FOR REVIEWING ECOTOURISM, No. 17
In today's Clearinghouse, we are presenting another case study that illustrates
as to how activities in the name of tourism development and "biodiversity
conservation" have become part of the systematic and profound assault
on indigenous communities and their ancestral lands. The following documents
outline the severe ramifications of a governmental "eco-park"
programme on ethnic minority groups and their forested hill habitats in
Bangladesh. The controversial scheme has become a significant national
issue as civil society organizations as well as a number of politicians,
academics and media people have formed a strong movement to prevent the
displacement of Adivasis for the establishment of the parks.
A particular cause of concern is the creation of such a park in the Moulvibazar
district, which will involve clearance of forested land inhabited by Khasi
and Garo people, with tree felling, the levelling of hills, road building
and construction of buildings. The government claims the twin aims of
the project are economic development and "biodiversity conservation".
It is feared that at least 1,000 families will lose their homes and be
relocated, and an even larger numbers be deprived of their land upon which
they depend for their livelihood. Moreover, this eco-park plan seriously
threatens the cultural integrity of the indigenous communities by calling
for their "social improvement", which includes the creation
of a "cultural village", where the "tribals" will
be on display for tourist consumption.
A statement released by the Bangladesh Landless Association (BLA), says,
"The real objectives of the misnamed 'eco-parks' are to evict minority
ethnic groups - which goes hand in hand with environmental destruction
- and to transfer public funds into the coffers of the construction industry.
In the future, we can expect the privatization of land and the bargain
price sale of tourism infrastructure to the private sector."
"The latest policy of establishing 'eco-parks' must be condemned,"
the BLA continues to say. "It flies in the face of the most basic
tenets of human rights, ecological protection and sustainable development.
The already marginalized inhabitants of the land earmarked for 'development'
and 'preservation’ will bear the cost of this pointless exercise. Their
lives and livelihood are considered expendable. Putting 'biodiversity
preservation' before humans is simply the government's latest 'green'
catch-cry; the plan is to destroy most of the natural environment to justify
the 'preservation' project. The forests of Bangladesh, which have for
centuries been the traditional lands of non-Bengali peoples, are steadily
being depleted for profit. This is being done behind the backs of the
whole population in an undemocratic manner. The fight to save the forests
is also the fight for the rights of the minority inhabitants."
These descriptions are strikingly similar to many other experiences from
around the world, some of which we have already shared in previous Clearinghouse
issues. So we can probably conclude at this stage that such destructive
projects are not just isolated "bad examples" that can be curbed
by taking "corrective actions" as ecotourism proponents want
to make us believe. It is time to look behind the mask of altruism that
is being displayed and to seriously investigate the entire globalized
ecotourism and "conservation" system that has been forged by
influential international agencies and is being enforced by more and more
Third World governments. Given the indisputably devastating impacts on
ethnic minority peoples and the natural environment all over, it may be
misleading and outright dangerous to further promote these tourism-cum-conservation
projects as a harmless tool for "poverty reduction" and "sustainable
Since indigenous peoples throughout the world are suffering from the same
usurpation of their ancestral lands like their sisters and brothers in
Bangladesh, the alliance of indigenous, human rights and faith-based organizations
fighting the Eco-park has called for the intervention of the international
community in support of the Adivasi struggle. Solidarity messages may
be sent to Sanjeeb Drong, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous
Peoples Forum, email: "Sanjeeb Drong" <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The campaign coordinating groups:
Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia
Why Eco-park on Khasi and Garo Ancestral Land?
By Sanjeeb Drong, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples
Bangladesh is not only the country of 'Bangalees' as propaganda has been
made everywhere. It is true that most of its one hundred and twenty million
people identify themselves as Bangalees. From time immemorial more than
45 indigenous communities live in the country. They are known as Adivasis.
Adivasi means 'originally inhabitant.' The population of indigenous peoples
in Bangladesh is more than 2 million.
Indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are descendants of the original inhabitants
of their lands and areas and are strikingly diverse in their culture,
religion and patterns of social and economic organization. It is very
sad that Bangladesh government does not recognise their social and cultural
institution at all.
For centuries, indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged groups
in the country. The Bangladesh Government has yet no policy for the development
of indigenous peoples. Neither does it recognise “Adivasis” as indigenous
peoples. Today their special relationship to the land and forest an elemental
symbiosis crucial to their survival has been threatened by communal state
and politicians and so-called development projects. This Eco-Park has
become as a threat to evict 1,000 Khasi and Garo families from their ancestral
homeland. Since last year indigenous peoples have been struggling to stop
this Eco-Park on Khasi-Garo ancestral land. Their main demand is that
Government can establish this Eco-Park in the Government's reserve forest
area, not on the land of indigenous peoples.
On 22nd February 2001, Anil Yang Yung, a Khasi Headman from
Kulaura, Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh came to Dhaka to attend a
hunger strike in protest at the establishment of an Eco-Park on his ancestral
homeland. During the hunger strike at the Central Saheed Minar, Anil Yang
Yung addressed the people:
"We are the children of the forest. We were born here and grew up
here. We have been living here for hundreds of years. Cultivating of betel
leaf is our main livelihood. We will not leave this forest. We can not
survive if we are evicted from the forest in the name of this Eco-Park.
The graves of our ancestors lie in this forestland. We can not leave them.
This forest is sacred to us. We preserve trees as they protect us. We
love the trees. Our betel leaves can not survive without these trees.
If we lose this forest, we will lose our life and our ancestors. Taking
away our land is plucking out our life because we draw our life from this
forest. We were born in this forest and we want to die here. I humbly
request our government to let our lands remain under our own care. We
will look after them and preserve them."
However the Environment and Forest Ministry has not responded to this
humane appeal of Khasi Headman and apparently his request falls on deaf
Background of the Eco-Park Project
The Bangladesh Government plans to establish an Eco-Park in Moulvibazar
district, which will take up more than 1,500 acres of Adivasi (indigenous
peoples) ancestral land for tourism. This plan was initiated by the Government
in July 2000 without any consent of indigenous peoples who have been living
in the area for centuries. Neither did the Bangladesh Government consult
with the indigenous people. The Government did not even mention the villages
of Khasi and Garo people in their project proposal, instead considering
them almost illegal inhabitants of the forest.
Seven indigenous hill villages will be affected: 1,000 Khasi and Garo
families face forceful eviction from the homelands where they have been
living for thousand of years. They have preserved the trees and protected
the forest. They have also been planting betel leaf, in addition to valuable
seasonal fruit trees on the land. They have not destroyed the big trees
because they need these for planting betel leaf. It is known that they
are the original inhabitants of this forest.
We, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh started a democratic movement
against this Eco-Park. We demanded to the government that our land should
be excluded from this Eco-Park. Many intellectuals, university professors,
writers, journalists, politicians, cultural activists have supported us
and have participated in our programmes. We have organised protest rallies,
public gatherings, press conferences, published leaflets and held a hunger
strike against the government's plan; and we have received excellent press
and media coverage of our programmes.
Having observed our activities, the Environment and Forest Ministry formed
a Committee on 4 January 2001 to verify the demand of Khasi and Garo people
and to judge whether they will be evicted or not. The committee consisted
of six members, none of whom were Adivasis. We protested against this
committee and requested the government to include Khasi and Garo representation
in the committee; they did not respond to our request. On 15 March 2001
the Convener of this committee requested the Khasi and Garo Headmen to
attend a meeting with him at the Environment and Forest Minister's office;
three Headmen were present in the meeting. However, they became frustrated
that the convener, instead of listening to them, only tried to put pressure
Now, we the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, consider this proposed Eco-Park
problem of all Adivasis. It is not only the problem of the Garo and Khasi
people living in the Moulvibazar area; we consider it an issue of our
very existence in the country. The National Forum of Indigenous Peoples
in Bangladesh together with many indigenous organisations, is campaigning
against this Eco-Park. Our slogan is, 'Stop the Eco-Park on Khasi and
Garo ancestral land'.
As part of our democratic movement we met on two occasions with Mr. Kalporanjan
Chakma, the Minister to Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Affairs, and submitted
an appeal to him. In this appeal we requested the government to exclude
the land of the Khasi and Garo from the Eco-Park. He assured us that he
would look into this matter seriously and agreed that the Eco-Park should
not be established on the lands of Khasi and Garo people. During the meeting
he added that he would discuss this matter with the honourable Prime Minister
Sheik Hasina. Subsequently, we sent copies of that appeal to the Environment
and Forest Ministry and respective divisions of the Government.
The CHT Minister sent a letter to the Prime Minister on 21 December 2000
with reference of the planned Eco-Park. On 26 December 2000 the APS of
the Prime Minister sent a letter to the Secretary of Environment and Forest
Ministry to consider the appeal of Khasi and Garo people. On 2 March 2001
we met again Dr. S A Malek, the Political Adviser to the Prime Minister
at his office. He also assured us that the indigenous people will not
face such injustice, and he indicated his interest to visit the villages
of Khasi and Garo people if necessary. The leading daily newspaper, the
Daily Star published the following statement on 3 March, "Tribal
leaders from Khasi and Garo hills met Dr. S A Malek, political adviser
to the prime minister yesterday in a bid to persuade the government to
cancel building an eco-park there. The leaders said that the government
has thousands of acres of reserve forestland in the hills of Patharia
and Longla, next to the place where 'Eco-Park' is being developed now.
Then instead of building the 'Eco-Park' in Patharia and Longla hills why
target the Khasi and Garo lands?"
Dr. S A Malek also assured the Adivasi leaders that they would maintain
fairness in the decision regarding the construction and development of
the park. However, in reality he did not do anything in favour of indigenous
Then on 31 March 2001, the leaders of indigenous peoples of Bangladesh
gathered at a national meeting in Dhaka, which was called and convened
by the CHT Jano Sanghati Samity Leader and Chairman of CHT Regional Council,
Mr. Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma). More than one hundred
Adivasi leaders were present at the meeting. During this meeting the leaders
formed a national Adivasi organisation 'Bangladesh Adivasi Forum'. This
committee formulated demands to the Government regarding the halting of
further plans to establish an Eco-Park on the lands of indigenous peoples.
On 4 April 2001, the Convener of National Adivasi Forum Mr. Santu Larma
met with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her residence. At that time
Santu Larma requested the Prime Minister to consider the demand of Khasi
and Garo people about the Eco-Park. He told the Prime Minister that the
indigenous peoples do not want an Eco-Park on their ancestral land. He
added that the Government could easily establish an Eco-Park on government's
reserve forest area. Then Prime Minister told Mr. Larma that the indigenous
peoples will not be evicted but they will be the part of Eco-Park. Mr.
Santu Larma was surprised to hear such words: 'How is it possible! They
are human beings. They will stay in the park for tourism as a showcase.'
The Prime Minister told Mr. Larma that She would talk to the Environment
and Forest Minister later; it has not yet been done.
Despite our continued protests, the Environment and Forest Minister inaugurated
the Eco-Park on 15 April 2001; at the same time thousands of indigenous
people showed the Minister the 'black flag' as the symbol of their protest.
The day was Easter Sunday, a key religious day for the Khasi and Garo
people. However, they spent that day in the protest rally in the forest.
Again on 5 May 2001, we organised a big public gathering in Dhaka to halt
the plan to establish an Eco-Park. Thousands of people attended. Many
intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, professors, journalists attended
the meeting and they made speeches in favour of our demand. The Great
Poet of the country Shamsur Rahman has supported our programme and he
said, 'The Khasi and Garo people are innocent. They are the children of
the forest and they have the highest right to the forest. The Government
should rethink about this Eco-Park and their land should be kept outside
We, more than 2 million indigenous peoples from 45 communities in Bangladesh,
are still struggling against this Eco-Park plan of our Government. We
are not against an Eco-Park. However, it should be established in the
reserve forest area of the government, not on our ancestral land. We have
tried to convince the government that this Eco-park plan is against the
law of ILO convention 107. In the Article 11 it is stated: "The right
of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations
concerned over the lands, which these populations traditionally occupy,
shall be recognised." And in the Article 12 it is said, "The
populations concerned shall not be removed without their free consent
from their habitual territories." But the Government has not responded
to our appeal. Again on 30 May 2001, the leaders of Bangladesh Adivasi
Forum (Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum) visited Khasi and Garo villages
at Muraichhara, Moulvibazar district. Thousand of indigenous peoples gathered
there at the bottom of the Khasi hills and made protest against this Eco-Park
project. The leaders have requested the government to consider the demands
of Khasi and Garo people living in the Eco-Park area. The leaders said
that government should recognise the human tragedy brought about in the
past by unrelenting oppression of these peoples. If we fail in our movement,
more than 1,000 Khasi and Garo families will be evicted from their homeland.
Finally, we are getting prepared to file a writ against this Eco-Park
plan in the High Court. In the meantime, we will continue our peaceful
Eco-park Just Adds to the Adivasis' Plight
By Sayema Khatun
Living in an era of globalization, when on the one hand relation of people
with a geographical location is unimportant or diffused due to high-tech
communication systems and on the other hand the world eco-political situation
is pressing people towards a new kind of identity without spatial location,
international people may not realize the significance and peril of displacement
for some groups of people who are still rooted to a locality. Anthropologists,
who have been working for a long time on the so-called tribal, indigenous
community living in the forests, highlands, deserts, riverside or sea-shore
in different European colonies whose mental and material existence is
inseparable from a space, land, geographical area or a country, may be
interested how the new situation forces these people into a uncertain
Our South Asian society has gone through a long colonial experience, and
our history has been encountered with a colonial transformation in different
layers of society. These post-colonial people are the mainstream people
and the marginal ethnic minority people as well, who were not transformed
in the same way as the mainstream was; rather they remained in a distance.
Though the missionaries tried to bring them into the project of 'enlightenment',
they were not made university graduates to be Shaheb or Babu in the offices.
Their lives also changed through colonial reform, but they did not completely
give up their own way of life.
For these people, displacement is a recurring experience. The Santal,
Munda, Oraon, Ho, Chakma created cultivatable land by clearing forests
and fighting against wild animals, but the other people became the owners
and evicted them from one place to another. They were evicted for the
cultivatable land they have, for gold, coal, iron, oil, gas under their
land, for the wood and animal of their forests and even for the beauty
of their land. So the process of their displacement is a long historical
process, in which penetration of new elements needs further discussion.
The new state of Bangladesh was born fighting for the right of mother
tongue and own distinct identity, but the other ethnic minority groups
living in the land have not yet got the constitutional right of difference.
Rather they have been invoked several times to join to the Bengali national
identity. In Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Chittagong, Rajshahi, Rangpur,
Dinajpur, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Potuakhali - east, west, north, south, everywhere
the minority groups are facing threat to their existence. In Chittagong
Hill Tracts, this even turned into armed encounter.
The one experience of massive displacement of highland people for the
Kaptai Dam was enough for taking a lesson, which is also responsible for
today's crisis in Chittagong Hill Tracts. And recently, the government
decided to build an eco-park in another border area in the northeast division,
Sylhet, in the name of generating economic activity, without considering
any other factors.
The so-called Eco-park is going to be established on about 1,500 acres
of land of reserved and acquired forest at Muraicharha of Barhalekha Upazilla
in the new district of Moulvibazar, which is one of the four districts
of Sylhet division. The Khashia [Khasi] community strongly protested against
the decision and appealed to the government for withdrawing the plan.
More than thousand of Khashia living in the proposed Eco-park area organized
a mass agitation gathering with all other indigenous people, from Kulaurha,
Barhalekha, Kamalgonj, Zaflong, Jainta, Sreemangal, Mymensingh, Chittagong
Hill Tracts, while the Forest and Environment minister came to lay the
founding stone. Protests in different forms are also outbursting in the
The leaders of ethnic minority people from Chittagong Hill Tracts, Garo
leaders and some Bengali activists opened their mouth and took active
part in the protest. But the government seems to be determined to their
plan even risking to loose votes of the community at the eve of the next
national election. For the entertainment of the rich urban people, who
can afford to spend money for a fun trip, government is devoted to make
such a project which has no possibility to benefit the Khashia - at least
they themselves do not think it will bring any betterment or well-being
The Khashia's way of life is mainly based around shifting cultivation,
for plough cultivation is not possible in the hilly areas where they inhabit.
Betel leaf is their main crop and so the clusters of their houses are
called panpungi. The panpungi are also the processing houses. Production
procedure of betel leaf here is not like the plain land betel leaf cultivator
in North Bengal, which is locally called Paner Boroj. Khashia do not need
to make artificial shade and support for the creepers in hills. Abundance
of green shade trees provide the shade and support for betel creeper.
The creepers grow climbing the tall trees. This a very ecologically balanced
agricultural system which came from indigenous knowledge and heritage.
The pattern of their living is also interwoven with the system of production.
They produce some fruits like betel nut, pineapple, and different kinds
of lemons, jackfruit and so on. But they are only producer community;
generally they themselves do not engage in marketing of their yield. Some
Bengali traders paner bapari are the middle persons who perform the task
of marketing of pan/betel in the local market.
We have heard the Khashia took part in the strong peasant movement, which
is called Nankar Movement in the northeastern part of Bengal in the colonial
period, and by now they are mostly converted to Christianity by the European
Missionaries. They call their community chiefs Boro Montri and Choto Montri.
All of the community deposit or subscribe a sum of money for any special
need of the community, if someone needs to go to Dhaka for example. Very
few students from Khashia communities study at Notre dame or Tejgaon College
and fewer in universities. Only the Khashia who came in contact with Bengalis
anyhow can talk and understand Bangle, which is mainly the dialect of
Urban people may be overwhelmed by the aesthetic beauty of the Kashia's
panpungi, which do not at all try to take the control over Nature, rather
they live in the lap of Nature. The Khashia have a kind of symbiotic relation
with the local Bengalis, which do not seem hostile, rather there exists
peacefulness and tolerance to the people of other kind.
The Khashia are already victim of the blow-out in an other part of Moulvibazar
district, the Magurcharha gas field, four years ago on 14 June 1997, for
which American oil-gas exploration company Occidental is responsible,
we all know. Nearly 150 acres of land was destroyed by the disastrous
gas burn, among them 50 acres was the Khashia's land for betel leaf cultivation.
Nearly 50 Khashia families living in Magurcharha got compensation of only
four and a half million taka, even though the estimated cost for the destroyed
property was 25 million. It was an irreversible destruction, and regaining
the natural fertility of the soil and the forests, the ecological restoration
and rehabilitation of wildlife is not an easy task. The betel land is
completely unsuitable for cultivation; even the earthworms and other insects
helpful for plant grow have disappeared forever.
Thus, many Kashia have lost their means of production, and it is not difficult
to imagine that the affected families either have to go elsewhere and
seek other land or they have to change their pattern of subsistence both
of which can lead a community to endless misery. And above all, money
is not the only solution for all problems. The government played a very
weak role to compel the company to pay all the compensation, instead the
company transferred all liability to another company and thus escaped.
In this situation, if the government tries to establish the Eco-park by
force without considering the people's right to give consent for any project
in their respective locality. It can lead to serious tension in that area
and hamper the peaceful relationship between the indigenous Adibashi and
Bengalis. I have just visited the area and two Bengali panbaparis, betel
traders told me they will also be affected if the Khashia lose their mode
of living, because they earn their livelihood from the trade of betel
leaf. They are also against the Eco-park because they believe it is the
process of destruction of their livelihood, which could lead to eviction
of the community. One young Khashia man compared the project to the Kaptai
Dam in Chittagong Hill Tracts, which made above 100,000 hill inhabitants
landless and homeless and has been a major cause of tension and insurgency.
What options will those people have if they lose their means of subsistence?
Will the self-reliant community turn to a dependent one on Government
assistance or programs of NGOs? If the government says the park will be
established in Khas land, which is property of Bangladesh Government,
and if the Khashia live on the Khas land and have no formal entitlement,
even then there are very serious reasons to think first. Khashia may not
have the same system of land ownership. They may have a communal flexible
type of ownership system, which functions according to customary law.
Though the private ownership system could have penetrated into or caused
transformation of their original system, it is still distinct from ours.
And what may be the use or purpose of an Eco-park, where an artificial
flavor of forest will be added for the urban tourists? A kind of zoo in
a natural settings, which can create an illusion that we are in a real
jungle with elephant, horse, deer, monkey and some birds providing entertainment
and amusement for the people who want suitable places to spend money.
Hotels, resorts, restaurants, travel companies, entertainment professionals
and many other external elements will enter all of a sudden into the Kashia's
own way of life, and a rapid change will be inevitable, which is not desirable
for them. There is hardly any possibility for the Khashia to benefit from
the very different type of economy, rather for them the possibility is
to be at best wage-laborer or workers in the new institutional system.
It is clear that the owners of the new business will be inevitably the
people who already have some association or lineage with the power structure.
The new beneficiary group can make collaborators among the Khashia like
in Chittagong Hill Tracts and can also give some bites of the benefit
to maintain control over the Khashia community. It will not be very surprising
if the Eco-park project creates unrest and violence from both sides around
this issue. We also have to remember and learn from the experience in
Chittagong Hill Tracts and its high costs. If the situation deteriorates
and if the Kashia are forced to leave the land and take refuge on the
other side of the border, it may contribute to the already complicated
relations with our big neighbor. So, a responsible government cannot but
consider the in and out of the whole thing and bear the foresight to calculate
what could be the result of their steps in future.
This is a slightly edited version of Sayema Khatun's article posted at
Megh Barta's website at: http://www.meghbarta.net/2001/june/minor.html#ecob
- The Daily Star: 16.3.2001 and 14.4.2001
- Sustainable Development Networking Programme, website: http://www.sdnbd.org
- Bangladesh Landless Association, website: http://www.workerspower.com/wpglobal/bangladeshLA.html
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