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Activists support tribals’ fight against tree cutting

Updated: April 13, 2010 05:19 AM GMT
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A Khasia tribal man stands on the stump of a tree
A Khasia tribal man stands on the stump of a tree
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MOULOVIBAZAR, Bangladesh (UCAN) -- Catholic and human rights activists are opposing a court verdict allowing timber traders to cut thousands of trees in two tea plantations, saying this endangers tribal people’s livelihoods. A Feb. 22 high court ruling had allowed M/S Selim Timber & Traders, a local company, to cut down and sell 3,550 trees in two betel-leaf plantations in the southeastern Sylhet region. Activists recently held press conferences and rallies to protest the verdict. On April 10, they also visited the two affected Khasia villages and assured people of their assistance and support. The activists came from the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), an environment protection forum; Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum (BIPF), an ecumenical forum of tribal peoples; Hotline Bangladesh, a Church-based rights organization; and St. Joseph’s Parish. The timber traders “have felled 1,576 more trees than they were allowed” and destroyed more than 7,000 betel-leaf plants, said Ferli Surong, 45, the Catholic headman of one of the villages. “We’ll not be able recover the huge loss even in 20 years.” The felling of trees here has been going on since June 2008 when the forest and environment ministry ordered the cutting and selling of 4,000 old trees. However, critics say that most of the trees destroyed were in fact healthy and were still acting as supports for betel-leaf cultivation. According to local sources, a 10.5 million taka (US$150,000) contract had been negotiated between authorities and traders. A case was filed last year against the decision to cut trees but in February this year, the high court ruled in favor of the authorities and traders and allowed the cutting down of 3,550 trees. Khasia people and right activists claim the verdict was politically influenced.

‘Trees are our children’

“Betel-leaf cultivation requires big trees that offer a lot of shade,” said Surong. “The plants can’t grow well with smaller trees.” Berli Suchhiang, 40, a Khasia Catholic woman said, “We consider the trees of the forest as our children, we love them. For generations, our families have engaged in betel-leaf cultivation.” Father Michael Collins Sarker, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Srimangal that covers the two affected villagers, said that cutting down of trees would deprive the tribal people of the produce of their lands. “Cultivation of betel-leaves is the only livelihood for them,” he said. Most of his 10,200 parishioners are Khasia people, he added. Mamunur Rashid, a Muslim dramatist who visited the villagers assured them of support. “You should not leave your lands because you have rights equal to those of other citizens in the country,” he said. Rosaline Costa of Hotline Bangladesh also told the people, “Keep your courage and stay united to stop this unethical cutting down” of trees. Khasia, a matriarchal tribe, migrated to Bangladesh’s Sylhet region from India long ago. Presently, they live in 108 villages in three Catholic parishes and one sub-parish. They have their own culture, traditions, religion and language and live completely segregated from the majority Bengalis. Most of the 30,000 Khasia in Bangladesh cultivate betel-leaves for a living. About 80 percent of them are now Christians. BA09401.1597 April 13, 2010 54 EM-lines (514 words) Khasia tribal people get own Catholic priests Prayer brings tribal Catholics and Presbyterians together

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