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     Volume 6 Issue 5 | February 9, 2007 |

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Moans of a Dying Forest

Imran H. Khan

"We do not inherit the land from our ancestors...we borrow it from our children."
-- Native American Proverb

Philip Gain, a journalist and writer, has strong feelings when it comes to trees and forests. He currently runs the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) which keeps up a continual struggle to bring into the spotlight issues related to the forest and those that inhabit it. In his recent book, "Stolen Forest," he explores how we are losing one of our precious natural resources.

Government bodies and international agencies point their finger at forest dependent communities and the poor people whose lives are entwined with the forest for the massive destruction and the erosion of our forests. In his book, Gain argues that it is the state agencies and the investment strategies of the international financial institutes (IFIs) who are to blame. Gain divides the book into some broad categories, namely the Forest, Depletion, Threats, Effects of Plantation and Survival.

A Khyang woman smokes a pipe, a pass time for both the genders in the community.

His Introduction, written in the first person narrative, which reads a little like a memoir to the events: "My first visit to any forest occurred in when I spent three months in the Modhupur sal forest… What attracted me most was the matrilineal Garo or Mandis of the forest villages." These people are the true forest people. From that time on, Gain has had an acute fascination with those people whose lives revolved around the forest. Overall the book is written in the third person but Gain often quotes himself and brings in his own feelings and views into perspective to give his readers first hand knowledge about being in the forest and with its people.

The book also provides concrete facts, figures and numbers. "Officially the forest department of Bangladesh is supposed to manage around 2.6 million hectares or 18 percent of the land surface of the country…it now controls only 10.3 percent of the land surface," according to the Forest Department records of 2001. He gives detailed descriptions of how much of the forest areas are still standing in Bangladesh, where they are located and what type of forest they are. Graphical maps highlight the remaining forests and their density.

From the outer periphery of the forest he homes in to the centre, to the people who live there, “the children of the forest.” We get a wonderful look into one of the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world. Gain highlights items of interest and then goes on to discuss it in more detail. For example, in one section he talks of jum and jumia and goes on to describe how swidden or jum is cultivated and the process in which the community or jumia cultivates it. He describes the life-span of the jum plant and the time it takes for the soil to reach its fertility again. There are colourful pictures with detailed captions to follow.

In the Threats section of “Stolen Forests,” Gain analyses the different ways that the forests are being destroyed. In addition to the familiar ones of population boom, migration of landless people into the forestland, conversion of forestland to agriculture, he adds a few more that he considers major factors in aiding the destruction. These factors include, "reservation, monoculture plantations (industrial or commercial with exotics in particular), lies about plantation, tea plantation…encroachment for setting industries, mining, exploration of gas and oil, etc." many of these reasons are eye openers and important revelations for anyone interested in saving the environment.

In this chapter, Gain also talks about how organisations like the World Bank have played a major role in industrial plantation in Bangladesh. Its involvement in industrial plantation has taken form in mainly two projects: the Second Forestry Project and the Forest Resource Management Project. The projects resulted in "massive deforestation and replaced natural forests with alien species in Chittagong, Cox's bazaar, the CHT and some other places." Monoculture is basically the practice of raising a single species of trees, generally of the same age, in a plantation as opposed to the large number of species of trees found in a native forest or in a mixed plantation. The irony is that monoculture plantation is a sad example of bad ecological strategy and acts as an agriculture crop, to be chopped down later for commercial purpose. Needless to say, biodiversity is being chopped to its very core.

A scene from the Dulahazra Safari Park.


In the concluding parts of the book, the author talks of hope for survival of the forest and of our rich bio diversity. He gives some ideas for methods of preservation, those that need not come from outside. He advocates encouraging the people to change their concept of growing forests rather than leaving them alone. Gain says, “We can plant trees, but we cannot create forests. It is important that we try to save our last forests.” In the CHT, a hill left untouched results in it becoming green with myriad native species. In an abandoned jum plot, uncounted native species easily replace the old plot in a couple of years time. What can easily be done to curb the destruction of the forest is to make strict laws to close down illegal saw mills. Large institutions need to understand that simply planting trees is not enough, the tree must not be an alien species to that region as it will only result in further damage to the forest and its soil.

It is interesting that Gain is not an ecologist nor is he a professional photographer. What he does have is a deep understanding of the forest and the will to preserve the last remaining forests in Bangladesh. These forests are rich in bio-diversity, and were once home to countless species of medicinal plants, exotic fruit trees and vegetables, herbs and creepers. In a century when the world is finally waking up to man's responsibility for global warming, “Stolen Forests” offers us sound justification as to why these forests need to be nurtured and why we need to leave our children's inheritance in the condition it was handed down to us.

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