhabitants.
LEGAL RIGHTS VIOLATED
The sections 5, 11, 12, 14 and 15 of the Forest Act, 1927 state that the original forest inhabitants may claim rights over land, rights of way, rights of pasture, and rights over forest produce declaring the forest as a village forest.
At the same time, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1973 does not put any blanket restriction on human living or settlement in the National Park areas.
But even after 82 years of the law being in force, no such forest has been declared as "village forest" to mean actual involvement of the forest dependent people in forest management.
Sanjeev Drong, a rights activist fighting for the rights of the indigenous people, says forming a different land commission for the plain land indigenous people could solve the problems and save the forests.
"We have been demanding constitutional recognition of the indigenous people and a separate land commission for years. A separate land commission could solve the issue," Sanjeev observes.
He expresses the hope that the current government would protect the rights of indigenous people and forest dwellers as it was in the election manifesto of the ruling Awami League.
"So far it seems the government is positive to its pledges.”

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