Dinajpur ethnic people doubly denied

Laxmikanta Hasad went to jail last June at the age of 65 for demanding his promised benefits from the forest department. Instead of receiving what he thought he would, he was accused of stealing wood.

Laxmikanta and four others, accused in the same case, were released on bail 12 days after they were arrested in their Nababganj home village of Joypur.

The clash with forest officials that led to the arrest of the five also affected scores of other members of the Santal community of Nababganj, as well as farmers in the Orao, Malo, Rajbanshi, Turi, Munda, Maushaher, Bhuinmali and Pohan communities.

"The forest department charged all with wood theft," said Advocate Rafiqul Islam, who defended them in court.

The cause of the clash was a community forestry project, now known as social forestry, which started in the early 1980s with the funds from the Asian Development Bank. The ethnic people of Dinajpur allege that to implement the project the forest department acquired 2,750 hectares in 10 upazilas, including Birampur, Ghoraghat, Nababganj, Fulbari, Birganj, Parvatyapur, Khanshama and Biral. But the department paid them nothing in return for the land.

In Nababganj alone, it acquired 1,637 hectares, mostly in areas where the indigenous community lives, they alleged. But the forest department said they acquired only 3,86.87 hectares of the 10,336.26 hectares forest. They claimed that about 5,050 hectares fell to encroachers' hands.

The deal was that the department would plant trees and the original landowners would look after them and receive 45 percent of the earnings from the sale of wood.

But the terms of the deal are contested. Laxmikanta says he and his father Barka Hasad looked after the trees for about 20 years. He staked a claim to ownership of the land, as he paid taxes. Forest officials started cutting trees last May and Laxmikanta was told the documents said nothing about the 45 percent share of the income from sold logs.

"I saw the contractor coming with loggers to my land to fell trees. But the forest officials did not let me know before," Laxmikanta said. He claimed to have bought those trees from the forest department at Tk 1.51 lakh.

"We protested the felling of trees. We tried to prevent them from cutting them," he added. The loggers cut down all trees and took them away and the forest department filed a 'false' case against the protesters charging them with stealing wood from another land, owned by the government. The forest officials contest Laxmikanta's version of the incident and claim they did not plant trees on private land.

"We planted only on vested, government and reserved land," Faruque Hossain, divisional forest officer, told The Daily Star. He said many including indigenous people benefited from the project as per agreements of social forestry. Asked about Laxmikanta, who did not get benefit, Faruque said the forest department could not give government money to people without valid papers. "There was a conflict with Laxmikanta, but he never came to us to resolve that," he said.

The indigenous people were not interested to take part in the project from the very beginning, he said. There are 1,450 participants in the social forestry project in the district and Laxmikanta's case is by no means unique.

Mona Tudu, another member of the Santal community, said the forest department had taken two acres, which his family had possessed for generations. "We used to cultivate maize, paddy and sugarcane. Now the forest department has planted eucalyptus there," Mona said. Many others have similar stories. This year round, the forest department will plant trees under the project on 350 hectares in Dinajpur.

In 2001, a research by Professor Mesbah Kamal of Dhaka University revealed that 42 percent Santal and other ethnic communities are landless and the rest own small plots. Twenty-five years ago, 82 percent of them were owners of land. Many Bangalee settlers, abetted by the forest department, grabbed their land, the research identified.

Now most landless indigenous people work as labourers for Tk 40 a day if they are men and Tk 25 if they are women (Daily Star, Sun. October 19, 2003).

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