The three decades of armed conflict between the ethnic minorities of the CHT and the Bangladesh government left the region almost impossible for large investments.
For example, Shell Oil, an international petroleum extracting company launched an exploration for oil and gas in the region and finally withdrew when two of their staff were kidnapped.
However, the huge natural resources including minerals and the forest always kept the CHT an attraction for international investors.
An atmosphere was inevitably needed in this region for safe investments for IFCs (International Finance Corporations) and MDBs (Multilateral Development Banks) to exploit the huge resources in the CHT region.
After the Peace Accord had been signed in 1997, a flow of investments started into the CHT in different forms.
The explorations of mineral exploitation started. Both national and international NGOs started their activities and the largest sector-wise investment in the CHT started.
Taking a critical look into these investments, the ever deteriorating situation of the hill people and the inconsistencies of the peace accord highly suggest that the Accord had not been signed to establish the rights of the traditional inhabitants of the CHT.
The Accord in effect has been used as an eyewash solution for the conflicts of the region so that the MDB and IFCs can make their entrance into this area to exploit its resources.
At the moment the largest investments of IFCs and MDBs in the CHT are in the forestry sector.
The Forest Department (FD) in this subcontinent was found in 1870 to systematize the control and exploitation of forest resources.
The forest resources of the CHT are administratively divided into three categories:
The FD enjoys full control over the RFs extending over 1977. 43 square kms. PFs extending over 87.21 square kms is controlled jointly by the FD and the district administration.
The USF (6215.90 square kms) is managed entirely by the district administration.
The activities being carried out in the CHT forestry sector are closely related with other similar activities both at the international and national level. These include:
Although TFAP had been undertaken for the protection of the tropical forests around the world, it has miserably failed to do so.
The plan failed to address the underlying causes of forest destruction and was heavily criticized for having actually led to further deforestation.
The three plans, policies and projects mentioned above undertaken in Bangladesh are closely linked with the TFAP.
These attempts have also been seriously accused of causing the same sort of damages to the forests of the country and denying the rights of the forest dependent communities over forest resources.
Since its establishment one of the Forest Department’s major activities was to bring more forest lands under the RF by means of which the exclusive control of the government was established over the forestry resources.
At the same time the communities living in this forest had been increasingly denied of their rights over the forest resources.
This anti-people practice has even more intensified now in this department, which is still the main agency for implementing the forestry sector programs undertaken by the government.
A new phase started in the CHT in the early 1990s to establish exclusive control of the FD over more forest lands denying the rights of its traditional inhabitants.
Since 1992 about 218 thousand acres of forest lands were brought under the RF(A).
The types of land brought under the RF include registered lands on private ownership, customary lands on which ethnic people are living for generations, community managed forests, lands on which Kaptai Lake victims were settled etc.
This meant the eviction of people living in these lands, losing of their present and future cultivable land, losing access to the forest resources and destruction of the cohesion of community life.
All these activities are funded explicitly by the MDBs. Although the pronounced aim of making these lands RF is preventing deforestation, plantation and protection of the bio-diversity, in reality only the reverse is happening.
While the timber dealers joined hands with the famously corrupt FD officials in rapidly stripping off the forests of its last resources, a very limited variety are planted in the forests most of which are pulpwood species.
To fortify the FD so that there are no objections from its victim communities and other groups can affect it, the Forest Act 1927 has been amended in 2000 with grant and expert assistance from ADB.
Introduction of Social Forestry programme and Social Forestry Rules to facilitate its implementation have been added to other objectives of the amended Forest Act.
Social Forestry has been planned for the whole of Bangladesh including the CHT, the details of which reveal that it is neither social, nor forestry. Under this particular programme, management of the forests lies exclusively with the FD.
The crudest side of this newly formulated social forestry is that the FD has been empowered at such a level where the community has virtually become their slaves.
Thus the land increasingly brought under the Reserved Forests, the amended Forest Act and the Social Forestry are deepening the plights of the people of the CHT.
The ethnic communities living for centuries in the forests, managing and depending upon the forest resources are the worst victims of these programs and strategies funded and promoted by the IFCs and MDBs.
Since 1992 the ethnic people of the CHT have been protesting against these programs.
Until then, the war situation of the region prevented strong protest against the activities of the FD.
A Committee for the Protection of Forest and Land Rights in the CHT was formed, which has now renamed itself the Movement for the Protection of Forest and Land Rights in the CHT.
As a result of protests and dialogues at different levels, the final declaration of the RFs of the land, implementation of the amended Forest Act and the social forestry regulations has been postponed, while ADB has decided to hold off its finances implementing the forestry programs in this region.
In the decade-long struggle to retain their rights over the forest resources, the ethnic communities of the CHT have had on their side, many individual activists, organizations of different ethnic communities of the country around and several organizations have been working on forest and environmental issues.
While this supports came from the plains and the CHT, we still wait for response from the mainstream and local political parties of the country.
Pohor Jangal, Tanchangya Education-Literature-Culture publication, August 9th, 2008
Writer : Sudatta Bikash Tanchangya