Reserved Forests Complicate Land Issues

Last updated Jun 4th, 2020


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Sangthuima (24) and Thuisangma (20), two Khyang sisters in a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have had almost all of their three-acre croplands notified as reserved forests.

Their homesteads have also been notified as reserved forests.

They have implicitly become illegal on their own land where they and their forefathers have lived for centuries.

The two sisters inherited the land from their father, Teng Hla Pru and the land is still recorded in his name.

Being dispossessed of their croplands, the two sisters have now become head-loaders and day laborers.

In the reserved forest areas it is very tough to collect fuel wood and other forest produces. Caught with a dao or an axe—the common instruments in the hands of hill people– in a reserved forest, one may face forest cases.

Aggrieved and frightened, Sangthuima and Thuisangma, looked pale and remained almost silent when we tried to know the details.

As we left they climbed on their thatched-roofed Khyang house constructed on a platform made of bamboo and wood.

The others of the same hamlet—Baro Kukkachhari Para in 335 Dhanuchhari Mouza of No.1 Gilachhari Union in Rajasthali Thana in Rangamati district—face the same fate.

Their croplands and homesteads have been notified as reserved. As we entered the village, many, working in the courtyard, went back into their houses.

Those standing on the platforms in front of houses moved away when we positioned our camera.

One obvious impact of the reserved forest expansion is the disappearance of the Khyang families from the area.

The Khyang people, who numbered 2,343 in 1991, find it difficult to cope with the changed situation as a result of reserved forest expansion up to their garden land and homesteads.

As we moved to Arachhari Headman Para (Dhanuchhari Mouza), the headman Hlathwai Khyang informed us that all of the 33 families in the village are Khyang.

Before there were about 60 Khyang families in the village. The families have disappeared because of harassment and forest cases especially after the expansion of the reserved forests.

According to his information, of 3,969.98 acres in his Mouza 3,889.31 acres are reserved forests and 139.72 acres are registered land, which include 55 acres registered to 11 families (forest villagers)— five acres each.

Headman Hlathwai Khyang and others informed us that Dhanuchhari Para, Korbanchhari Para, New Zealand Para, Madan Karbari Para, Moniong Karbari Para and Bara Kukkachhari Para of Dhanuchhari Mouza are today inhabited by only 180 families and most of them are Khyang.

Why and where have all these families gone?

“The plantation activities and conversion of the jum land, garden land and homesteads into reserved forests have chased them out of their traditional homeland and pushed them upward where they can look forward to practising their traditional economic activities for a living,”

says Arun Laibresaw in Arachhari Headman Para.

Headman Hlathwai Khyang said that in his Mouza the local people have applied for registration of around 700 acres of land in the DC’s Office.

The settlement of those lands, classified by the Forest Department as Unclassed State Forest (USF), has been stopped since 1989. This alarms the Khyang and leads them to disappear.

The ethnic communities have lived in the CHT for centuries. Most of them normally do not have title deeds for their jum land or even for their homesteads.

Each ethnic family is also entitled to 30 decimals without registration. Without customary rights being fully recognized, a huge percentage of people from among the ethnic communities in the CHT practically becomes rootless.

Expansion of reserved forests by notifications and restriction on jum cultivation have made life extremely difficult for these communities.

In reserved forest access of the local people is very limited. Approximately 24% of the CHT are reserved forests—this excludes recently declared reserved forests, which has instigated a big clamor in the CHT.

“The Khyang people are most affected by the plantation activities of the Forest Department (FD). Almost the entire Khyang population of the CHT has been affected,”

says Raja Devasish Roy.

In Dhanuchhari Mouza, the Khyang can no longer practice jum. Without jum, the subsistence economy of the Khyang people is totally ruined.

“We used to produce all our food items in jum fields. Jum cultivation has been stopped since 1976 because of expansion of pulpwood plantation and reserved forests. We can now produce little food. We have to buy food, which is expensive for us, and we have to walk longer distances to buy food. We are now in a tough struggle to survive,”

says Aung Saw Khyang of Arachhari Headman Para.

“The simple and quiet Khyang people are not used to the environment created by the expansion of reserved forests up to their homesteads and restriction on jum cultivation. So hundreds of families have disappeared and many others prepare to leave,”

says Arun Libresaw.

Expansion of reserved forests by notifications under the Forest Act has instigated a big tumult in the CHT.

According to a memorandum submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on behalf of the hill people and signed by 163 hill persons including Raja Devasish Roy, Goutam Dewan, and Sudatta Bikash Tanchangya, 2,17,790.3 acres of land from 83 Mouzas in three hill districts have been notified reserved forests between 1990 and 1998.

Of these 1,40,341.31 acres have been finally notified reserved forests.

The memorandum was submitted on September 10, 1998 under the auspices of a new body called, the Committee for the Protection of Forests and Land Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

However, Syed Margub Morshed, secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forest told BBC Radio in an interview that 2,08,148 acres have been primarily notified as reserved forest of which 116,883 acres have been finally notified.

The hill people in general and the leaders complain that the government has arbitrarily reserved the jum lands, croplands, orchards, homesteads and land registered in the Deputy Commissioner’s office.

Now in a changed situation, particularly after the peace treaty signed between the insurgents and the government and return of the refugees, the hill people have started to organize and protest against expansion of reserved forests on their lands.

Leaders of the Committee for Protection of Forests and Land Rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and a few hundred headmen, Karbaris, common ethnic people from different ethnic identities and a few Bengalis got together in Bandarban to form the district committee and discuss the issues relating to the expansion of reserved forest.

They demonstrated their rage against reserving what they call their lands.

They complained that the Forest Department and other concerned government offices used many tricks and pressure to expand reserved forests on their lands.

According to Raja Devasish’s account, the land affected by the reservation include :

  • “private lands registered in the office of the deputy commissioner;
  • private homesteads of hill-people under rule 50 of the CHT Regulation;
  • forest commons over which the hill-people have rights to forest produce in accordance with the Forest Act, the Forest Transit Rules, the CHT Regulation, Long User and prescriptive rights, etc.;
  • grazing lands over which the hill-people have rights of pasture in accordance with the CHT regulation and local rules, customs and practices;
  • and lands in the process of registration in the office of the deputy commissioner.”
  • And,“tens of thousands of people in all of the three districts—hill people and ethnic Bengali residents who were displaced by the Kaptai Dam in 1960;
  • almost the entire population of the indigenous Khyang people;
  • and hill people who were rehabilitated under government-run afforestation and agriculture projects of the Forest Department, the BADC and the CHT Development Board—have been affected,”

says the Chakma Chief.

Sudatta Bikash Tanchangya estimates the affected people at 200,000. In some places in Rajasthali Thana local people made horrendous allegations to this reporter.

The headman of Kukkachhari Mouza (in Rajasthali Thana), Mishu Marma complained that in her Mouza the land size is 666 acres; but officially 722 acres have been reserved in 1984/85 and trees such as Acacia, Gamar, Kadam have been planted.

“In our Mouza we all have become illegal residents. Out of 30 Khyang families in my Mouza 23 have disappeared. Of 600 families in my Mouza, 200 have virtually become refugees. The others still live here because we still cultivate some lands and live on our homesteads, which have also been declared reserved forests,”

said Mishu on October 17, 1998.

Gyan Bikash Tanchangya of Rajasthali Thana Sadar complained that the Pulpwood Plantation Division of Kaptai forcibly planted pulpwood trees on five acres of his land (in Rajasthali Thana) in 1980s.

He registered this land in 334 Kukkachhari Mouza of Ghilachhari Union in Rajasthali Thana in mid 1980s.

The division had forcibly planted pulpwood on many others’ lands, complained Gyan Bikash.

Advocate Dinonath Tanchangya, Gyan Bikash’s son complained,

“In 1995 officials from the division began harvesting trees they had planted without consulting the local people who assert claims on the land.”

Probhat Kumar Tanchangya, son of Minunath Tanchangya, registered 5 acres of land in 335 Dhanuchhari Mouza in Rajasthali Thana in the 1980s in which he planted timber trees, teak and gamar.

Now after many years of hard labor Probhat’s trees have begun to mature and he wants to harvest some timber.

Recently, he had almost completed the process of procuring a “jote permit” for harvesting 948 cft teak and 500 cft fuelwood with the approval of the district forest committee.

The DC’s office had requested the DFO (Pulpwood) of Rangamati in a letter dated June 6, 1997 to issue “jote permit” to Probhat Kumar.

To his great disappointment, the DFO refused to issue the much desired “jote permit” and told him that his land was now reserved forest.

The leaders of the Committee for the Protection of Forests and Land Rights, CHT and the local communities hold that they are never against reserved forests but they are strongly opposed to creation of reserved forests on their private lands, homesteads and private forests.

Sudatta Bikash Tanchangya, secretary of the committee accuses,

“Our lands are being reserved for pulpwood and timber. This is a trick of the Forest Department to dispossess us of our lands.”

According to the hill peoples’ committee, much of the land discussed was only notified reserved after the peace accord signed.

“This is contrary to the peace treaty signed between the Jana Sanghati Samiti and the government,” said Goutam Dewan, convener of the Committee for the Protection of Forests and Land Rights, CHT.

According to Deputy Commissioner Shah Alam, Cadastral Survey (CS) is another important factor for resolving the land problem in the CHT.

“Unless the Cadastral Survey takes place the settlement of land problems will linger,” says the DC.

Everybody recognizes that the land problem is at the center of all CHT dilemmas.

“Proper resolution of the land problems is the precondition of lasting peace and progress in the CHT,” is quoted in the memorandum of hill people.

There are, of course, other issues like changing ecology of the CHT due to pulpwood plantations with Acacia and Gamar, monoculture of rubber and teak, Eucalyptus plantation in places and loss of wildlife biodiversity.

The hill people have been under so much pressure for decades due to insurgency, militarization, wrong development initiatives and numerically enormous Bengali population around them, that they still have to fight hard to establish their land rights while many important issues remain totally unattended.

Abbreviated from original essay published in Earth Touch, SEHD, October 19th, 1999

Writer : Philip Gain

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