Machiavellian Conservationism in CHT

Ridwanul Haque | Published: 00:00, Sep 01,2019 | Updated: 11:32, Sep 01,2019

Ridwanul Haque, Machiavellian, Conservationism, Chittagong hill tracts, bandarban, Mru, aboriginal people, indigenous people, barter economy, socio-politics, brazil, Malaysia, indoneshia, CHT, sangu, matamuhuri,

A fraction of the women waiting with extra blankets in their hands. — HBAF team

During his visits in the interiors of Bandarban district in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Ridwanul Haque encounters people who are living in small communities and practise some form of subsistence economy and barter system. However, activities of an environmental conservationist non-governmental organisation are threatening their age-old lifestyle. The experience unfolds in a two-part series      

ENVIRONMENTAL conservationism is gaining worldwide popularity as it is supposed to play a very vital role in both curbing global warming and saving wild life from going extinct. In many of the third world countries it can be seen that conservation related endeavor is not much well practised since many types of short run gains are expected from use and abuse of the wild life resources.

But in the developed world many countries have already started blazing trails by taking different types of pre-emptive actions as well as creating new wild life resources. They have mass people’s support and sometimes democratic system based on accountability fetches and inserts the issue into election manifesto.

Yet the irony is that conservatism does not depend on such socio-economic standard only, like whether a country is developed or underdeveloped. It can be said that most of the virgin forests of the world are inhabited by indigenous or aboriginal people who do not even care about these set of standards. Their superstructures and mode of productions are already well suited for environmental conservation from the time immemorial.

But these people living in the wild are not doing well in many places like Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia as governments are not interested to give this people’s life and modus vivendi priority. Governments are undertaking expedient policies which are economically profitable but environmentally disastrous.

Ergo: the indigenous people are being uprooted from their ancestral places in many ways. What, if, other organisations rather than government come up with more decisive policies and in the name of natural conservation go Machiavellian in type?

As a well-wisher of Hill Bloggers and Activists Forum (HBAF), I was fortuitous enough to make trips to country’s some of the remotest places in Bandarban district with them. There I saw Marshal Sahlin’s nearly ‘The Original Affluent Society’ like homeostasis cherished inside the country’s two reserve forests lying on the both sides of the rivers — Sangu and Matamuhuri. The people living there hosted us with utmost love and sincerity, briefed about their life and we found that they are true paramours of nature and its inhabitants.

Members of a family in fragile health conditions surviving the time during famine.  — HBAF team

We had three boats carrying reliefs like blankets, medicines and clothes. Due to miscommunication two of our boats parked at a same village one hour apart. After completion of the relief distribution campaign, on our way back, we saw seven Mru women were eagerly waiting for us with blankets in their laps shouting in their language. One of our boatmen was Mru, we took his help. He had conversations with them. He came to us and said that those blankets in their hands were more than what they need, so they want to return us the blankets! Can we imagine this scenario in other places of our country? 

We had a local representative with us who was incumbent for 17 years as an upazilla chairman and Mru in ethnicity. As we reached Leikre, a Mru village, he was told, ‘Wine is prohibited in this village and if anyone drinks, he or she has to pay Tk 5000 as fine.’ We asked about the cause of such aberration from their traditional way of life as Mru people like to drink very often. An old villager answered that a drunken man in violent fisticuffs murdered another man, and then the villagers had an emergency meeting where they passed the resolution on prohibition. Thenceforth, the villagers never drink wine.   

In another village there was a childless old family where the old man and her old wife were physically weak and unable to manage their livelihood by hunting or slash and burn cultivation. So the villagers decided to let them cultivate cotton in the nearest land and in exchange of cotton they will get food and other stuffs as many of their clothes were already worn out. What a text book example of barter system! 

Just a year or two earlier than that time an HBAF team went there during famine for relief distribution campaign but the villagers were not conceding openly that they were in dire need of food. They served the team with what they got in their houses or in the jungle — mostly wild roots and fruits! They will die fasting but will not ask for help! Because they know that they will have to help themselves out of this.

Anthropology says each person can at best define 150 people individually according to each one’s face and characteristics. Each indigenous villages lying deep into the forests has 20-30 families, which means they are still in this phase of cognitive evolution.

Community, formed this way, can make decision easier as its every member’s participation is ensured and gets respected. They are ruled by ‘trust’, not by ‘money’, because, to them social capital (trust) is more important than financial capital (money). So they do not need any third party law enforcement agency, prison or court. What could happen if the representative drunk wine and not pay the fine? Who could hand him over to the police? But, no, he did not drink. Because he believes in his traditional values and consensus like the villagers do.

Again, what could happen if those women did not return the extra blankets? Could we go after them? What liability they feel for? Do they not have greed like we have? The answer is — no.

Yes, such homeostasis still exists but they are facing threats from outsiders. Although they live in small communities, where each community consists of 6 to 25 families and most of the communities’ abodes are inaccessible for nearly six months a year, their existence also has come under threat from the attention seeking so called new blood environmental conservationists.

In Sangu and Matamuhuri reserve forests (SRF and MRF), an environmental conservationist NGO is working for many years. In the name of natural conservation it is trying to displace or rehabilitate these people, and according to some news reports — trafficking rare wild animals. The NGO says that indigenous people living in these areas are hunting and eating wild animals, doing slash and burn (Jhum) agriculture — putting the environment under threat. So these people need to be rehabilitated. So far, how far have they gone in doing so or what is their agenda?

The rest of the story will unfold in next week.

Ridwanul Haque graduated in economics from Chittagong University and is interested in political economy and cultural anthropology.

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