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Ecological Degradation and impact of the Tribal communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts..By Rajib Kumar Dutta

Written By: Dutta
12/08/2016 16:38


The Chittagong Hill Tracts  in southeastern Bangladesh, bordering India and Myanmar covering 13,295 square kilometres (5,133 sq mi), they formed a single district until 1984, when they were divided into three districts: Khagrachari DistrictRangamati Hill District, and Bandarban District. Topographically, the Hill Tracts are the only extensively hilly area in Bangladesh.

Despite exclusion of customary rights on government managed reserved forests, indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh are managing forests around their homesteads in a sustainable way. Bangladesh, as one of the forest poor countries in the world, is continuously struggling to conserve its forest resources. However, community managed Village Common Forest (VCF) represents an influential model of forest management, serving multi‐functions to the dependent indigenous communities. The current study was conducted in the 12 VCF areas of Rangamati and Bandarban districts in CHTs employing semi structured interviews to the members of Forest User Group (FUG). The study found that VCFs are enriched with more biodiversity than that of Government forests. Moreover, indigenous management of resources in VCFs were sustaining a balance between exploitation and conservation. Finally, the study suggests that for halting degradation of forest resources in Bangladesh, VCF could be used widely as an effective tool. The indigenous culture, lifestyle and livelihood are mostly related to forest and forest resources. Unfortunately, over the past several decades, unsustainable use of these resources has led to the loss of biodiversity, degradation of the overall environment and ecosystems as a whole. As a result, forest resource oriented indigenous communities faced with several crises for their subsistence requirements. Standing on such degraded condition, government has initiated many development programs for forest dependent indigenous communities in CHT. However, it was not so much effective to meet livelihood demands of indigenous people.

Like other mountainous areas in South and Southeast Asia, the Chittagong Hill Tracts are undergoing deforestation and land degradation arising from environmentally unsuitable activities such as tobacco cultivation in sloping land, shifting cultivation and logging. Shifting cultivation, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture or swidden cultivation, embraces a large variety of primitive forms of agriculture. It is a special stage in the evolution from hunting and food gathering to sedentary farming. Mankind began to change its mode of life from food gatherer to food producer about 7000 B.C. by adopting shifting cultivation. Some form of shifting cultivation has been practiced in most parts of the world, but more intensive forms of agriculture have subsequently replaced it. The present shifting cultivation system with short fallow in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has accelerated erosion, land degradation, deforestation, and impoverishment of tribal people in CHT. If the present state of degradation is continued, most of the areas under shifting cultivation will be severely degraded and the future generations will face more difficulties to eke out their livelihoods on further degraded land. Although there is some scope for shifting cultivators to leave the degraded fields and move to other areas, this avenue will soon vanish as the population is growing at a high rate. It is estimated that on average eight hectares of land is necessary for the sustenance of a family in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. If this ratio is adopted, 1,240,000 ha land is required to sustain the present population; however, the total land available, excluding the reserve forest, is 928,000 ha. Shifting cultivation, therefore, cannot fulfill even the subsistence requirements of the people. In such a situation, either large non-farm employment opportunities need to be created or more productive land-use systems need to be developed and adopted. Given the sluggish growth of the economy, there is limited scope for generating adequate non-farming employment opportunities in the near future. It is, therefore, imperative to replace the present shifting cultivation system with more productive and sustainable land use systems to enable people to secure their livelihoods.



The Hindu-Kush Himalayas stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar have extensive and diverse forest cover and are home to about 150 million people, more than half of whom belong to tribal communities. The majority of these forest dwellers depend on traditional agriculture, clearing land through slash-and-burn practices, growing a variety of crops using hoe and stick and raising livestock. Forests are crucial to their survival (Guha 2001). Before the British colonization of India, a large portion of the montane forests were under the jurisdiction of local communities (Edmunds & Wollenberg 2001). After colonization, the colonial government gradually established control over such resources in almost all countries in the region, abolishing traditional community resource management systems under the pretext that local people were not able to manage resources effectively (Fisher 1989; Edmunds & Wollenberg 2001; Guha 2001) and nationalizing major productive forests in greater India (present day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) during the 19th century (Poffenberger 2000). The Forest Department (FD) was created in 1864 with responsibility for managing forests, particularly reserve forests (RFs). In 1865, the first forest law was enacted giving vast powers to forest officials to protect forests from overexploitationEven countries that were never colonized, such as Nepal and Bhutan, nationalized forests and put them under the jurisdiction of highly centralized bureaucratic organizations following the British colonial system, Nepal in 1957 and Bhutan in 1969 (Wallace 1981; Karki et al. 2000; Kollmair & Muller-Boker 2002). Despite rigid management systems and well-trained forest cadres with scientific knowledge of silvicultural management, the centralized bureaucratic system failed to prevent deforestation (both conversion of forest land into non-forest uses and degradation of forest quality that impairs the forest’s capacity to produce goods and services). With the exception of Bhutan, forests were degraded severely in all South Asian countries. According to a 1980s estimate, 35 million hectares of forest were degraded in India, over half of its total forest area (Poffenberger 2000). In Nepal, two million hectares of forests were destroyed in just 11 years from 1964 to 1975 (Wallace 1981, p. 19).

Bangladesh Adivasi forum counts as much as 45 ethnic groups (approx. 2.5 million in number) and majority of the number directly and indirectly involve forests, which exists since tertiary era [1]. Compared to 300 million of affected global indigenous peoples, around one million of Adivasis mainly dwells in both plain and hill forests of Bangladesh [Fig. 1], [2]. Besides, Forestry involves generally three types of people—(A) people living inside forestry, (B) people living near forestry and finally (C) people having commercial connection to forest resources [3]. Forestry supplies oxygen, controls intensity of natural calamities, and thus also involves the rest 98 percent of the overwhelming majority of Bengali people meeting range of other necessities. While considering issues such as—habitat, medicine, food, fuel, wood, pulp, pole and, timber, then we saw that Adivasis just rely on forestry simply to survive. Therefore, forestry and Adivasis issues require concerned authority to initiate collaborative management policies with a view to augmenting forest conservation and forest peoples.



The study area The CHT is located in Bangladesh (21.25–23.45◦ N, 91.45– 92.50◦ E). Geographically, it is a part of Hill Tripura and Arakan Yoma branching off from the Himalayan range and continuing to the south through Assam and Hill Tripura of India to Arakan of Myanmar. The topography consists of hills, ravines and cliffs, the hill ranges being generally 450–620 m high. Geographically and culturally this region is distinct from the rest of the country. Twelve ethnic groups (Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Mro, Bawm, Tanchangya, Kheyang, Pankhu, Chak, Lushai, Khumi and Rakhain) comprise the majority of the population in the area. These people live in forest frontiers, depend heavily on forest resources for their sustenance and wellbeing; most practise agriculture, primarily shifting cultivation, as the main source of livelihood. Raising livestock, collecting bamboo and other non-timber forest products, trading and selling labour are other sources of livelihoods. With an area of 13 183 km2, the region covers about onetenth of Bangladesh’s land area. It is surrounded by India to the north and east, Myanmar to the south-east, the Chittagong district of Bangladesh to the west and Cox’s Bazar to the southwest. Two-thirds of the area is characterized by steep slopes and the remaining area by an undulating topography.


Source of Information

In CHT forest management was drawn mainly from secondary sources, including colonial reports, official documents (i.e. gazetteers and official correspondence), diaries of colonial administrators and travellers, books, journals and censuses. This information was supplemented by information from primary sources, including field visits conducted between January and December 2005, nonparticipant observation, discussions and key informant interviews. Key informants were carefully selected in order to obtain information and views from all key stakeholders, such as local people, traditional institutions, forest officials, revenue department, the business community and civil society. Important key informants were circle chiefs, tribal leaders, elderly persons, village headmen (mouza), forest officials, timber traders and retired government officials who had relevant knowledge; some them were directly involved or closed to different events and processes, such as circle chiefs and mouza headmen. After building a rapport with key informants, the purpose of the interview was clarified to facilitate frank provision of information and opinion. Key informants were interviewed with checklists. Although there were certain common elements in the checklists, slightly different checklists were used, based on the expertise and knowledge of the informants, to capture all aspects of forest management. Some of the most useful key informants (such as circle chiefs, tribal leaders and forest officials) were interviewed more than once. Information received through primary sources was triangulated by comparing and evaluating them against different sources to avoid any biases.

Political Major policy changes Implication administrative era Livelihood of local people Ecology Management of forest resource Colonial era (1760–1947) Nationalization of land and forests Establishment of reserve forest Land and forest laws formalized Community property regime to state property regime Commercial extraction of timber Introduction of private ownership and provision of land leases for settled agriculture State as the absolute owner, community rights curtailed Availability of CPR land and forests decreased Increased monetization Monoculture of teak Loss of biodiversity Pressure on forest resources increased Responsibility for management shifted from indigenous people to FD; local responsibility for forest conservation disappeared Traditional management practices broke down Community resources became ‘open access’ resources due to ineffective control by government Conflict started between FD and indigenous people Multi-purpose trees replaced with teak monoculture in some areas Forest resources started depleting Post-colonial era, Pakistan period (1947–1970) Encouraged immigration of lowland people Abolished special status of CHT Hydroelectric project Improved road networks Industrial use of forest products CPR land and forest further reduced Access to forest resources further curtailed through protected forests and industrial use Increased monetization Both subsistence and commercial production Population pressure increased Vast areas submerged under water Large number of people displaced; some rehabilitated in RF Created pressure on land resources Ecological disturbance Number of jhumia increased and shortened jhum cycle Jhum expanded to RF Encroachment on RFs Increased extraction of forest products for industrial purposes Degradation of forest resources Conflict between FD and people further increased Bangladesh period (1971 onwards) Planned settlement to CHT Afforestation programme in CPR area Privatization of CPR for rubber plantation, private tree farming and other uses CPR land and forests further reduced Livelihood options further reduced due to insurgency and armed conflict Increased dependency on extraction of NTFPs for subsistence Limited wage earning Increased monetization Further pressure on land and forest resources Reduction of biological resources due to indiscriminate extraction of NTFPs for subsistence Increased soil erosion Conflict between FD and tribal people reached an extreme stage Ineffective government Control; most part of CHT became ‘open access’ resources Increased illegal felling Most of CHT denuded was introduced. This agri-silvicultural system allowed the indigenous people, with the permission of the FD, to clear a patch of vegetation by slash-and-burn, plant tree saplings and inter-crop annual crops until the tree canopy covered the ground. Although this system allowed the indigenous people to grow necessary food crops, it required the removal of the natural vegetation, thereby reducing biodiversity. This system of forest management failed to address indigenous people’s grievances because they had rights neither to the trees that they had grown, nor to the land where they had grown. Moreover, under tanguya, many trees useful to local communities but of less market value had been replaced by commercially-valuable trees such as teak (Sivaramakrishnan 2000, p. 80). During the British period, agriculture and plantation.


Interrelation of Tribal and Forestry

Human being and forestry are closely interrelated, or humans survive upon the trees as biological architecture. This relationship shows a pattern of congenital intimacy, reciprocity and spirituality, even in a more intensified way when the relationship is judged in terms of ethnic groups. Birth to death and dawn to dusk, everyday lives and culture of Adivasis are accomplished round the forestlands. Their food cycle, medicine and residence-building materials, even whatever they require, are either found or collected from the forest resources. On the other hand, they do not control the forests rather they just abide by the principles of forest-goddess being her sons in the sense of spirituality and materiality. Here is the difference when urban people sometimes fail to observe or even maintain the unalienable human bondage with the nature, particularly to the forestry [4]. They come, see, measure and cut down trees for timbers, extract mines, minerals, and other resources and thus, pursue profit. They subconsciously contribute to the destruction process of ‘indigenous’ forestry and biodiversity [5]. However, not a single indigenous person does not (actually, they cannot) think the value proportions of forest resources. They do not utilize forestry as resource rather they think it as the 'reasons' as they are alive and perform their spiritual objectivities. Inherited knowledge, ripped through generations to Adivasi communities contributes to its preservation and helps maintain hills and forests, when vested quarters are absorbed in thinking only its consuming aspects as they categorize ethnic forestry as degraded, denuded and less productive' avoiding immense social, cultural, traditional, educational, medical and environmental values


a. Totality of forestry

 1993's Forestry Master Plan unveils uncoordinated outputs of some institution like Forest Department, Land Ministry and Individual's management of forestland in Bangladesh. Table 1 counts that governmental bodies and individual initiatives supervise approx. 24, 60, 000 hectares land that cover about 16.85% of the surface lands but the Forestry Master Plan disagrees it saying that the actual amount of forest would be up to 6 percent. Besides, per capita allotment of forestland counts as much as 0.022 hectares being one of the lowest in the world [8]. The annual deforestation rate in Bangladesh causes huge tensions to the environmentalists for its fastest diminishing rate (3.3%) compared to what [Fig. 2] shows about 0.6% in the South Asian forests [9].


b. Threats to ethnic-dwelling forestry

Wildlife and bio-diversity started disappearing at an alarming rate. Many species have already embraced extinction. Most importantly, the life, culture, traditions of Adivasis, related to the forestland, landscape, herbs, rivers and hills seriously suffer the treats of disappearance. Therefore, intensifying deforestation affects or displaces forest-dwelling indigenous communities in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) areas and elsewhere in other parts [10]. a) Development Policies Development is the basement for every nation. But the NGO-oriented strategies without proper rehabilitation and compensation program along with government initiatives full of corruption and unaccountability bring about development aggression and thus, disparities widen and frustration spreads out generating degrees of conflicts (both structural and manifest) among Adivasis. Calculated and unwise settlement of people who have not achieved required orientation in forest cultures and traditions may intensify the suspicions and instabilities among Adivasis [11].For instance, Kaptai-hydropower case (what displaced number of Adivasis residences and properties) should be brought into lessons about development initiation.


c) Commercial monoculture Orientation of commercial monoculture of foreign items

such as—eucalyptus, rubber etc. replaces local and indigenous trees. These foreign trees may make more profit at lower expenses within shortest possible time but ultimately, they spoil the quality of soils, adjacent environmental balance and also living patterns of local communities in the forestland. Through the loopholes of laws and practices, Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) funded (such as Asian Development Bank, World bank etc.) to the monoculture of commercial plantations which have started replacing local plant species violating the Convention on Biological Diversity which Bangladesh also signed on June 5, 1992 at Rio de Jeneiro and so, it requires Bangladesh to respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous (ethnic groups) and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles' [12-14]. As results, these commercial plantations intensify the miseries of forest-dwelling ethnic peoples [15].

d) Jum cultivation and economic status of Adivasi [H1] Who is responsible? Only government? Or the development organizations? Here it spirals up a polarized debate on the alleged harmful Adivasi role posing threats to both forestry and Adivasi identities. Jum cultivation (tribal way of cultivation on the hill tracts) causes a level of deforestation and is responsible for eroding soil tops. Thus, this typical cultivation evacuates trees as Adivasis either cut or burn them making a plain cultivable land.

e) Security forces Security force deployment is one of the reasons of growing deforestation. Military forces clean-up forest trees for number of development projects such as—camp building, road connection, and other associated constructions because they prefer bare hills for lowest security threats to accelerate smooth movement and transportations. For instance, military destroyed local Mro people’s orchards, residences, and shops to build Nilgiri Resort, Bandarban [17]. Moreover, they grant land leases and allow rubber cultivation even involve into timber trade [18]. International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (ICHTC) criticized law enforcers, i.e. BGB—Border Guard Bangladesh for the land grabbing in CHT areas [19].

f) Adivasi involvement in resource trade When alleging Adivasi linkage to deforestation and other resource depletion, there comes a question regarding their role as custodians or as greedy-consumers (or even profit-makers) in the forestlands. It is very significant as Indigenous peoples dwell in certain forestlands for centuries. As stated earlier, they collect burning fuels, constructions materials for residence. Therefore, they are supposed to be quite conscious preserving the forestry as essential for their livelihoods. However, the dilemma is immoral businesspersons who engage local Adivasis to guide them accomplish indiscriminate timber trade and thus, tribes are alleged of making raw money instead of resource collection diminishing their spiritual liaison to the forestry [20].

g) Land disputes

Tribals still have not significant land entitlement documents what they have is the documented property of Forest Department [21]. More than 16 years later of the CHT Peace Accord, Pahari peoples’ inaccessibility to their traditional homelands not only exclude traditional guides rather fuel ethnic tensions between Adivasi villagers and Bengali settlers as well. Most importantly it hampers ethnic engagement in forest management. Mob violence triggered by land disputes, internally displaced around 90,000 Pahari families. Having no formal documents in land ownership make them vulnerable standing against private dispossessions of the land. Undoubtedly Adivasis have the rights to their traditional forestlands under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor organization Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples No. 107. Pahari Villagers, Bengali settlers, political leaders, government and military officials identify the land issues as a central impediments towards resolution of many associated problems [22]. These are debating setbacks to Adivasi and forestry issues in Bangladesh.


RESULTS As concerned about the deteriorating forestry and risk to Adivasi phenomena, the major findings of the review paper included very specific facts such as —Improper development policies, commercialization of the ethnic resources, unmanageable environmental degradation, and finally Adivasi peoples themselves (i.e. resource trade, Jum cultivation) cause major deforestation hampering ethnic lives in forestlands






As a global phenomenon, deforestation appears as evilest rhinoceros in the country's environmental and social lives, especially for ethnic groups who still mostly depend upon Forestry. In a response, well-articulated forest policies are required to adopt safe-guiding ethnic rights of forestry. Related authority and institutions are necessarily required to take Adivasis’ opinions on forestry and resources. While settling them into 'suggested lands', it requires ensuring appropriate places to maintain their traditional lives. Finally addressing growing population pressure, government may orient settlement on mutual concessions and the non-Adivasi settlers must have required knowledge on forestry, as to avoid collateral damage. Thus, both biodiversity and cultural diversity can be sustained and further flourished.

The issue of deforestation and environmental degradation in CHTs has received substantial attention in recent years. One important concern is the efficiency of the land what is managed, particularly forestland that is communally owned. Despite the importance of forest management in terms of global externalities, emphasis is given to the magnitudes and, in some cases, the signs of the consequences of environmental conservation, population growth, and rural livelihood of forest dependent people. Therefore the study has been carried out to explore the mechanisms underlying these relationships and, in particular, the relative efficiency of alternative mechanisms of forest‐resource management that create a balance condition between exploitation and conservation.   Village Common Forests, are managed by indigenous communities, have set a standard for the protection of biodiversity, environment and natural resources in CHT. Forest resources of VCFs are used to develop educational, religious institutions and making shelter for poor people. In some areas mature trees and bamboos are sold to create a fund to be used in disaster. These forests provide indigenous communities with pure drinking water in inaccessible hilly areas by keeping annual and perennial springs and small rivers into sustained flow.  VCFs are rich in biodiversity and equipped with valuable medicinal plants, which help the disadvantaged indigenous communities to get rid of various diseases. From the study, it can be concluded that management of VCF is increasingly becoming essential for the subsistence of people in the area. The management practices in VCFs are effective to sustain a balance between conservation and exploitation of forest resources. The formation of local institution and setting of forest management practices by indigenous communities restrict users from over‐exploitation of forest resources, which can be used as an influential model for managing government forests.     



As part of solutions, first, it should strengthen institutional coordination and management (through forest and Adivasi related ministries and institutions). Secondly, government needs to increase people's Participation (preferably Adivasis) in Forest Management in the ethnic areas. While concerning commercial plantation, then, government and related body may pay due attention to the preservation of biodiversity issues and thereby associated ethnic rights. Fourthly, Inspiration and incentives programs are needed to accelerate social forestry and individual or community engagement in forest programs. Authority should Initiate effective resource utilization which equally suits Adivasi interests too [23]. In this way, Adivasis would be able to entitle a tenural ownership on the planted trees and hence they would develop responsibilities to rather protect these resources. Moreover, expansion of agro-forestry instead of commercial fuel-wood plantation tends to reduce the ethnic tensions and deprivations and thus preserve the flora and fauna in each forestland. Government or concerned bodies should form its policy based on prior-informed consent or concessions of ethnic communities. The ethnic groups must ensure rational usage of forest resources. Concerning private bodies, they should develop exact rehabilitation and compensation programs for resettled Adivasis under development skims.











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About Dutta

  • Name: Rajib Dutta
  • From: Dhaka
  • Nationality: Bangladesh
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