A beautiful bay may soon turn into a small man-made lake in the forest area of Modhupur. Baid is low land for growing rice and other crops, between chala (high) land with stands of sal. Baid and chala with reddish soil are special features of Modhupur Garh. In large parts of the Modhupur forest, sal and hundreds of other native species have been replaced by the planting of exotic acacia trees, pineapples, bananas and spices. And so the beauty of baïd and chala stands with sal has disappeared in most parts of sal forest of Modhupur.
In one of these baïds, stretching west to east from the Dokhola Range office, the Forestry Department is building a two-storey guest house. She wants to dig a small lake (200 feet by 800 feet) out of nearly four acres of this land to be used by guests for recreational purposes. Wild animals will also come to drink at the edge of the lake, says a senior forestry official.
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Some Garo families who own this baïd (on the basis of customary rights) do not want to abandon the land they have been farming for generations. The Garos, indeed, lived in this area since before the establishment of the Forest Department and they used to get patta (annual lease) and pattan (long term lease) from the Zamindars for this. The de facto owners of the baïd claim that they have paid taxes for this land in the past. However, since the land was classified as forest land and the area was declared part of Modhupur National Park, they could no longer pay land taxes. The Garos and other residents, about 90 percent of whom lack title to the land they live on and use, are thus embroiled in a dispute with the Forest Department, which now claims jurisdiction. on all classified land.
In September last year I met some of the owners of the baïd and they all strongly opposed the plan to dig a small artificial lake on the farmland they are using. “The government’s plan to dig a lake here shows no good intentions,” said Dipen Nokrek, 65, who claims to own 2.4 acres of land in the baïd. Belly Nokrek (27), another Garo who claims to own 71 decimal places of land, said confidently: “I don’t want a lake here. If the government wants to dig a lake here without our consent, we will stage protests.
For months, a showdown has been going on between the Garos and the Forest Department. The Garos are divided on the question of the lake. Some are for, but most are against or skeptical.
The FD, politicians and administrations are trying to convince the Garos to give up some of this baid for the lake. “They promised compensation for the land,” says Eugin Nokrek, chairman of Joyenshahi Adivasi Unnayan Parisad, the first Garo social organization in Modhupur. “But we haven’t decided yet. If proper compensation is given and our other demands are met, we can give our consent.”
“At a meeting on March 19, attended by politicians and senior local government and forest department officials, the DC offered compensation of five taka lakes, which is too low an amount,” Nokrek reports. , who attended the meeting. . “We will discuss among ourselves and come back to them.”
Why a small artificial lake?
Modhupur is completely looted. The forest aroma has disappeared. In most areas there are orchards of bananas, pineapples, papayas, spices and lemons. Deforestation is not a new phenomenon. But what we have seen since the mid-1980s, with the advent of rubber plantations and then plantations of exotic species under the guise of social forestry, is the rapid destruction of traditional patches of sal forest in Modhupur and elsewhere. So-called social forestry has also caused massive loss of natural forest patches in the southeastern districts of the country.
It is within the framework of forestry projects financed by the Asian Development Bank (AfDB) that the so-called co-management of forests was introduced in Modhupur from the 1990s. While it has been proven that forestry projects financed by the AfDB have caused colossal damage which has led it to suspend all its operations in the forestry sector since 2005, social forestry practices continue. Currently, the Forestry Department is implementing a $175 million World Bank funded project called Sustainable Forests & Livelihoods (SUFAL). The World Bank-funded project is controversial in that it promotes collaborative forest management, a model akin to co-management that has not brought the desired good to our forests. However, forestry projects benefiting from concessional loans from international financial institutions bring enormous financial benefits to project promoters.
The Dokhola guesthouse and lake – or pond, to be more precise – would be part of a purely government-funded project, titled “Development and Sustainable Management of Ecotourism of Modhupur with the Assistance of local and tribal peoples. FD officials have confirmed that the guest house and lake are part of an arboretum plantation on three hectares of land in the Sadar Beat of National Park Sadar Range.
While about half of Modhupur’s salt forest has been consumed by pineapple, banana and spice orchards, the establishment of a tiny botanical garden brings no hope for tree protection. . Residents of Modhupur have witnessed how so-called social forestry projects have caused ecocide. Social forestry eventually led to plantations of pineapples, bananas, papayas, spices and did not even spare the Charaljani Forestry Research Center. Not so long ago, the 400-acre research center had very good coverage of local and foreign tree species. The research center, established in 1967, has now been reduced to barely 20 acres and it is unclear whether it is still a forest research center.
The condition of a medicinal garden (established in 2003) adjacent to the Charaljani Forest Research Center also does not demonstrate significant practice. Planting under SUFAL also surprised local people when the understory vegetation of the sal forest plots was cleared and saplings of some local fruits and other species were planted. Ordinary people are fed up with all this while traders and politically influential people have made huge profits from fruit and spice plantations on forest lands.
They see the concept of an arboretum with a guest house and a small lake as a joke. Many wonder why a beautiful bay with a natural environment should become a lake. Can’t those who stay in the guest house be satisfied with the existing surrounding nature? If they want to see water, they can go to Lake Gorgora near Lohoria Beat, which was dug out in the 1980s. It is now abandoned and some infrastructure built around it has also eroded away. You can also take a motorbike ride from Dokhola to Rasulpur and see the remaining patches of sal forest. They can also walk through the rubber plantations to see the “green desert”!
The Dokhola Forest Range Office premises looked so much better with a few tin cottages. Part of our constitution was written here in 1972. Our Father of the Nation also spent a few days at Dokhola Rest House in January 1971. It is a glorious piece of history that everyone should know. But nowadays, a huge security barrier has been built at the entrance to the premises. The beautiful landscape looks awkward now. Air does not circulate normally. A two-story guesthouse with a few rooms and a man-made lake will further clutter the environment and restrict the general entry of people into the area. A mud road that the Garos take through the Dokhola Range office to Dokhola Bazar will likely be blocked. The inhabitants of Chunia, a pure Garo village, will be affected.
The Garos of Modhupur are generally strong supporters of the Bangladesh Awami League. They revere the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with all their hearts. Their participation in the war of liberation in 1971 is remarkable. Yet they are forced to cede about four acres of baid land as they have leased a large percentage of their chala land for the commercial planting of bananas, pineapples, papayas and spices.
The Garos will eventually be able to cede the land for the lake, in exchange for compensation, but this will not be done voluntarily. The Garos have many demands, first and foremost the recognition of their customary land rights, which the state refuses them. We can only hope that the government will bring justice to Modhupur and the peace-loving Garos given the bitter experiences of forestry projects and the colossal damage, including ecocide, they have caused.
Philippe Gain is a researcher and director at the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). He has researched and written extensively on the forests of Modhupur and its people for three and a half decades. Email: [email protected]