The plight of the Modhupur Forest
By Sabrina F. Ahmad
Dusk settles down on the little parish village where we are staying. In the absence of electrical lighting, the whole area is bathed in the silvery moonlight. We sit by the lake, soaking in the serenity of the place, watching fireflies dance through the trees. Accustomed as we are to the blare and the cacophony of city life, we welcome the peace and quiet and revel in it. Only later does the significance of this situation sink in, and the silence takes on an eerie quality.
The sign outside the compound read “Charaljani Silviculture Research Centre”. The word 'silviculture' hinted at a wealth of trees. Yet when we ventured inside, we saw, hidden behind a façade of a grand total of seven trees, a barren tract of wasteland.
The officer on duty talked about how the Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded a project whereby a large section of the forest area was cut down and replaced by plantations of acacia, eucalyptus and gamar trees, none of which were native species. “Initially, they were grown as fuel-wood, but rapidly gained popularity as timber-wood” the forestry officer told us.
We were also told about the illegal logging activity that had been carried on at an alarming rate in the area, which also may have contributed to the decline of the sal forests. “Stealing wood is both a passion and profession of the local perpetrators,” said the same source. “There were some occasions where the hoodlums came and tied up the forest officials and then cut and carried the trees away.” When the ADB-funded project began to come to a close, in order to bring these activities under some semblance of control, the land was leased in 3-acre plots to locals on a 'participant' basis, which gave them 40% ownership. They could use the land for cultivation as they saw fit, and would also be responsible for protecting it. The result is that what was once a forest rich in natural resources, and teeming with wildlife, has been reduced to fruit plantations that leave no room for anything but the cash crops.
We visited a banana plantation at Pirgacha. As far as the eye could see, there were rows upon rows of bananas, and nothing else, not even grass. The amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the area would not permit another life form anyway. Saleh Ahmed, a local participant plantation-owner admitted, 'We spray each tree with pesticides twice a week.” Twice a week. Added to the fact that along with the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the bananas were also fed growth hormones to make them bigger, you could say that the fruit is reduced to nothing but poison in a peel. When asked whether the banana plantations ever face opposition from the government, the farmer confidently shook his head. This was just one plantation block. As we went from Telki to Pirgacha and beyond, we saw the same tragedy repeated everywhere. The sal forest is shrinking rapidly, being reduced to mere mono-culture plantations. Before we know it, the once majestic Modhupur forest may end up as just another paragraph in the pages of history.
“Once this area was filled with monkeys, deer, and birds. There were also plenty of wild boars, wild buffalo, and many other animals.” Joynal Abedin, a journalist at the Dainik Ittefaq for the past 26 years, indicated the Telki area with a sweep of his hand. Some 1000 acres of forestland had been given to the Bangladesh Air Force to be converted to a firing range. We followed the movement of the man's hand, and saw nothing but a treeless tract of land, a large termite hill the only testament to the fact that he might have been speaking the truth. Prior to the trip, we'd read up on the rich biodiversity of the forest. Walking through the spookily silent plantations, the loss of the species struck home with force.
While we had been at Pirgacha, we stopped by a rubber plantation. At first sight, it's beautiful; rows and rows of tall green trees. Until you stop to listen, and hear nothing but an eerie quiet, for the rubber plantation does not support any other life forms, not even insects. Then you realize that this visually pleasing stretch of land is nothing more than a 'green desert'. Green, not only because of the clone trees that populate it, but with 70 percent of the domestic demand for rubber being fulfilled from the plantations in this region alone, as one high-ranking rubber official bragged, it's earning greenbacks for all those involved in the project. Who wants to worry about birds and bugs when you can get rich off these plantations?
We also interviewed an official at the Modhupur National Park about the animals in the 'protected' forest area. He told us that the Park houses some 53 Chitra deer, and some 4 Maya deer, as well as a good number of monkeys. There was no mention of the palm civet, the elephants and anteaters, or any of the animals that once lived there.
The survivors also have had to adapt to their changing atmosphere, by changing their lifestyles and feeding habits. The deer were now being fed wheat husk, while the monkeys are being fed bananas. “The monkeys have learnt to trust humans and not see us as their enemies' the officer stated proudly. Whether that was a good idea, is another question altogether. Joynal Abedin recounts an incident where a rhesus monkey found a truck being loaded with bananas from the plantations. Having grown accustomed to this new food (wilder monkeys prefer to eat sal leaves), it jumped aboard, and began sampling the goodies. The truck men spotted the stowaway, caught it, and beat it so hard, they broke both its legs. It was left on the road, where some concerned locals took it to the nearby veterinary clinic, where it died the next day. The story serves to illustrate how the creatures of the forest have no place in the new order of things, where cash is seen more important than protecting the rich gene pool in the natural forests.
A people, muted
According to the Tangail DFO, the Modhupur forest is home to some 20,000 Garo/Mandi and Koch. They've been living in the area since long before the Independence, and were hit hard by the loss of their homes and livelihood under the government's social forestry programme.
As the forest shrinks and gives way to plantations and dwellings for the 'Bangalis', the Adivasis find their homes and livelihoods under threat. When the Modhupur forest was declared a reserve forest and the Forest Department began to build a wall around what was left of it to 'protect' it, the Adivasis stood to being restricted from their own land, and protested. The situation came to a head on January 3, 2004, when the forest guards opened fire on a peaceful protest against the wall, killing a Garo by the name of Piren Snal, and injuring several others. The battle wages on.
“What the authorities do is file false cases against us, says Ajoy Mree, the convenor for the Committee for Indigenous Peoples' Rights and Environmental Protection. “Anyone who is seen trying to resist has a case filed against him/her, and is arrested. Once we're in jail, other cases crop up to make sure we stay in there. If we're not in jail, we're running from lawyer to lawyer trying to stay out of jail, so how do we manage to make a living, let alone keep protesting?” Eugin Nokrek, another prominent Mandi activist adds, 'Sometimes the complaints are filed against old people and children. They don't take chances with any of us.”
Mree and Nokrek are a few of the soldiers fighting a losing struggle against avaricious forces more powerful than themselves. Others prefer to just give in and let the inevitable take place. As a result, we are losing out on the cultural diversity within the forest.
A visit with Jonik Nokrek, one of the last followers of the Shangsharek religion, the original faith of the Mandis, tells us just how much we might be missing out if the Adivasis are forced to adapt to this new reality. At 96, the man is still amazingly spry, and has an unbelievable memory, recounting his exploits of elephant hunting, meeting Mahatma Gandhi, and watching the land of his birth go from the hands of the British to Pakistan, and finally to Bangladesh, where his people are now being persecuted by their own countrymen.
As grim as the situation looks. As we stand atop an observation tower inside the Rusulpur Range, gazing down on some 3000 acres of lush green sal forest, it looks as though there's hope yet. If we can arrest the cancer of encroachment, illegal logging, mono-culture plantation and persecution of the forest people, we might yet be able to preserve a piece of living history, a veritable treasure trove of genetic and natural resources.