Social forestry: who do you serve?
Under a quizzical social forestry project undertaken right in the middle of a natural forestland in Moulvibazar's Kulaura upazila, the Forest Department is jeopardising age-old natural forestry as well as livelihoods of several hundred people living in the area for generations.
At least 300 members of 60 impoverished indigenous families had been living from hand to mouth by cultivating betel leaf on natural trees in the forests near their village (punji) -- Daluchhara Punji in Kormodha union of the upazila.
But contradicting government rules, the Divisional Forest Office in Sylhet, at the recommendation of Muroichhara beat officer, did not include the local marginalised indigenous population as participants or beneficiaries of the social forestry project near Daluchhara.
Rather, the department took possession of a vast tract of forestland near Daluchhara Punji around four months ago and planted around twenty-five thousand saplings there. Moreover, they made Rafiq Mia and Harish Ali -- who are affluent and influential individuals from outside the area -- beneficiaries of the social forestry project.
According to the official website of the Forest Department, "Social forestry [is an] activity involving the local poor people as beneficiaries for management and conservation of forests. Local people [are] involved in planning the plantation activities, implementation of planning, plantation and maintenance, management of forest resources etc. The main goal of social forestry is to ensure the social and economic benefits to landless, poor, widowed and oppressed rural people. The main purpose of social forestry is to create employment opportunities for the poor people and help them for being self-dependent and meet their needs for food, fodder, fuel and furniture."
The villagers alleged that a section of forest officials, with the objective to serve an organised group of influential locals, are working to implement the social forestry project near Daluchhara.
As part of the process, cohorts of the beneficiaries have been physically assaulting the villagers and already destroyed all betel leaf plants in the project area that is ancestral land of the inhabitants of Daluchhara Punji, they also said.
Villager Rusbel Ryngksai, 65, said, "We've been living here for generations. This is our ancestral land and betel leaf cultivation is our main source of income. But the Forest Department along with some unscrupulous people now want to destroy our betel leaf garden."
Lobing Sumer, the headman of Doluchhara Punji, said, "Forest officer Arjun Kanti Dastidar, accompanied by some others, recently came to our punji and cut down many trees."
College student Phaimon Sungoh said, "We are passing each day in fear that our betel leaf gardens might be destroyed anytime."
"Indigenous people earn their livelihoods by growing fruits and betel leaves in the punjis for long. If such social forestry project is implemented, it would destroy their gardens," said Father Joseph Gomes OMI, coordinator of Indigenous Affairs Committee of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) in Sylhet.
Some forest officials are conspiring to lease out the gardens to some influential people including Rafiq Mia and Harish Ali in exchange for bribe, alleged Flora Bably Talang, general secretary of Kuboraj Inter-punji Development Organization, a rights body for indigenous communities.
Rafiq has already occupied Katabari betel leaf garden in the same upazila after evicting its indigenous owner, many members of the indigenous communities alleged, saying that Rafiq with the help of his cohort Haris was also moving ahead with a plan to encroach on the gardens at Daluchhara Punji.
Henchmen of Rafiq and Haris have assaulted and injured at least nine indigenous people in a week last month and they have been warning that they would evict the indigenous people from their ancestral land, said punji headman Lobbing Sumer.
He also said he filed a case with Kulaura Police Station naming eight people, including Rafiq and Haris, and some 30 to 40 unidentified individuals after a criminal gang led by Rafiq and Haris attacked on Belua Punji, adjacent to Daluchhara Punji, and chopped down around 2,800 betel leaf plants on August 25.
Denying the allegation, Haris claimed that he was not involved with any such incident.
Rafiq could not be reached for comments as his cell phone was found switched off during repeated attempts.
Contacted, Arjun Kanti Dastidar, beat officer of Muroichhara forest, said the Forest Department planted around twenty-five thousand saplings on government land near Daluchhara Punji.
But on August 10, the indigenous people uprooted around 25,000 saplings and "That's why I filed case against the indigenous people."
Asked why names of marginalised locals were not included as beneficiaries of the social forestry project, he claimed that since the indigenous people of the area refused to be enlisted as beneficiaries, names of outsiders were included as beneficiaries.
Binoy Bhusan Roy, officer-in-charge of the police station, said all accused in both the cases received bail from the court.
Contacted, Kulaura Upazila Nirbahi Officer ATM Farhad Chowdhury said he would make an effort to resolve the problem by holding a dialogue among the indigenous communities, Forest Department officials concerned and other stakeholders.
BAPA general secretary Sharif Jamil said the Daluchhara incident is one example of how the indigenous communities are losing their ancestral land and livelihoods at the hands of some corrupt and greedy individuals and government officials.