The banana war
Philip Gain writes about the Forest Department's ruinous campaign against the Garo banana plantations in Modhupur
As we entered the Garo village of Sainamari in the early morning of February 21, it was glistening with golden sunlight. But we were shocked to see that all the banana plants on both sides of the mud road through the village were cut and left lying there. As we approached the people of the village we saw that they were frightened of us, the strangers.
When we wanted to know what happened to the banana gardens of this huge village with some 400 Garo families, one of them, John Marak (55), led us to his house that stands in the eastern corner of his banana garden. Johh Marak is a retired BDR nayek (para-military personnel).
It is an unbelievable scene. He has six acres of banana gardens around his homestead. All his banana plants, except for some with bunches of mature banana, have just been chopped down. The Forest Department (FD) engaged scores of labourers to chop down his banana plants on February 15. He once had a pineapple garden and some 200 jackfruit trees on this land that he converted to a banana garden in the hope of a quick cash return. Some years ago, he cut all his jackfruits trees and sold them for cash to invest in the banana garden. He also invested Tk 290,000 ($4,000), that he got upon retirement, in banana gardening and constructing a large house. He watched helplessly from a distance as the FD cut down the banana trees. Given that the country is in a state of emergency and that the FD was assisted by the authorities, nobody could think of attempting any resistance.
Like John Marak, the entire village watched with great despair while their banana gardens were destroyed. "I received no notice before they cut my banana trees. No one discussed the matter with me.
They just suddenly came and cut them," said Marak.
Two sisters from another Garo family in Sainamari, Beauty Nokorek (28) and Shagorika Nokorek (25), own 15 acres of land. They grow bananas on 12 acres to the west and east of their house. On February 15, in a matter of moments, hired workers from the Forest Department chopped down their entire banana crop. "We did not get a chance to say a word. Everything was destroyed before we could speak. They only left a few plants that had mature bananas on them," said helpless Beauty Nokorek. These hard-working sisters cultivated this crop. Now that it has been destroyed, they will suffer a financial loss of some Tk 700,000 ($10,000). Like Shagorika and Beauty, another Garo woman, Nironi Simsang (40), cried in her three acre banana garden. Nironi's two mud houses lie empty near her destroyed banana garden. She used to have 3,500 banana trees in this plot of hers, and from those she would earn around Tk 300,000 ($4,300).
The same scene plagues all of Sainamari, a century-old forest village of the Garos, one of the small ethnic communities of Bangladesh. All the banana plants were indiscriminately cut. In the hope of earning a quick profit, most of the Garo families of this village had cleared their gardens of pineapple, mango, jackfruit and lemon trees, and replaced them with banana.
With all the banana trees cut down, Sainamari village is no longer recognizable as a Garo habitation. Some years ago when I first came to this village I was enchanted by it. Every house was covered in greenery. There were many varieties of trees, vegetables, and pineapple and lemon gardens everywhere. This was the characteristic of the forest villages of the Garos, the first in the Modhupur sal forest. It is because of the invasion of banana that most villages like Sainamari have lost their characteristics.
On February 13, 14 and 15 (2007), the FD carried out the first round of its banana eviction raid. FD officers said that on these three days the FD chopped down banana plants on some 1,500 acres in and around Sainamari, Pegamari, Thanarbaid, Atashbari, Bhutia and Chunia -- all of which are Garo villages. The Garos here were terrified. They have been living here for generations, and now they feel seriously threatened. The FD alleges that the banana gardens they cut down were all on FD land and were, therefore, illegal. They allege that politically powerful and locally influential Bengalis are the main players in, and beneficiaries of, banana cultivation. According to FD sources, these people used the Garos to facilitate wholesale banana cultivation. The FD said that they were unable to take action against illegal cultivators because of these powerful actors and interest groups. The state of emergency gave them the opportunity to stop banana cultivation and recover forestland.
The first target in the banana garden eviction program was Dhokhola Beat of Dhokhola Range. The villages mentioned above fall within this beat. The Dhokhola Range officer declared that the eviction action began with the big plots of a few Bengalis.
As we traveled around Sainamari and spoke to many Garos, it turned out that although some names of Bengalis surfaced, it is the Garo families that are facing the brunt of the eviction drive. The Modhupur sal forest was once the territory of the king of Natore, and the forest-dwelling Garo and Koch of Modhupur have resided in this forest for hundreds of years. They do have legal documents of ownership of the lowland (baid), but they do not have titles for most of the high land (chala) on which they have their homesteads and gardens. Marak, Shagorika, Beauty, Nironi -- all these Garo individuals said they had no documents for their homes or gardens -- these are all khas or government lands. According to the government gazette of recent times, all this land falls within a reserved forest.
This makes the Garos afraid.
Most of those in Sainamari we spoke to said that their forefathers had lived in this village for the past 200 years. Because of this, they have an ancestral right to this land. This is the norm for forest-dwelling communities. They believe that under the pretext of evicting banana cultivators, the FD aims to take away their traditional rights to this land.
The Garos of Sainamari allege that the Forest Department targeted the Garo villages first, instead of going after the outsiders who established massive banana plantations by cutting large portions of forest. This is a major injustice to them.
When the FD began destroying the banana gardens, some people stepped forward and asked for more time so that they could harvest banana that would mature in a few days or weeks. The FD said that these gardens were illegally established and now the forest land would be brought under social forestry programs.
The Forest Department tried to appease the Garo people by saying that they would be the participants in the social forestry programs that would take place and that they would be the beneficiaries of social forestry.
This does not satisfy the Garos. "The Forest Department wants to include us in social forestry programs. But we want our traditional rights to land recognized," says Garo leader Ajoy Mree.
The Garo people have many fears about social forestry programs. In Modhupur, "social forestry" began in 1989-90 through Asia Development Bank (ADB) funded Thana Afforestation and Nursery Development Project (TANDP). What people saw under the so-called "social forestry" -- woodlot for production of fuel-wood and agro-forestry -- were actually artificial forests or monoculture plantation.
When social forestry began, it came under criticism from Garos and environmentalists. People in Modhupur witnessed that the native forests were indiscriminately cut to establish plantation, sugarcoated as "social forestry." After the first rotation of plantation was harvested or pillaged by forest thieves, the second rotation occurred under the Asia Development Bank's Forestry Sector Project (FSP).
The destruction of hundreds of native species, the invasion of exotic species (acacia and eucalyptus), land remaining clear of plant species between rotations, etc., provided perfect ground to banana cultivators and land grabbers.
To the Garos, environmentalists, and residents of the area, plantations sugarcoated as social forestry brings no solution. That is why, when the FD speaks of social forestry, the Garos are not appeased. Another great fear is that if social forestry occurs they will lose their ancestral rights to their land. If this occurs, their traditional way of life will also be ruined.
After the first round of chopping, the Forest Department cut 650 acres of banana gardens on February 22. On this day, the targets were also Garo villages -- Jangalia, Getchua, Beribaid and Magontinagar. The order apparently came from a high-up of the government. Traumatized, the Garos appealed to the government authorities. In response, an order came from the government to stop chopping banana plants. The secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests visited Modhupur, had a meeting with the Garos and then gave them his word that no more banana trees would be cut. However, according to sources from the Garo community, the secretary cautioned that further expansion of banana plantations would not be allowed on forestland, and that after the mature bananas were harvested further banana cultivation would not be allowed.
The Forest Department sources said that in its raid against banana cultivation on forestland, equally harmful banana gardens in social forestry plots were not targeted. Papaya gardens, also on large areas of forestland, were not targeted. These are controlled by the outsiders, the real marauders on the forestland. Many, thus, raise the question why the FD targeted the Garo villages and not the large banana and papaya plots illegally established on the forestland.
There are many questions regarding the quality of social forestry. Even some FD officials express their concern over the selection of species to be planted under social forestry. They admit that they do not want exotic species such as acacia and eucalyptus, and want to bring back the native species lost because of plantation. However, they also claim that banana cultivation has ruined the soil to such a great extent in a short period of time that they see no other better alternative but to plant rapidly growing tree species such as acacia.
There are also allegations that in its raid against illegal banana cultivation the Forest Department has cut banana plants in some recorded lands of the Garos. From the beginning of the raid against banana, the Garos have been appealing to the government requesting for time to harvest the crop.
After the latest raid, on March 7, the government has given them time. But the locals are obliged to voluntarily stop banana cultivation on the forestland after harvesting. In a meeting at Dokhola Range on March 9, forest and environment adviser to the caretaker government, Dr. C.S. Karim, formed a 12-member committee including the Garos, and sought suggestions from the committee as regards eco-park, protection of sal forest, land use practices, etc. He visited some Garo villages and assured them that no arbitrary action would be taken against them.
Philip Gain is a director of a non-profit environmental and human rights organization.