The peaceful agitation by Garo and Khasi communities: Challenging displacement and resenting the use of human exhibits in the name of “biodiversity conservation” – Bangladesh

CLEARINGHOUSE FOR REVIEWING ECOTOURISM, No. 17
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[…] The following documents outline the severe ramifications of a governmental “eco-park” programme on ethnic minority groups and their forested hill habitats in Bangladesh. The controversial scheme has become a significant national issue as civil society organizations as well as a number of politicians, academics and media people have formed a strong movement to prevent the displacement of Adivasis for the establishment of the parks.

A particular cause of concern is the creation of such a park in the Moulvibazar district, which will involve clearance of forested land inhabited by Khasi and Garo people, with tree felling, the levelling of hills, road building and construction of buildings. The government claims the twin aims of the project are economic development and “biodiversity conservation”.

It is feared that at least 1,000 families will lose their homes and be relocated, and an even larger numbers be deprived of their land upon which they depend for their livelihood. Moreover, this eco-park plan seriously threatens the cultural integrity of the indigenous communities by calling for their “social improvement”, which includes the creation of a “cultural village”, where the “tribals” will be on display for tourist consumption.

A statement released by the Bangladesh Landless Association (BLA), says, “The real objectives of the misnamed ‘eco-parks’ are to evict minority ethnic groups – which goes hand in hand with environmental destruction – and to transfer public funds into the coffers of the construction industry. In the future, we can expect the privatization of land and the bargain price sale of tourism infrastructure to the private sector.” […]

“The forests of Bangladesh, which have for centuries been the traditional lands of non-Bengali peoples, are steadily being depleted for profit. This is being done behind the backs of the whole population in an undemocratic manner. The fight to save the forests is also the fight for the rights of the minority inhabitants.” […]

Given the indisputably devastating impacts on ethnic minority peoples and the natural environment all over, it may be misleading and outright dangerous to further promote these tourism-cum-conservation projects as a harmless tool for “poverty reduction” and “sustainable development.”

Since indigenous peoples throughout the world are suffering from the same usurpation of their ancestral lands like their sisters and brothers in Bangladesh, the alliance of indigenous, human rights and faith-based organizations fighting the Eco-park has called for the intervention of the international community in support of the Adivasi struggle. Solidarity messages may be sent to Sanjeeb Drong, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, email: “Sanjeeb Drong” <sdrong@bangla.net>.

The campaign coordinating groups:
Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia

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Why Eco-park on Khasi and Garo Ancestral Land?
By Sanjeeb Drong, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum […]

From time immemorial more than 45 indigenous communities live in the country. They are known as Adivasis. Adivasi means ‘originally inhabitant.’ The population of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh is more than 2 million.

Indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are descendants of the original inhabitants of their lands and areas and are strikingly diverse in their culture, religion and patterns of social and economic organization. It is very sad that Bangladesh government does not recognise their social and cultural institution at all. […]

This Eco-Park has become as a threat to evict 1,000 Khasi and Garo families from their ancestral homeland. Since last year indigenous peoples have been struggling to stop this Eco-Park on Khasi-Garo ancestral land. Their main demand is that Government can establish this Eco-Park in the Government’s reserve forest area, not on the land of indigenous peoples. […]

“We are the children of the forest. We were born here and grew up here. We have been living here for hundreds of years. Cultivating of betel leaf is our main livelihood. We will not leave this forest. We can not survive if we are evicted from the forest in the name of this Eco-Park. The graves of our ancestors lie in this forestland. We can not leave them. This forest is sacred to us. We preserve trees as they protect us. We love the trees. Our betel leaves can not survive without these trees. If we lose this forest, we will lose our life and our ancestors. Taking away our land is plucking out our life because we draw our life from this forest. We were born in this forest and we want to die here. I humbly request our government to let our lands remain under our own care. We will look after them and preserve them.” […]

Seven indigenous hill villages will be affected: 1,000 Khasi and Garo families face forceful eviction from the homelands where they have been living for thousand of years. They have preserved the trees and protected the forest. They have also been planting betel leaf, in addition to valuable seasonal fruit trees on the land. They have not destroyed the big trees because they need these for planting betel leaf. It is known that they are the original inhabitants of this forest.

We, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh started a democratic movement against this Eco-Park. […]

Then on 31 March 2001, the leaders of indigenous peoples of Bangladesh gathered at a national meeting in Dhaka, which was called and convened by the CHT Jano Sanghati Samity Leader and Chairman of CHT Regional Council, Mr. Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma). More than one hundred Adivasi leaders were present at the meeting. During this meeting the leaders formed a national Adivasi organisation ‘Bangladesh Adivasi Forum’. This committee formulated demands to the Government regarding the halting of further plans to establish an Eco-Park on the lands of indigenous peoples.

On 4 April 2001, the Convener of National Adivasi Forum Mr. Santu Larma met with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her residence. At that time Santu Larma requested the Prime Minister to consider the demand of Khasi and Garo people about the Eco-Park. He told the Prime Minister that the indigenous peoples do not want an Eco-Park on their ancestral land. He added that the Government could easily establish an Eco-Park on government’s reserve forest area. Then Prime Minister told Mr. Larma that the indigenous peoples will not be evicted but they will be the part of Eco-Park. Mr. Santu Larma was surprised to hear such words: ‘How is it possible! They are human beings. They will stay in the park for tourism as a showcase.’ The Prime Minister told Mr. Larma that She would talk to the Environment and Forest Minister later; it has not yet been done.

Despite our continued protests, the Environment and Forest Minister inaugurated the Eco-Park on 15 April 2001; at the same time thousands of indigenous people showed the Minister the ‘black flag’ as the symbol of their protest. The day was Easter Sunday, a key religious day for the Khasi and Garo people. However, they spent that day in the protest rally in the forest. […]

Our demand

We, more than 2 million indigenous peoples from 45 communities in Bangladesh, are still struggling against this Eco-Park plan of our Government. We are not against an Eco-Park. However, it should be established in the reserve forest area of the government, not on our ancestral land. We have tried to convince the government that this Eco-park plan is against the law of ILO convention 107. In the Article 11 it is stated: “The right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands, which these populations traditionally occupy, shall be recognised.” And in the Article 12 it is said, “The populations concerned shall not be removed without their free consent from their habitual territories.” […]

If we fail in our movement, more than 1,000 Khasi and Garo families will be evicted from their homeland. Finally, we are getting prepared to file a writ against this Eco-Park plan in the High Court. In the meantime, we will continue our peaceful movement.

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Eco-park Just Adds to the Adivasis’ Plight
By Sayema Khatun

Living in an era of globalization, when on the one hand relation of people with a geographical location is unimportant or diffused due to high-tech communication systems and on the other hand the world eco-political situation is pressing people towards a new kind of identity without spatial location, international people may not realize the significance and peril of displacement for some groups of people who are still rooted to a locality. Anthropologists, who have been working for a long time on the so-called tribal, indigenous community living in the forests, highlands, deserts, riverside or sea-shore in different European colonies whose mental and material existence is inseparable from a space, land, geographical area or a country, may be interested how the new situation forces these people into a uncertain displaced future.

Our South Asian society has gone through a long colonial experience, and our history has been encountered with a colonial transformation in different layers of society. These post-colonial people are the mainstream people and the marginal ethnic minority people as well, who were not transformed in the same way as the mainstream was; rather they remained in a distance. […]

For these people, displacement is a recurring experience. The Santal, Munda, Oraon, Ho, Chakma created cultivatable land by clearing forests and fighting against wild animals, but the other people became the owners and evicted them from one place to another. They were evicted for the cultivatable land they have, for gold, coal, iron, oil, gas under their land, for the wood and animal of their forests and even for the beauty of their land. So the process of their displacement is a long historical process, in which penetration of new elements needs further discussion. […]

The Khashia’s way of life is mainly based around shifting cultivation, for plough cultivation is not possible in the hilly areas where they inhabit. Betel leaf is their main crop and so the clusters of their houses are called panpungi. The panpungi are also the processing houses. Production procedure of betel leaf here is not like the plain land betel leaf cultivator in North Bengal, which is locally called Paner Boroj. Khashia do not need to make artificial shade and support for the creepers in hills. Abundance of green shade trees provide the shade and support for betel creeper. The creepers grow climbing the tall trees. This a very ecologically balanced agricultural system which came from indigenous knowledge and heritage.

The pattern of their living is also interwoven with the system of production. They produce some fruits like betel nut, pineapple, and different kinds of lemons, jackfruit and so on. But they are only producer community; generally they themselves do not engage in marketing of their yield. Some Bengali traders paner bapari are the middle persons who perform the task of marketing of pan/betel in the local market. […]

Urban people may be overwhelmed by the aesthetic beauty of the Kashia’s panpungi, which do not at all try to take the control over Nature, rather they live in the lap of Nature. The Khashia have a kind of symbiotic relation with the local Bengalis, which do not seem hostile, rather there exists peacefulness and tolerance to the people of other kind.

The Khashia are already victim of the blow-out in an other part of Moulvibazar district, the Magurcharha gas field, four years ago on 14 June 1997, for which American oil-gas exploration company Occidental is responsible, we all know. […]

Thus, many Kashia have lost their means of production, and it is not difficult to imagine that the affected families either have to go elsewhere and seek other land or they have to change their pattern of subsistence both of which can lead a community to endless misery. And above all, money is not the only solution for all problems. The government played a very weak role to compel the company to pay all the compensation, instead the company transferred all liability to another company and thus escaped. […]

And what may be the use or purpose of an Eco-park, where an artificial flavor of forest will be added for the urban tourists? A kind of zoo in a natural settings, which can create an illusion that we are in a real jungle with elephant, horse, deer, monkey and some birds providing entertainment and amusement for the people who want suitable places to spend money. […]

If the situation deteriorates and if the Kashia are forced to leave the land and take refuge on the other side of the border, it may contribute to the already complicated relations with our big neighbor. So, a responsible government cannot but consider the in and out of the whole thing and bear the foresight to calculate what could be the result of their steps in future.

This is a slightly edited version of Sayema Khatun’s article posted at Megh Barta’s website at: http://www.meghbarta.net/2001/june/minor.html#ecob .

Other Sources:
– The Daily Star: 16.3.2001 and 14.4.2001
– Sustainable Development Networking Programme, website: http://www.sdnbd.org
– Bangladesh Landless Association, website: http://www.workerspower.com/wpglobal/bangladeshLA.html
Website: http://www.omiobcom.org/homenews/eco_park.htm

Source: Clearinghouse for reviewing ecotourism no.17
Address : http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/eco17.htm
Date Visited: Wed Jul 23 2014 09:57:47 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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