Machiavellian conservationism in CHT

Ridwanul Haque | Published at 12:00am on September 08, 2019

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One of the signboards installed under Creative Conservation Alliance’s patronisation. —Solomon Mro

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. Concluding part

ACCORDING to the survey report the non-governmental orgnisation — Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) submitted to the Bangladesh Forest Department — the majority of the settlement in the Sangu Reserve Forests established during the last decade as soil fertility and Jhum production declined in nearby areas and these caused the migration of tribal communities there. In case of the Matamuhuri Reserve Forests, both Bengali and ethnic settlers came in during 1980s. Such reasoning is misleading because last decade also witnessed record number of land grabbing in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the outsiders and many indigenous villages were uprooted. Where these landless people could go then?

The report evinced that selective logging in the primary forest patches are primarily done by the Bengali people. We saw labours building temporary river dam using stones and eagerly waiting for flash flood to come which will push the stored woods down the stream. Who use these woods? Do the indigenous people use wood made furniture?

The report also stated that the Mru people are opportunistic and subsistent hunters; poachers and hunters are also invading from Mayanmar. We can see that modern people are now segregating the cubs from the cows to raise them for meat and feeding the cows to produce milk; they are making hatcheries where eggs are kept under certain temperature to hatch and where the chicks never get the chance to feel the warmness under their mothers’ wings.

But indigenous people never do the same; they kill animals and birds in their natural habitats where they pass a significant time with their parents or posterities, they do not shoot them to sell in the market. Prominent ethicists P Singer and M Sandel discussed a lot about this issue. Another thing is noteworthy that the Hill Bloggers and Activists Forum, in its next two trips, saw increase in livestock raising practice.

Since we saw camps and check-posts of BD state forces and government authorities in several places in the SRF and the MRF and their nearby places, how logging and invasion go reckless and unhindered in the noted areas are puzzling. From our experience, we also saw that Bengali fishermen fishing deep into the both rivers — Sangu and Matamuhuri — which means that the indigenous people are also competing with the Bengali people in protein consumption related activities. And the flipside is that the Bengali fishermen take their boats carrying one week to one month food backup for commercial fishing.  

The CEO of the CCA invited us to an informal meeting to discuss the issue as the HBAF and we raised our voices against CCA’s activities. There, at first he was talking about the co-existence between human and nature. As we were pressing forward with our questions and rebuttals he conceded that nature is their first priority; he did hide the facts and evidence based on which they received a prestigious award. I personally asked him that if he is aware of the ILO convention’s articles 107 and 169. He replied that these are not applicable for Bangladesh.  Again, I asked him that our ancestors’ avarice and stupidity incurred the third wave extinction of forests and wild life; is he there to redeem the ancestors’ transgressions? He just wore a complacent smile on his face and said nothing!

A very crucial understanding is necessary here — whether the CCA have earned the trust of the local communities or not. The report says that they built rapport and trust in the related areas. The bitter truth is that — last year, when a senior official of PM office made a trip to see the CCA’s activities, a very grass root village consisting of 12 families flew away fearing that perdition could happen instantly. The CCA also patronised signboard installation programs in many villages directing prohibition on wild life hunting. It also sounds ironical that most of the villagers do not even know how to read or write but the NGO probably submitted such program evidences as a proof of their conservation related success story to the concerned authority. Many of the villagers expressed their concerns about the CCA’s activities; they are still kept in the dark about their future. 

It might sound like a paradox that the NGO launched no campaign against or expressed no concern about the roads that are under construction both in and near the SRF and the MRF! Every road built into the hills turned into a ‘via dolorosa’ for the indigenous people. Because, then deforestation happens on the both sides of the road, land grabbers come in and locals lose their lands and leave. So their activity related to conservation is questionable here again. There is no scope to take it as a post hoc fallacy.

The HBAF and its well-wishers were raising funds for setting up a residential school in the village Leikre and upon our request the village chief granted us five acres of land within the vicinity of the village for the purpose. As the HBAF started to proceed accordingly, government officials did not approve it. The interesting fact is that the administration allowed the CCA to set up more than two schools in the SRF and the MRF and all of these have been used as centres for conservation related education. We even received complain that the photo-shoots they did representing indigenous people assisting in conservation related works — like setting up cameras, measuring animals and birds et cetera were not authentic in its very essence, because they recruited this people for the very purpose by paying small amount of money instantly. These people had no prior training and experience in such activities.

The road towards Leikre is under construction, already crossed Sajai Para. See the fallen woods. — Kawser Ahmed

Many of the village chiefs are receiving gifts like multimedia accessories, tobaccos, lungis et cetera which led to a clientelistic system and decoying the traditional system based on trust and accountability. The system will see further deterioration if the people get uprooted from their current places and then get rehabilitated in a single place where the CCA is planning to build up a model village based on financial freedom. If so many families are kept closely they will be pushed beyond their cognitive formation since many more people will live in the same place. Hierarchy will be formed thereby and their long found homeostasis built upon trust will be dismantled.

Speculation based on the CCA’s plans and activities changed the socio-political scenario in lower Sangu and Matamuhuri where many of the local representatives were previously against the NGO’s modus operandi now changed their minds. They are dreaming of greater mass mobilisation during votes and if there they get the chance to run the rehabilitation programs they will get the opportunity to redistribute rations and other things, expropriation of the to-be-distributed things can be done along with other client-patron relation based activities. Such mind set has also juiced up powerful support base for the NGO.          

The NGO is gaining momentum since it received prestigious EOCA award and thus won popularity among new blood conservationism loving people. As we saw in this write up that the NGO’s work is still needed to be scrutinised and further possibility in winning fund for its work should be halted until proper consensus and information are achieved about their plans and activities.

We should not let them wipe out the very existence of those peace-loving, down to earth, ethically superior human beings dwelling inside the SRF and the MRF. They are the true children of nature. See Amazon is burning and its children are crying for help, they have been there to look after it without damaging its ecology from the time immemorial. They were there in peace because the so called modern civilisation’s greed and capitalistic system generated woes never touched them. The so called modern world is now invading into their lives — forceful in nature, masking their intention sometimes. An enlightened mind can never want to hear that ‘such a long standing dovish concurrence between human and nature is now a vanished reality.’  

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