Problems and Issues of Garo and Koch Community in so-called Eco-Park Project of B’desh

-Sadia Drong
 

This case study is based on Bangladesh, mainly involving the Garo and Koch indigenous community. The Government with the help of the donors came up with a plan to destroy the forest diversity of these indigenous peoples area by the name of social forestry and so-called eco-park project which is destructive to their lifestyle. The indigenous peoples were oppressed, harassed, humiliated ever since forest department has been trying to take over their ancestral lands.  

Location:  
This case talks about destruction of forest diversity that took place in Modhupur where the Koch and Garo indigenous communities have been living for centuries. The map shows where Modhupur is located.  
 
The Beginning:
 
Ever since the forest department took charge of Modhupur Forest half of the forest has been cut from its original size already. Forest Department took over “Conservatory” duties in Modhupur forest in the year 1951, and then in 1955 it was declared as “Restricted Forest” again in 1962 it was declared as National Park. By claiming the land as “Khas” (public) the forest department has been destroying the natural biodiversity of Modhupur forest. 
 
Affect in the indigenous peoples land: 
 
It was told to the indigenous peoples that forest department will not interfere in their area for any kind of project led by the government but unfortunately the opposite has happened. Forest department has interrupted their independent peaceful way of living by planting exotic species, bananas, pineapples with chemicals etc.
 
Rubber plantation started there by wiping off 8,000 acres of sal forest with the loan from Asian Development Bank and Work Bank. This monoculture of rubber plantation did not have any economical or environmental help; the paddy field became infertile, the birds flew away, the native animals species were not seen anymore. So basically rubber plantation only brought loss of forest diversity in the area. To get a positive result acacia, eucalyptuses and other exotic species like Dalbergia Sisso, Leucaena leucocephla, Swietenia macrophulla, and Leucocedepha swieternia were planted in the forest.
 ADB claimed that these plants grow fast if given proper care and soil treatment and is good for fuel, timber and pulpwood. The Garos and Koch had a different opinion they said even though these kinds of plants grow fast eventually they take over the space of other original plants. Whereas, Sal and other original species meet multiple needs of the people, preserves biodiversity and serves as medicine, provides timber and firewood too. 
 
Bananas, pineapples have been planted where the Garos used to plant the same fruits for meeting their basic needs. The Forest department took the fertile land away from them because the land does not belong to the Garos by title. They had to give the cultivated land as the forest department was being so cruel. Then the
forest department started planting pineapples and bananas using pesticides (DDT) and harmful hormones for the bananas and pineapples to let them look bigger and ripe fast which is harmful for the soil and of course it is harmful for the people who will be consuming the fruits full of chemicals.
 
The Garos who have given out most of the high land for banana cultivation said that using pesticides and hormones is a serious problem for their environment, economy and society. One reason why the Garos have given out their land for the plantation is because they were offered a huge amount in return of the land
and they needed money.
 
Because of rubber plantation, banana and pineapple native species like Gandhi gazari, ajuli (Dillenia pentagyna), dud kuruj, sonalu (Cassia fistula) (golden shower), sesra, jiga, jogini chakra (Gmelina arborea), kaika, sidha, sajna, amloki (Emblic myrobalan) and gadila can hardly be found now 
 
Affect on the people:  
Since the banana and pineapple plantation area of the indigenous peoples were taken over by the forest department they had no choice but to work in the banana and pineapple plantation with pesticides and other effective chemical hormones. Indigenous peoples especially women became sick some even died working in this production because the pesticides and hormones were poisonous and dangerous. 

Garos being the innocent people became easy target practice for the forest guards and victims of a thousand false cases every year. 

There is indiscriminating shooting at Mandi people in Modhupur is a regular affair. Three Garo women were collecting firewood on August 21, 2006. Without warning five or six forest guards opened fire on three Mandi women around 7.30 in the morning. One of the women named Sicilia Snal was injured with hundreds of shards of cartridge piercing her back. Her kidneys were badly damaged. One of the worst victims of oppression in Modhupur, Sicilia can not walk or move her hands properly to date. 

There are also cases of Garo women being raped by the Bengalis 
“Looks like the forest department is competing to win a gold medal in shooting,” (Pavel Partha, 2007) 
 
Eco park project: 
 
In 2000, the government of Bangladesh proposed a plan to establish an Eco-Park in Modhupur forest and started erecting a wall around 3,000 acres out of the 21,000 acres of the total land. The plan was established without seeking the consent of the Garo people living in the area. There are eight Garo villages that fall in the area of wall construction. This eco park would destroy the lives of thousands of Mandi families in the area. “They are talking about a zoo and we all will be caged inside the wall,” one adivasi activist said.
 
The proposal had 10 picnic spots in the middle of the boundary wall which is not an ideal eco park. Eco Park is supposed to be surrounded by trees. Asian Development Bank (ADB) and   the World Bank supported this eco park project by giving loans to the forest department. 
 
The word “Eco” is the abbreviated from the word Ecology that means a study of plants or living organisms or people in relation to environment. That being so, it is not understood why the government embarked upon a plan to construct an Eco Park in the Modhupur forest area, which is already there (Daily Star, 2004)
 
It is yet another project launched in the name of tourism development and "biodiversity conservation" but which has become part of the systematic and profound assault on indigenous communities and their ancestral lands. (Bangladesh Human Rights, 2005) 
 
Even though there would be a gate for the local indigenous people to enter through the wall they knew that it would not be the same as before. By July 2003 the forest department has already constructed 8,000 feet wall. Some Garos protested for putting up the wall and they were put in the jail for few days for protesting. Some Garo leaders had a discussion with the forest minister and he promised that the wall would be built with the Garo people’s convenience. But the forest minister did not keep his word.
 
The objective of the Eco Park was to preserve the last bit of sal forest that was left but since the government could not stop the harmful business on the bananas and pineapples the local people stopped believing the forest department. Since then, the Garos have been organizing rallies, meetings, and showing black flags, etc. to
express their rejection of the government plan of wall construction and eco-tourism. But nobody thought the forest guards and police would shoot and kill the forest people for this.
 
All these happened despite the fact that  Bangladesh signed the convention of Biodiversity which clearly describes “Practices and innovations developed by the indigenous peoples, which contribute to the sustainable use of biological resources and conservation of biodiversity should be recognized, rewarded; states should control or eradicate "alien" species which threaten ecosystems, habitation or species and states should adopt measures for the recovery and rehabilitation of the endangered species and for the reintroduction into their natural habits” 
 
The killing:
 
Piren Snal:
After going through so much of harassment and mental torture, on Jan 4, the indigenous peoples of Modhupur from different villages gathered together in Jalabadha to protest against the construction work of Eco park wall that was going on. As they were protesting police started shooting with firearm. Piren Snal, 25 a very prominent Garo leader against this eco movement was spot dead while was protesting with others. Piren’s wife was shocked and numb thinking how to survive without her husband and raise two children of  
 
Next day on Jan 4 the oppressed people carried a demonstration carrying Piren’s dead body; they carried black flag in the demonstration and blocked the Mymensingh- Tangal highway. They also submitted 5 points demand to the government on 7 days ultimatum. There demands included: 

1. Cancellation of Eco park project

2. Removal of environmental and forest minister Shahjahan Siraj

3. Transfer of Tangail district’s Deputy Commissioner, Superintendent of police and divisional forest officer

4. A judicial query for the killing 

5. Permanent lease of their land 
 
The Garos submitted a Memorandum to the prime minister through Kauser Johura, Deputy Commisioner of Tangail.  
 
After the incident of 3 January 2004, the Forest Department postponed implementation of the Eco-Park. But the officials subsequently filed more than 20 false against the indigenous Garos. 
 
After the declaration of the state of emergency on 11 January 2007, the Forest Department officials restarted the construction of the controversial boundary wall for the Eco-Park. Indigenous Garos under the leadership of Mr Choles Ritchil again protested when the wall construction started again and Mr. Choles was mercilessly killed. 
 
Choles Ritchil: 
Mr. Ritchil took up the leadership after Mr. Piren Snal
On March 18 at 1:30 pm, as he was coming from Mymensingh after attending a wedding ceremony with three other Garo men named Mr Piren Simsang, Mr Tuhin Hadima and Mr Protab Jamble. 
Mr Ritchil was arrested by a group of 6 plainclothes personnel belonging to the Joint Forces. He was arrested by Warrant Officer Jamal, 2nd Lt. Minhaj, and Sergeant Shahadat under the instructions of Major Toufiq Elahi of Khakraid army camp
 
Following their arrest, the Joint Forces personnel made telephone calls and about 40 law enforcement personnel in two lorries arrived. The security forces took them to nearby Khakraid army camp at about 2:00pm. 
 
Mr Ritchil’s dead body, which was handed over to the family members on 19 March 2007, bore torture marks like eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilated, two hand palms smashed, nails of 3 fingers of the right hand removed etc.
 
Mr Choles Ritchil was tied to the grill of a window and mercilessly beaten by nine law enforcement personnel
 
All other detainees i.e. Mr Protab Jamble, Mr Piren Simsang and Mr Tuhin Hadima too were tortured. While Mr Piren Simsang and Mr Tuhin Hadima were released at about 5 pm on 18 March 2007, Mr Protab Jamble was released from
Khakraid army camp at about 10 pm on the same day, as he was given medical treatment because of severe torture. 
The Joint Forces personnel used pliers to press the testicles of Mr Choles Ritchil and put needle on his fingers. They poured hot water into his nostrils. He was then was hanged upside down and brutally tortured. He vomited blood again and again and fainted many times. Eventually he died. 

Mr Ritchil’s burial took place at Beribaid village at about 1 pm on 20 March 2007.
Ritchil’s wife, Sandha Rani Simsang, had filed a complaint with the Modhupur Police Station on 20 March 2007; no First Information Report (FIR) has been registered as of 2 April 2007. Because of the fear of reprisals from the joint forces, no further action has so far taken to approach the judiciary against the police for their failure to register the FIR. 

The caretaker government of Bangladesh has failed to take appropriate actions against the culprits. 

ACHR (Asian Center of Human Rights) appeals to the heads of delegations of the 14th SAARC Summit to intervene with the delegation of the government of Bangladesh to:

 Order a judicial inquiry into the killing of Mr Choles Ritchil; 

 Order registration of the First Information Report by the Modhupur Police Station; 

 Order suspension of the Warrant Officer Jamal, 2nd Lt. Minhaj, Sergeant Shahadat, Major Toufiq Elahi and other security personnel of Khakraid army camp to ensure a free and fair inquiry; 

 Order exhumation of the dead body of Choles Ritchil for autopsy by independent panel of doctors; 

 Award compensation of Taka 10 lakhs (one million) to the family of the victim; 

 Provide safety and security to Ms Sandha Rani Simsang and her family members and other witnesses against intimidation by the Joint Forces; and 

 Cancel the Eco-park project in Modhupur forest. 

As per publicly proclaimed intentions, the joint forces are supposed to act against the corrupt and the criminals. Mr. Ritchil would not fall into either of these two categories (BEN, 2007)
 
Koch Eviction:
 
29 Koch families of Kamarchala village were given eviction notice in April, 2003. The forest department said according to the government’s social forestry plan only acacia tree plantation is supposed to exist there. The forest department said the Koch families have to face the court or leave the area without protesting. They never thought where these people will go. The government does not have any rehabilitation place for the evicted .This is a total harassment and human rights violation on the minorities. 
 
The Koch people claimed where they will go if they are told to move? 
The local forest officer asked for tk 50,000 for fresh allocation of their land.  
The range officer denied the allegation of asking 50,000 for fresh allocation. He said that “the villagers are partners in the social forestry project of the 1993 phase and the trees in their land were sold as per contract of the project”. 
 
Drawback of Garos and Koch:

They are considered as backward, poor, non-educational ethnic people so whatever case they filed was not processed because they did not have enough money to fight lawfully against this issue and the court did not take it seriously.  

 In the beginning there was no strong organization to help them with the problem 

 Being minorities they did not dare to speak up 
 
Activities of Forest department: 
 
 Instead of helping to conserve the forest as they were supposed to do, they came and cleared the sal forest for plantation of imported woodlot species 

 The Modhupur aforestation program was discussed years ago by the government but the indigenous peoples were not aware of it as they were not called for the discussion 

 The minister of the environment Shahjahan Siraj   said that the conservation plan on Modhupur will continue despite the protest from people 

 It was decided that a committee among the indigenous Garos would be formed to work with the government. However, it is alleged that the government manipulated the committee’s formulation and only those supporting the government were included in the committee.

 The authorities are persisting with the Modhupur Eco Park project despite the previous tragedy, and now another Garo leader has been killed, and this time by medieval torture.

 There are vested interests pushing the Modhupur Eco Park project that include corrupt forest department officials, contractors, and local robbers who benefit from grabbing land belonging historically to the Garo people. 

 The Minister consoled the Adivasis and even rebuked the forest officials. “Those who live in the forest have more rights over it than anyone else,” said the Minister. But this was just some kind of political speech 

 State Minister A.K.M. Mosharraf Hossain (energy and natural resources) who accompanied Minister Shajahan Siraj said, “The Forest Department is responsible for the destruction of the forest.” But they were just words.

 The Minister gave his decision that the government would go ahead constructing the walls – but not at the inconvenience of the Garos. The Garo leaders also agreed among others to form a committee to work with the government. But it was a disaster.  

 The OC of Modhupur Police Station who was in the forest at the time of the shootout on January 3 claimed that police did not fire any shot at the demonstrators but made some blank shots

 The forest officials sold trees of the forest for their personal use such as wood log business and making furniture at home from the woods of the trees.

 The State supported development programme does not defend human rights rather it promotes insecurity, of a disadvantaged and marginal ethnic community
 
The supporting community:

 Speakers at the rally, convened by Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA) called upon the funding agencies to review their decision to support such a project.

 It’s an evil effort of a certain clique to evict the indigenous people and destroy their natural grove," said BAPA General Secretary Abu Naser Khan. "Our movement seeks to save both."

 Professor Nazrul Islam of Bangladesh Environment Network said erecting a wall surrounding the eco-park in the Modhupur forest is a contrasting and wrong action.
 
 An Awami League (AL) parliamentary delegation demanded immediate scrap of Madhupur eco- park project and a judicial probe under a sitting judge into the killing of an anti-scheme protester.

 BEN would like to help the forest department understand the direction in which the events are moving or likely to move unless they are careful enough. 
 
Recommendation to CBD: 
 
To make sure that Bangladesh Government do not fail to practice on what the country has signed in the “Convention of Biodiversity” and if they do to make sure they are punished for violating the Convention rule. 
 
Recommendation to the Government:

 Stop constructing the remaining eco-park wall and damage the walls that have already been built

 Stop destroying biodiversity by the name of so called social forestry. 

 Stop harassment on indigenous women and men

 Stop planting exotic species they are harmful for the original plants 

 Follow what has been signed in the Convention of Biodiversity 

 Do not evict the indigenous peoples because they belong to this land 

 Stop cutting the sal forest that is the last bit remaining 

 Detention for the killing of Piren Snal, Choles Ritchil

 Give indigenous peoples the assurance that they can live in Modhupur without any harassment from the government and other cruel people 

 Stop planting bananas and pineapples using pesticides and hormones and give back Garos their plantation land 

 Do not let the business men to take advantage of the forest and rob tree logs

 Cancel eco park in Moulovibazar , Sylhet which is another disaster to the indigenous community 
 

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