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CLEARINGHOUSE FOR REVIEWING ECOTOURISM, No. 17

In today's Clearinghouse, we are presenting another case study that illustrates as to how activities in the name of tourism development and "biodiversity conservation" have become part of the systematic and profound assault on indigenous communities and their ancestral lands. 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 latest policy of establishing 'eco-parks' must be condemned," the BLA continues to say. "It flies in the face of the most basic tenets of human rights, ecological protection and sustainable development. The already marginalized inhabitants of the land earmarked for 'development' and 'preservation’ will bear the cost of this pointless exercise. Their lives and livelihood are considered expendable. Putting 'biodiversity preservation' before humans is simply the government's latest 'green' catch-cry; the plan is to destroy most of the natural environment to justify the 'preservation' project. 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."

These descriptions are strikingly similar to many other experiences from around the world, some of which we have already shared in previous Clearinghouse issues. So we can probably conclude at this stage that such destructive projects are not just isolated "bad examples" that can be curbed by taking "corrective actions" as ecotourism proponents want to make us believe. It is time to look behind the mask of altruism that is being displayed and to seriously investigate the entire globalized ecotourism and "conservation" system that has been forged by influential international agencies and is being enforced by more and more Third World governments. 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

Bangladesh is not only the country of 'Bangalees' as propaganda has been made everywhere. It is true that most of its one hundred and twenty million people identify themselves as Bangalees. 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.

For centuries, indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country. The Bangladesh Government has yet no policy for the development of indigenous peoples. Neither does it recognise “Adivasis” as indigenous peoples. Today their special relationship to the land and forest an elemental symbiosis crucial to their survival has been threatened by communal state and politicians and so-called development projects. 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.

On 22nd February 2001, Anil Yang Yung, a Khasi Headman from Kulaura, Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh came to Dhaka to attend a hunger strike in protest at the establishment of an Eco-Park on his ancestral homeland. During the hunger strike at the Central Saheed Minar, Anil Yang Yung addressed the people:

"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."

However the Environment and Forest Ministry has not responded to this humane appeal of Khasi Headman and apparently his request falls on deaf ears.

Background of the Eco-Park Project
The Bangladesh Government plans to establish an Eco-Park in Moulvibazar district, which will take up more than 1,500 acres of Adivasi (indigenous peoples) ancestral land for tourism. This plan was initiated by the Government in July 2000 without any consent of indigenous peoples who have been living in the area for centuries. Neither did the Bangladesh Government consult with the indigenous people. The Government did not even mention the villages of Khasi and Garo people in their project proposal, instead considering them almost illegal inhabitants of the forest.

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. We demanded to the government that our land should be excluded from this Eco-Park. Many intellectuals, university professors, writers, journalists, politicians, cultural activists have supported us and have participated in our programmes. We have organised protest rallies, public gatherings, press conferences, published leaflets and held a hunger strike against the government's plan; and we have received excellent press and media coverage of our programmes.

Having observed our activities, the Environment and Forest Ministry formed a Committee on 4 January 2001 to verify the demand of Khasi and Garo people and to judge whether they will be evicted or not. The committee consisted of six members, none of whom were Adivasis. We protested against this committee and requested the government to include Khasi and Garo representation in the committee; they did not respond to our request. On 15 March 2001 the Convener of this committee requested the Khasi and Garo Headmen to attend a meeting with him at the Environment and Forest Minister's office; three Headmen were present in the meeting. However, they became frustrated that the convener, instead of listening to them, only tried to put pressure on them.

Now, we the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, consider this proposed Eco-Park problem of all Adivasis. It is not only the problem of the Garo and Khasi people living in the Moulvibazar area; we consider it an issue of our very existence in the country. The National Forum of Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh together with many indigenous organisations, is campaigning against this Eco-Park. Our slogan is, 'Stop the Eco-Park on Khasi and Garo ancestral land'.

As part of our democratic movement we met on two occasions with Mr. Kalporanjan Chakma, the Minister to Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Affairs, and submitted an appeal to him. In this appeal we requested the government to exclude the land of the Khasi and Garo from the Eco-Park. He assured us that he would look into this matter seriously and agreed that the Eco-Park should not be established on the lands of Khasi and Garo people. During the meeting he added that he would discuss this matter with the honourable Prime Minister Sheik Hasina. Subsequently, we sent copies of that appeal to the Environment and Forest Ministry and respective divisions of the Government.

The CHT Minister sent a letter to the Prime Minister on 21 December 2000 with reference of the planned Eco-Park. On 26 December 2000 the APS of the Prime Minister sent a letter to the Secretary of Environment and Forest Ministry to consider the appeal of Khasi and Garo people. On 2 March 2001 we met again Dr. S A Malek, the Political Adviser to the Prime Minister at his office. He also assured us that the indigenous people will not face such injustice, and he indicated his interest to visit the villages of Khasi and Garo people if necessary. The leading daily newspaper, the Daily Star published the following statement on 3 March, "Tribal leaders from Khasi and Garo hills met Dr. S A Malek, political adviser to the prime minister yesterday in a bid to persuade the government to cancel building an eco-park there. The leaders said that the government has thousands of acres of reserve forestland in the hills of Patharia and Longla, next to the place where 'Eco-Park' is being developed now. Then instead of building the 'Eco-Park' in Patharia and Longla hills why target the Khasi and Garo lands?"

Dr. S A Malek also assured the Adivasi leaders that they would maintain fairness in the decision regarding the construction and development of the park. However, in reality he did not do anything in favour of indigenous people.

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.

Again on 5 May 2001, we organised a big public gathering in Dhaka to halt the plan to establish an Eco-Park. Thousands of people attended. Many intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, professors, journalists attended the meeting and they made speeches in favour of our demand. The Great Poet of the country Shamsur Rahman has supported our programme and he said, 'The Khasi and Garo people are innocent. They are the children of the forest and they have the highest right to the forest. The Government should rethink about this Eco-Park and their land should be kept outside the Eco-Park.'

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." But the Government has not responded to our appeal. Again on 30 May 2001, the leaders of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum (Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum) visited Khasi and Garo villages at Muraichhara, Moulvibazar district. Thousand of indigenous peoples gathered there at the bottom of the Khasi hills and made protest against this Eco-Park project. The leaders have requested the government to consider the demands of Khasi and Garo people living in the Eco-Park area. The leaders said that government should recognise the human tragedy brought about in the past by unrelenting oppression of these peoples. 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. Though the missionaries tried to bring them into the project of 'enlightenment', they were not made university graduates to be Shaheb or Babu in the offices. Their lives also changed through colonial reform, but they did not completely give up their own way of life.

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 new state of Bangladesh was born fighting for the right of mother tongue and own distinct identity, but the other ethnic minority groups living in the land have not yet got the constitutional right of difference. Rather they have been invoked several times to join to the Bengali national identity. In Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Chittagong, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Potuakhali - east, west, north, south, everywhere the minority groups are facing threat to their existence. In Chittagong Hill Tracts, this even turned into armed encounter.

The one experience of massive displacement of highland people for the Kaptai Dam was enough for taking a lesson, which is also responsible for today's crisis in Chittagong Hill Tracts. And recently, the government decided to build an eco-park in another border area in the northeast division, Sylhet, in the name of generating economic activity, without considering any other factors.

The so-called Eco-park is going to be established on about 1,500 acres of land of reserved and acquired forest at Muraicharha of Barhalekha Upazilla in the new district of Moulvibazar, which is one of the four districts of Sylhet division. The Khashia [Khasi] community strongly protested against the decision and appealed to the government for withdrawing the plan. More than thousand of Khashia living in the proposed Eco-park area organized a mass agitation gathering with all other indigenous people, from Kulaurha, Barhalekha, Kamalgonj, Zaflong, Jainta, Sreemangal, Mymensingh, Chittagong Hill Tracts, while the Forest and Environment minister came to lay the founding stone. Protests in different forms are also outbursting in the Capital.

The leaders of ethnic minority people from Chittagong Hill Tracts, Garo leaders and some Bengali activists opened their mouth and took active part in the protest. But the government seems to be determined to their plan even risking to loose votes of the community at the eve of the next national election. For the entertainment of the rich urban people, who can afford to spend money for a fun trip, government is devoted to make such a project which has no possibility to benefit the Khashia - at least they themselves do not think it will bring any betterment or well-being for them.

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.

We have heard the Khashia took part in the strong peasant movement, which is called Nankar Movement in the northeastern part of Bengal in the colonial period, and by now they are mostly converted to Christianity by the European Missionaries. They call their community chiefs Boro Montri and Choto Montri. All of the community deposit or subscribe a sum of money for any special need of the community, if someone needs to go to Dhaka for example. Very few students from Khashia communities study at Notre dame or Tejgaon College and fewer in universities. Only the Khashia who came in contact with Bengalis anyhow can talk and understand Bangle, which is mainly the dialect of Sylhet.

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. Nearly 150 acres of land was destroyed by the disastrous gas burn, among them 50 acres was the Khashia's land for betel leaf cultivation. Nearly 50 Khashia families living in Magurcharha got compensation of only four and a half million taka, even though the estimated cost for the destroyed property was 25 million. It was an irreversible destruction, and regaining the natural fertility of the soil and the forests, the ecological restoration and rehabilitation of wildlife is not an easy task. The betel land is completely unsuitable for cultivation; even the earthworms and other insects helpful for plant grow have disappeared forever.

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.

In this situation, if the government tries to establish the Eco-park by force without considering the people's right to give consent for any project in their respective locality. It can lead to serious tension in that area and hamper the peaceful relationship between the indigenous Adibashi and Bengalis. I have just visited the area and two Bengali panbaparis, betel traders told me they will also be affected if the Khashia lose their mode of living, because they earn their livelihood from the trade of betel leaf. They are also against the Eco-park because they believe it is the process of destruction of their livelihood, which could lead to eviction of the community. One young Khashia man compared the project to the Kaptai Dam in Chittagong Hill Tracts, which made above 100,000 hill inhabitants landless and homeless and has been a major cause of tension and insurgency.

What options will those people have if they lose their means of subsistence? Will the self-reliant community turn to a dependent one on Government assistance or programs of NGOs? If the government says the park will be established in Khas land, which is property of Bangladesh Government, and if the Khashia live on the Khas land and have no formal entitlement, even then there are very serious reasons to think first. Khashia may not have the same system of land ownership. They may have a communal flexible type of ownership system, which functions according to customary law. Though the private ownership system could have penetrated into or caused transformation of their original system, it is still distinct from ours.

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. Hotels, resorts, restaurants, travel companies, entertainment professionals and many other external elements will enter all of a sudden into the Kashia's own way of life, and a rapid change will be inevitable, which is not desirable for them. There is hardly any possibility for the Khashia to benefit from the very different type of economy, rather for them the possibility is to be at best wage-laborer or workers in the new institutional system.

It is clear that the owners of the new business will be inevitably the people who already have some association or lineage with the power structure. The new beneficiary group can make collaborators among the Khashia like in Chittagong Hill Tracts and can also give some bites of the benefit to maintain control over the Khashia community. It will not be very surprising if the Eco-park project creates unrest and violence from both sides around this issue. We also have to remember and learn from the experience in Chittagong Hill Tracts and its high costs. 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

 


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