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A student's notes: Lawachhara forest
To be perfectly honest, even a year ago I had not even heard about Lawachhara forest! It was from a seminar held last December by a few senior students of my university that I first learnt about its existence.
Later, at the start of this year I came across numerous articles in various newspapers about Lawachhara forest, and each of them gave a vivid description of a forest with an area of 1,250 hectares that was rich in flora and fauna.
Besides mentioning about the richness of the forest's flora and fauna, nearly all the articles I came across had a word or two to say about the imminent destruction of the forest arising from the laying of a gas pipeline through it. After reading the newspaper articles, I had a strong urge to visit the forest to see for myself the God-gifted beauty of the forest and also the man-made danger from the pipeline.
I did not have to wait too long for my desire to visit Lawachhara forest to be fulfilled, as my university arranged a field trip there for all students pursuing the Environmental Communication course.
After arriving at our rest house, we freshened up quickly and got down to work. We decided to begin by gaining information about the forest from indigenous people. In this case, the term indigenous people refers to the people of the two Khasi Punjis beside Lawachhara forest -- Magurchhara Khasi Punji and Lawachhara Khasi Punji. Pidison Pradhan Suchiang, a Chief of a Khasi Punji, dropped by at our guest house, and while chatting with us he mentioned how the Magurchhara gas field explosion that took place in June 1997 had a devastating impact on the lives of Khasis and the surrounding area.
The fire resulting from the explosion engulfed a vast area and it could be seen from as far as Meghalaya. It burnt about 50 acres of their land, a portion of the Lawachhara forest, a temple situated in the locality and melted a part of the nearby rail line.
According to the chief, the fire lasted for about 6 months and completely destroyed the livelihoods of the Khasis as a vast amount of betel leaf, the selling of which results in the only source of income for the khasis, was burnt.
The khasis did not receive sufficient compensation from Occidental, the company responsible for the explosion. As for the present pipeline that is going through Lawachhara he said, "We feel that history might repeat itself as there might be an explosion like that in 1997. The locals were not consulted prior to installing this pipeline, and they are living in constant fear as a result of the pipeline."
After speaking to Pidison Pradhan Suchiang, my desire to see the gas pipeline grew even greater, as it became apparent from the tone of his voice that he too was frightened by the presence of the pipeline. However, sadly enough, we couldn't go to see the pipeline immediately after speaking with him, as it was almost 4pm by the time our conversation ended, which meant that we would not be able to return to our guesthouse before dusk.
It was therefore decided that we would go to see the gas pipeline early the following morning. The local people mentioned to us that presently the population of the Khasis stands at about 20,000 people and that they are all directly dependent on betel leaf cultivation. They also added that they have been leasing the land for betel leaf cultivation from the government and that the lease was for a period of 35 years. After chatting a bit more with the locals about their livelihoods we returned to our guesthouse in order to get a good night's sleep, as we all knew that we would have a tough time the next day.
On 8 April we woke up at the crack of dawn. After gulping our breakfast we headed straight towards Lawacharra forest. Initially we were headed to the forest in the comfort of a jeep, but it was short-lived as our teacher announced that we would have to start walking soon. The jeep dropped us off near the train line that runs through the forest. Prior to coming to Srimongal, I had heard that a train line ran through the forest, but when I saw it I was still surprised. After all, it didn't make sense to me to have a train line go through the forest, as the animals would feel disturbed from the noise created by passing trains.
After walking along the train line for about half an hour, we came to the main entrance of the forest, then started to walk along the trail that had been created. As we did so, we experienced the serenity and beauty of the forest. There was lush greenery everywhere, coupled with the occasional chirping of birds. At that moment I thought I had found the proverbial "Heaven on Earth", as the forest seemed to me to be just like a dream come true.
In other words, everything was just perfect. Sadly, this experience of utopia didn't last too long. This is because as I walked further, I noticed that both sides of the trail had been freshly cut. Our teacher who had been to the forest on many occasions before told us that the trail was previously a lot narrower and that it has now become wider as a result of the laying of the pipeline. It is worth mentioning that even when my teacher informed me about the widening of the trail, I did not see the pipeline as it had been completely covered by the soil of the trail.
However, after walking for a few more minutes my desire to see the pipeline with my own eyes got fulfilled. The pipeline was 14 inches in diameter and it was greenish in colour. Plenty of noise was coming from the generators that were being used to lay the pipeline. In fact so much so, that within a few minutes of being there we felt irritated at the whirring noise.
While we stood near the pipeline we noticed that an official of Unocal was present. His name was Mr. Foo and he was the Quality Supervisor.
When we requested him to speak to us he was fully cooperative. We asked him about how safe the pipeline was and he said, "There is nothing to fear from this pipeline. We are carrying out stringent checks and so a very high standard of work is in process." When we asked him if he could guarantee whether an accident won't take place he said, "Nobody can give such a guarantee, but the chances of it happening are slim."
Mr. Foo's words came to me as little solace. After all, he said that he could not guarantee that an accident cannot happen. At that moment I took a look around the forest and contemplated how much we stood to lose if something went wrong with the pipeline. Lawachhara is a National Park, and so it is rich in biodiversity. If an explosion took place we would simply lose all of it.
My heavy heart grew even heavier as I noticed that a vast expanse of the forest had been converted to tea gardens. The tea gardens were a clear example of monoculture. While it was tasty to drink tea, the thought of it coming at the expense of forests gave way to a bitter feeling inside. Later on in the day we had the opportunity to speak to a few tea workers, and one of them was Kumari Begum.
She said, "We are made to work long hours, but we do not receive a decent wage for our work. There are even times when our pay is withheld without any reason." This too annoyed me as I knew that the owners of the tea gardens were very rich, and yet they paid their workers poorly.
The only thing which raised my spirits during my trip to Lawachhara was the fact that I managed to see hoolock gibbons. We saw 3 of them deep in the forest and they were perched on high branches. It is very rare to be able to see these animals, and the fact that I saw them on my first trip to the forest made my trip truly memorable.
On my return to Dhaka, we spoke to a high official of the forest department. As for monoculture he said, "It started in Bangladesh in the 70s. Now the poor are reluctant to stop monoculture as the plants grow quicker than native species."
All in all, my trip to Lawacharra has saddened me, as I have seen how powerful multinational corporations can be.
They are laying a gas pipeline in a National Park, citing our gas crisis. But what about our forest crisis? Instead of having a forest cover of 25%, Bangladesh only has a mere 6%. Yet we are allowing Unocal to risk this 6% even further by allowing them to lay this pipeline. It is apparent that although Unocal's high officials say they took environmental aspects into consideration while carrying out this project, but whatever the stance would this be allowed in a developed country? I seriously doubt it. It is because we are poor that they have managed to carry out such a project. The same applies for monoculture, as had we not been dependent of aid from agencies like World Bank, IMF, ADB, USAID, they would never have been able to compel us to carry out monoculture.
The sad fact is that we have seriously endangered the existence of Lawachhara forest. If Lawacharra gets destroyed, what explanation will we give to our future generations? Will we say that we destroyed it for ensuring gas supply and tea production? Although laughable, this is exactly what we will have to say!
By Sayeed Mahmud Nizam
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