The Modhupur sal forest exists on the map of northern Bangladesh as a small blob of green in what is otherwise a sea of grey. Being designated the colour green on a map is special—it means that patch of land is an unruly, wild force where man is a guest. But as the Garo and Koch communities who have lived in the forests for centuries know very well, that has not been the case for almost three decades.
Social forestry introduced during 1989 in the zone has replaced much of the naturally occurring sal forest with a selection of irresponsibly curated vegetation using afforestation practices. But the afforestation technique did not consider the fragile ecological balance between man and nature. The patch of land still looks green on the map, but it is an international donor-funded and manicured forest.
Localised studies have shown time and again that for the Garo and Koch community, the man-made forest serves none of the purposes that the original woodlands did. In fact, a population census by the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), inaugurated in the city last week, shows that replacing the original forest has directly impacted two types of human movements: the displacement of the indigenous Garo community, and influx of majoritarian Bangalis.
The census surveyed all the households of 44 chosen villages from five unions of Modhupur upazila (the upazila has 11 unions in total). It found that Garo and Koch communities, who used to be predominant residents of the forest areas, are now vastly outnumbered by Bangalis. Ethnic Bangalis constitute 61.11 percent of the population, while Garos make up 33.67 percent. The Koch community, who had historically been a minority even in comparison to the Garos, form 5.42 percent of the population.
The survey also found that it was not always like this—they questioned both Garos and Bangalis about their number of years in residence, and found that Garos are twice as likely to have been residing in the Modhupur sal forest for 50 years or more. Only 28.98 percent of the Bangalis had been living on the land for over 50 years. More Bangalis were found to have settled there within the last one generation.
The dwindling number of Garo residents and the increasing number of Bangali settlers has a strong correlation with how the forest land is being used, the survey concludes.
“When social forestry started in 1989, the idea was to have a forest that caters to the local demand for firewood. So international donors suggested dividing up portions of the forest into hectare-sized plots and allotting them to the poor among the Garo community,” said Philip Gain, the lead researcher behind the survey and director of SEHD.
“They would then plant eucalyptus and two species of acacia: acacia mangium and acacia auriculiformis. The trees would be cut down after every 10 years, allowing the locals to harvest wood,” explained Gain. The selection of the species was done completely by the Forest Department and participants could not choose what they wanted to plant.
Gain said while the tree saplings grew, the Garo community could harvest bananas, papayas, pineapples, ginger and turmeric. “They could continue to harvest pineapple even after the trees grew, because pineapples can grow at the base of the trees,” said Gain.
Modhupur sal forest is currently in its third round of social forestry, meaning the forest plots have been razed twice already. But the survey team found the plan for harvesting the forest did not play out as envisioned.
For one, most of the Garo community could not harvest the forest plots themselves, they concluded.
“In 44 villages, the villagers have leased out 3593.05 acres of land for production of banana, pineapple, ginger, turmeric etc. and low land for production of paddy,” states the SEHD survey report.
Of this land, 84.09 percent belong to the Garo community. “There is hardly any land particularly of the Garo that is empty and not leased out to traders, if they are not cultivating it themselves,” it adds.
The survey team found that a lack of capital was the main reason behind this.
“Among the people who were given the plots, many did not have the capital to farm these plots. So, they gave the plots over to Bangalis. The Garo community did not traditionally engage in mass-scale agriculture,” says Gain.
The report published the accounts of two Bangali farmers, Julhasuddin Khan and Hafizur Khondokar, who built their fortunes on land leased from Garo owners in the villages of Joynagachha and Beduria. Neither were from those villages themselves. Julhasuddin made his farm by leasing land from 55 Garo individuals in total, and his entire farm contains 30 acres of social forestry plots. Hafizur, on the other hand, leased 22.5 acres of social forestry plots from nine Garo individuals. Each had to invest Tk 50 lakh and Tk 20 lakh, respectively.
“The ones who take the lease of the land are outsiders with money, who come and go,” says Gain.
But what happens during this process of handing Garo land over to the Bangalis is that the cultivation of the forest is not done diligently. “The Garo community were made caretakers of the forest. They were supposed to rear the tree saplings, until they grew into large trees ready for harvest,” said Gain. After the harvest, more saplings would be planted so that the cycle could go on.
However, they would not get the full profit of selling the trees. “When the trees were cut down and sold, 45 percent of the proceeds were given to the plot owners, 45 percent to the government and 10 percent to the Tree Plantation Fund which would fund the next cycle of saplings,” explains Gain.
Only 3.57 percent of the Garo community cited social forestry as an income source, thus dispelling the myth that forests are being planted, reared and harvested.
Besides, the form of agriculture the Garo community was instructed to engage in is pesticide-intensive and ruins the soil thus impeding the growth of the forest, the survey concludes.
Meanwhile, the forest is getting replaced with banana trees and pineapple groves. “To give an example of how widespread banana cultivation in Modhupur Upazila is, it can be noted that of 183,615 metric tons of ripe banana produced in Dhaka Division in 2016-2017, 92,888 metric tons were produced in Tangail district, and it is needless to say that Modhupur upazila in [the] district, specifically the forest villages, are prime locations for production of banana,” states SEHD’s survey report. That means one district alone catered over half of an entire division’s banana production. The survey report cites similar figures for pineapple produced over that same year.
Another way to show the prominence of agricultural work in Modhupur sal forest is to calculate the percentage of people involved in agricultural work. While nationally, 40.67 percent of the labour force belong to the agricultural sectors, in the villages surveyed, that number was a bit higher. Around 50 percent of the Garo community were found to be involved in agricultural labour.
The agricultural boom was used as a scapegoat for the forests disappearing by representatives of the forest department at a roundtable held in the capital last week.
“The destruction of the forest has been going on long before the introduction of social forestry. It is not right to blame social forestry alone for the destruction of forests. Besides, social forestry has been successful all over the country except in Modhupur. The destruction of forest of our country is linked to the pattern of land use. With the demise of forest land, agricultural lands have increased,” Yunus Ali said, former Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) of the Forest Department at the roundtable conference titled “Modhupur Sal Forest: Its Demise, Demographic Changes and Customary Land Rights”, held in the department’s office.
As more and more forest land keeps getting converted to agricultural plots, Bangalis continue moving in to work as labour. “You will especially find people who have lost their homes to river erosion moving to these places,” Gain said.
Meanwhile, after leasing the land, the Garo community has been looking towards urban areas for employment, the survey found. Around 20 percent of all the Garo households surveyed had at least one female member who works in a beauty parlour in towns and cities. Compared to that, only 4.6 percent of the Bangali households had a member working in the city (in garments industries for example).
The damning findings of the survey point out that the health of the Modhupur sal forest is dependent on its inhabitants, just as much as its inhabitants are dependent on the forest. Interventions taken three decades back have had unforeseen consequences leading to an entire indigenous community’s customary rights and livelihoods being stripped from them.
Not only have the rights of those who subsisted on this land been stripped off, the forest land as we know it has also been ravaged thanks to monoculture plantations that deeply compromise the fertility of the soil. A decision made by the forest department nearly three decades back kickstarted a domino effect that is still unravelling to this day.
Now that the Bangladesh Forest Department has accepted that social forestry did not work in Modhupur, will they take steps to reverse the change or be complicit in this crime?