Basonti Rema, an ethnic Garo Catholic woman, stand helplessly after forest officials destroyed her half-acre banana plantation in a so-called drive against illegal land occupation. (Photo: Facebook)
The Church and indigenous rights groups are demanding justice after the destruction of plantations owned by ethnic Garo Catholics in central Bangladesh.
Forest Department officials have recently destroyed five acres of pineapple, papaya, ginger and banana plantations of 10 Garo families in the Madhupur area of Tangail district, community leaders alleged, adding that they have been told it was part of “reclaiming illegally occupied land.”
All the victims are Catholics and members of Corpus Christi Church of Jalchatra and St. Paul’s Church of Pirgacha, both covered by predominantly Garo Mymensingh Diocese.
In the latest case, the half-acre banana plantation of Basonti Rema was destroyed on Sept. 14, triggering protests from villagers who laid siege to the local Forest Department office.
“Some 10-12 men led by Forest Department officials cut down all the banana trees on my plantation. I planted 500 banana trees with a loan and they destroyed everything, leaving me penniless. I want compensation and punishment for the perpetrators,” Rema, 40, told UCA News.
“This is our ancestral land and my forefathers have cultivated and earned a livelihood for more than a century. It is ridiculous that they allege we have illegally occupied the land. Already coronavirus has hit us hard, and now we have lost everything.”
Muhammad Jahirul Haq, divisional forest officer, said forest officials take action against illegal plantations in the forest regularly.
“We have received a complaint over the latest incident and stopped the move for further clearance of an illegal plantation. We will hold a meeting with ethnic people on Sept. 16 and hopefully come to a solution,” Haq told UCA News.
Apurbo R. Mrong, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Mymensingh Diocese, condemned the move.
“Indigenous people have been living in the forest area for centuries, although many of them don’t have land documents. Forest officials from time to time try to brand them as illegal intruders and occupants, which is absolutely unjust and condemnable,” Mrong told UCA News.
Since 1960s, forest officials in collaboration with businessmen have plundered the famous Madhupur Sal (Shorea Robusta) forests by illegal logging and so-called social forestation and they have targeted poor ethnic communities in a conspiracy for eviction, he alleged.
“The commission will join local rights groups to protest against the move and demand justice for victims. This kind of unjust move must be stopped,” he added.
The Sal forests of Madhupur are part of Bhawal-Madhupur Garh (Tract), a once-dense green mass of land that covers Tangail and Gazipur districts where ethnic communities including Garo, Koch and Hajong people, mostly Christians, have lived for more than a century.
Since 1989, those communities have faced threats to their lives and livelihoods after the government introduced deforestation and social forestation, mostly to meet increasing demands for wood for fuel and furniture, rights groups say.
Large swathes of forests were cleared to make way for trees like eucalyptus and acacia, which can be cut down every 10 years. Unrealistic vegetation projects were undertaken without considering the natural and ecological balance in the forest area.
The projects triggered an influx of Bengali Muslims and created tensions leading to disputes and violence of over land, with government officials often siding with Muslims.
Dozens of indigenous people have been injured in clashes and hundreds have been sent to jail on false charges filed by forest officials, community leaders say.
Moreover, a state-sponsored Eco Park project in the area attempted to evict hundreds of villagers in 2000, only to be withheld after a series of protests.
Four Garo people have died since 2000 in clashes over land disputes and in police custody following protests over eviction threats, according to Indigenous Peoples Development Services, a charity promoting the rights of ethnic communities.
In 2016, the government rezoned 3,700 hectares of Madhupur as a reserve forest, making it illegal for 15,000 people in ethnic communities, plus Bengali people in 13 villages, to live in it or use its resources without permission.