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     Volume 8 Issue 57 | February 13, 2009 |

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Cover Story

A Stone's Throw from Eden

Jaflong is a place of rare natural beauty. Not long ago visitors to this remote area would be confronted by a glorious triad of river, hills and brilliant blue sky that could have come straight out of an artist's canvas. But this idyllic picture has been ruined by the careless and unregulated extraction of stone that has been going on for decades under the very noses of the administration. Commercial greed is ripping the heart out of Jaflong. The caretaker government took a step in the right direction by ordering the stone crushing plants further down river. But less than two years later, the crushers are back. What could have been an attractive tourist destination is in danger of becoming a barren wasteland. The rapacious operation is not only changing the landscape, but also threatening the delicate ecosystem. News reports surfaced last week about a stay order on stone quarrying pending a detailed environmental study. But environmentalists have seen this stop-start maneuver before and say far-reaching steps must be taken if the area is to be restored to its former glory. Can we act soon enough to preserve Jaflong? Can paradise be regained?

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

'Burkis' or small boats ferry the stones to locations from where trucks take them to the crushing plant. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

Jaflong lies to the northeast of Sylhet, sixty kilometres as the crow flies. For part of the journey the road is straight as an arrow, and the car easily hits a hundred. The countryside appears pancake flat with swaying rice fields and thinly spread villages. Gradually, almost insidiously, the flood plains give way to undulating hills capped by lush green vegetation. As the scenery grows wilder and more picturesque, the road begins to wind and climb. Drivers have to be careful to avoid onrushing trucks. The mammoth vehicles carry boulders and a loose rock could smash a car's windscreen. Such accidents are rare, though, and pretty soon the journey ends at a spot scenic enough to satisfy the most demanding tourist. “Welcome to Jaflong”, says a weather-beaten sign.

Jaflong's story turns on beauty, boulders and betel nuts. Nestled at the foot of the Khasia-Jainta hills, it is a place of pristine loveliness. The Piayin River slices through Jaflong and the river is woven tightly into the lives of the local people. Fishing is an important economic activity. The villages on the far side of the river are called Punjees, and they are populated by the secretive Khasia tribe. Named after the hills, the Khasias live by growing betel leafs and betel nuts. Around them, the river and the hills make up a diverse ecosystem rich with flora and fauna.

Jaflong has the potential to be the dream destination for urban-weary tourists who want to get up close and personal with nature. But unfortunately, all is not well in paradise. Over the past two decades, Jaflong's natural beauty has been systematically destroyed. The landscape that could have come straight out of an artist's canvas is changing fast. Perhaps forever.

“When we used to go to Jaflong many years ago, there used to be large boulders in the river, and the water was crystal clear,” says Fahmia Nazneen, a resident of Sylhet. “There was peace and quiet and it felt like heaven on earth. These days, I don't even feel like going. It's too painful.”

The spot where most tourists gather is called Bollar (boulder) Ghat, and the name tells its own story. Boulders have become Jaflong's bane. With more than a hundred stone extracting and crushing companies operating in and around Jaflong, the entire area has turned into a huge stone quarry. The mining companies see Jaflong as an exploitable resource, rather than a scenic treasure.

It is only in the recent past that heavy machinery and systematic excavation took quarrying to a new level. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

Every morning at eight, several thousand labourers pour into the quarries along the banks of the Piyain. The peace and quiet of the hills is shattered by the roar of bulldozers and hydraulic excavators. It's like staging a rock concert inside a mosque. The high-powered machines dig massive holes in order to expose stones and gravel. Labourers armed with shovels and wicker baskets load the stones onto small boats called “burkis”. The boats ferry the stones to a location where they are measured and loaded onto trucks for the short trip to the crushing plant.

All this is going on with scant regard for the environment. The greedy fingers of commerce are literally gouging out Jaflong's natural beauty. The highly invasive operation leaves gaping craters and creates artificial sand dunes. Dust from the stone crushers dirties the trees and buildings, and dampens the spirits of the inhabitants.

“Dust settles everywhere,” says Sadeq Miah, a local farmer. “We get bad coughs and headaches. It's difficult to grow things.”

Jaflong has always been known for its natural resources. The British East India Company's Resident Collector Robert Lindsay wrote about extracting limestone and iron ore from the Khasia hills. Stones that rolled downstream with the current have long been collected and sold by locals. But it is only in the recent past that heavy machinery and systematic excavation took quarrying to a new level.

Caught between a rock and a hard place. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Sadeq's brother Shamsul is a quarry worker. He spends up to ten hours in the quarries every day. It's backbreaking work, but Shamsul is luckier than most. He owns a “burki” boat.

“I have a contract with the company,” says Shamsul. “I fill up the boat and deliver the load to the company's foreman. On a good day I can deliver two or three boat loads.”

Shamsul's Burki crew consists of his teenaged son Nasir and daughter Parvin. The two go to primary school but during the winter months spend a lot of time helping their father in the quarries. The company pays Shamsul around Tk. 500 per boatload. Even after expenses he clears ten thousand Takas a month not bad by local standards. It pays to own a boat in Jaflong.

Sakina Khatun isn't so fortunate. She came to Jaflong from Mymensingh after her husband left her. Every morning she heads to the quarry armed with a wicker basket and a spade. Accompanied by her 9-year-old son Babu she toils in the craters dug by the bulldozers and excavators, painstakingly filling her basket with small stones.

“The contractor pays me Tk 10 a basket,” says Sakina, as she sets down her spade and wipes her brow. “Its very hard work and I can't do more than fifteen baskets a day. It's tough to make ends meet, but what else can I do? I don't want to be a housemaid.”

The stone mining industry employs around ten thousand workers in Jaflong in the winter, the peak of the quarrying season. An estimated two hundred stone crushing plants have been set up in the area, and these churn out thousands of square feet of stone chips every day. Trucks carry the broken stone to construction sites throughout the country. Jaflong's stone chips could cost around Tk 55 a cubic feet on site. By the time the truck reaches Dhaka, another Taka twenty is added on due to transportation and handling. The stone chips are sold for around Tk. 90 a cft in the capital, netting a healthy profit.

Sakina Khatun and 9-year-old Babu toil all day in the craters painstakingly filling their basket with stones, an arduous task for which they are paid only Tk. 10 a basket. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood Experts say the need for environmental conservation must be balanced against the urgent necessity of economic progress. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

It is small wonder that the great 'stone rush' has reached record proportions. But the unregulated quarrying has taken a terrible toll on the environment. Apart from air, soil and sound pollution, the Piyain river -- the lifeblood of Jaflong -- has been badly affected. Artificial sand dunes and makeshift bridges have altered the natural flow of the river. The crystal clear water of the Piyain is gradually turning a muddy brown.

The effects are being felt as far downstream as Darbast, 25 kilometres from Jaflong. According to Doloi Mia, a local fisherman, fish in the river is dwindling. “The nets used to be heavy with fish ten years ago,” says Doloi. “We could make two or even three trips to the market. Nowadays, it's becoming harder and harder to catch enough fish to feed our families. There are times when we get nothing in the nets except snails.”

It is not only fishing communities that have an axe to grind with the unregulated extraction and processing of stone from the Piayin River. Farmers have seen their land decrease in fertility and their cattle become prone to disease. Human health has also suffered. “Many of the stone quarry workers suffer from respiratory tract illnesses,” says Dr Maruf Ali, medical officer at Sylhet Osmani Medical College Hospital. “Skin diseases are common. Many of the female workers suffer from urinary tract infections due to standing in the water for long periods.”

The peace and quiet of the hills is shattered by the roar of bulldozers and hydraulic excavators. Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain

According to Bangladesh Rifles sources, river erosion over the last two decades forced the authorities to shift the Changram BDR Border Outpost half a kilometre inside Bangladesh territory. “Continued erosion could mean losing land to India,” says BDR sector commander Lt. Col. Zahirul Alam.

The Khasia, the indigenous people of the hills, are also feeling the pinch. “We grow paan and supari,” says Kartik who owns a grocery shop in the Synrem Punjee. “That is our livelihood. But the quality and the sweetness of the paan isn't what it used to be. This area used to be famous for oranges, but that's almost disappeared. There is something in the air that kills the oranges when they're tiny.”

The Khasia live close to nature, in total harmony with Jaflong's idyllic beauty. Visitors who venture to the other side of the river from Bollarghat are treated to the sight of cute houses on bamboo stilts. The space beneath the houses is used to store firewood. To the casual observer, wild animals may seem to be the reason behind the curiously elevated construction. But the real reason is less exotic and far more dangerous: flash floods. Jaflong is situated in the foothills of the Khasia-Jainta range. During the rainy season water sometimes races down the slope, carrying mud and rocks.

These days, concrete pillars are replacing the bamboo stilts, but the Khasia still cling to their simple rustic lifestyle. Theirs is a matriarchal society and women are free to choose their mates. The youngest daughter inherits the mother's property. The Khasia once practiced a pagan religion, and old records portray them as a fierce and warlike tribe. Robert Lindsay described them as head-hunters who murdered their enemies using a combination of ferocity and voodoo. Both the Mughal and the British had to be continuously on guard against attack from the hills. Nowadays, the Khasia people have settled into a simple and quiet life. Most of them have converted to Christianity. There is a Catholic mission in the Synrem village.

Environmental groups have long been campaigning for a curb on stone quarrying in Jaflong in order to protect the environment and the lifestyle of the local population. In December 2005, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) went to court to stop the operation of stone crushing mills in the ecologically sensitive Jaflong forest area.

“There were about 34 stone crusher machines that had been illegally set up inside the forest,” recalls Advocate Taslima Islam, Senior Lawyer for BELA. “Not only were they destroying the forest, they were also affecting the livelihood of the local residents. We filed a writ petition on the basis of the Environment Conservation Act, 1995 and the court issued a rule nisi directing the concerned authorities to evict the illegal stone crushers.”

That battle may have been won, but the war goes on. “The stone miners are now using machines that are destroying the river bed and altering the flow of the river,” says Taslima Islam. “We have urged the government to put a stop to it. The traditional way of extracting stone with manual methods and labourers is not so harmful to the environment, but the use of powerful machinery must be prohibited.”

Organisations such as Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) have also pushed hard for a stop to the wanton destruction of Jaflong's ecology. Last week reports appeared in several newspapers about a ban on the excavation of stone from the Piyain river pending an environmental impact study. The reports said the Director General of the Department of Environment had announced the ban after a meeting with stakeholders on 1st February. But speaking to the Star Magazine, officials of DoE denied that such an order had been issued.

The Khasia live by growing paan (betel leaf) and shupari (betel nut) but these days the quality of paan has been affected by the pollution caused by the stone quarries. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

“We had a meeting where we sought the opinions of all concerned,” said Afrin Akter of the Department of Environment. “It was attended by environmental groups, businessmen, Jaflong locals, and the sector commander of the BDR. But contrary to news reports, no decision has yet been made to stop extraction of stone from the area.” She said such a decision would have to come from the highest levels of government. When contacted, Director Technical, Md. Shahjahan said he had no knowledge of the matter. The incoming Director General of DoE could not be reached for comment.

The inhabitants of Jaflong are not hopeful that a ban will ease the situation. They have seen it all before and fear they will see a change of guard rather than a change of policy. “We hear talk of bans, but the crushers always come back,” says farmer Sadeq Miah. “Sometimes those who come to power enforce a temporary ban so they can get their own people in. They will issue new permits and new contractors will come. It's all the same for us.”

The stone miners are influential people. Although there have been widespread allegations regarding a lack of transparency in awarding quarry contracts, nothing has ever been done about it. The miners' political backing is rock solid, and they say the industry is a necessary part of the country's economy.

Artisans like this one make a living by carving souvenirs for tourists. Photos: Syed Zain Al-mahmood

“The stone extraction and crushing business creates jobs and the stone chips are necessary for construction,” says Abdul Qaiyum, whose Modern Stone Crusher has been in business for four years. “Look at all these people who are working here. You can't eat natural beauty!”

Experts say the need for environmental conservation must be balanced against the urgent necessity of economic progress. Crushed stone acts as raw material for various development activities such as the construction of roads, bridges, buildings, canals etc. An estimated 1.5 lakh people are engaged in the three quarries in the Sylhet region Jaflong, Bholagonj and Bichhanakandi -- extracting stone, loading and transporting those to far corners of the country.

Dr. Tareq Uddin is Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Asia Pacific. He has advocated the use of brick chips to reduce the dependence on stone. “Natural resources are finite,” he says. “People in Bangladesh think stone is durable but studies have shown brick chips --even those from demolished buildings are just as good. The difference is that you can produce bricks, and you can control the quality. It is sustainable.”

Stone quarries in other countries are subject to stringent environmental regulations to ease the adverse impact. The crushing plants must have dust containment and dust suppression measures including enclosures of corrugated iron or plastic sheets and water sprinklers. Crushing machines are required by law to shut down when there is a high wind. Another standard technique is creating a “green belt” of trees to act as a windbreaker. Stone extracting and crushing operations in Jaflong operate without such safety

Motorised boats take sightseers to the zero point between Bangladesh and India. Photo: Syed Zain Al-mahmood


“Sustainability is key,” says Dr Engineer Jahir Bin Alam, head of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Shahjalal University of Science & Technology. “If you are mining the surface, you must follow a 1:3 rule. This means the hole you dig cannot have a depth width ratio of more than one to three. The use of hydraulic excavators therefore increases the risk of landslides, not to mention serious river erosion.”

Dr. Alam who is an expert on Environmental Systems Analysis thinks the government must find alternative employment for displaced quarry workers if the stone crushing industry is to be regulated. “There is scope for large fruit processing plants in this region. There is an abundance of pineapples and oranges. We could put people to work in these processing plants.”

Ecotourism could be a potential boom industry for the region. Jaflong, with its rolling hills, sublime jungles, picturesque rivers and idyllic tribes could become one of the best kept secrets on the Asian tourist circuit.

Roger Kitchenham, a UK-based tour operator, who visited Bangladesh last year thinks that tourism could be a money spinner for the country. “Provided the government simplifies visa regulations, improves security and transportation.”

Jaflong is shaping to be the next frontier in the continuing struggle to save Bangladesh's natural beauty and biodiversity from being sacrificed on the altar of commercial greed. This is also a test of credibility for the government. The ruling party claimed in its election manifesto: “Attempts will also be made for restoring and maintaining ecological balance.” That attempt should not be half-hearted.

If the environmental record of the past two decades is any indication, Jaflong faces a rocky future.

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