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Slash And Burn

Indigenous Peoples

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Slash and burn
Whether ruled by Britain, Pakistan or Bangladesh, for the Hill People of Chittagong aid-driven development has been a bitter experience, as Amena Mohsin explains.

Colours of our cultures: a woman from Bandorban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts mixes traditional dress with denim.
Shahidul Alam / Drik

Why do you Bangalis call us upa-jati (sub-nation)? We have a language, culture, religion and land of our own. We may be few in numbers, we may be a small nation but we are not sub-anyone. We are an egalitarian people. Please don’t impose your notions of hierarchy upon us; these are alien to us.’

I faced these questions from activist Shubimol Dewan on one of my visits to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I had no reply for him. But the implications and substance of what he said have haunted me ever since.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are located in the southeastern part of Bangladesh and are home to 11 different national communities commonly referred to as ‘the Hill People’. In the name of development the state has exploited local resources – and marginalized local people in the process. Despite almost two decades of armed resistance and the recent signing of a peace accord with the Government, the Hill People remain trapped within a state model of ‘development’ which continues to rob them of their resources while disregarding their interests.

The erosion of the Hill People’s rights began with the advent of British colonialism. The British attacked the Hill People’s jhum or ‘slash and burn’ mode of cultivation, which was considered ‘primitive’. The fallow periods built into jhum were considered uneconomic and the plough was introduced instead.

With plough cultivation came the concept of private property, which began its erosion of the Hill People’s communitarian and egali-tarian way of life. It also opened up the Hills to Bangalis who were hired to do the ploughing or leased land for commercial purposes. Tea, coffee, orange and teak plantations were established by European entrepreneurs on high-quality land while the areas available for jhum were reduced to just a third of what they had been. The alienation of the Hill People from their land had begun.

When India was partitioned and became independent in 1947, the Chittagong Hill Tracts were rather unexpectedly allocated to East Pakistan. The Pakistan Government’s first thought was how to maximize the exploitation of the natural resources of the Hill Tracts – and it called on foreign aid to make that possible. In 1953 it set up the Karnafuli Paper Mill at Chandraghona, paying for the construction with $13 million in aid funds, including $4 million from the World Bank. The mill was given the right to extract the raw materials from the forests for 99 years. It created 10,000 jobs but only 200 of those went to Hill People – and those in the most menial positions. The ecology of the region has suffered cruelly in the years since, both through commercial logging and the monoculture plantation of teak, which has sounded a death knell for wildlife.

The greatest blow of all to Hill People’s lives came with the decision of the Pakistan Government, again backed by foreign aid, to industrialize East Pakistan by harnessing the water resources of the Hills. To this end between 1957 and 1962 a hydro-electric dam was constructed on the Karnafuli river in Rangamati with US financial and technical assistance. The project created a 650-square-kilometre upstream reservoir, submerged 40 per cent of the district’s prime agricultural land and displaced 100,000 Hill People.

Even the royal palace of the Chakma chief went under water – a huge psychological blow for the local population. About 40,000 of the displaced people crossed over to India where they still languish, stateless. The Pakistan Government had set aside over $51 million for rehabilitation but less than $3 million of this was actually distri-buted. It had also promised the Hill People free electricity – yet four decades later, three of those as part of Bangladesh, still only one per cent of the local population has access to electricity, and even that is not free.

Bangladesh’s liberation brought no liberation for the Hill People – in fact it made things worse. In 1979 the Bangladesh Government did away with the restrictions on outside settlement in the Hills that were enshrined under the British. A deliberate policy of Bangali settlement was embarked upon and by 1984 around 400,000 Bangalis were settled in the region. The Government justified the move by citing the Hill People’s aversion to development and the ‘emptiness’ of the Hills. It also insisted that Bangalis had only been settled on government-owned land.

The Hill People, it is true, have a different notion of development – one that is in harmony with their lives and with their land, much of which is unsuitable for cultivation. What the State saw as government land, the Hill People regarded as community land. The naked truth is that the Government has done its utmost to turn the Hill Tracts into a Bangali-dominated region – with some success, since today Bangalis constitute 50 per cent of the total population of the Hills.

The Hill People, who are neither Bangali nor Muslim, have been marginalized in cultural, religious and economic terms. Tidivesh, a student of mine from the Hills, lamented: ‘In our own land we have become aliens. Ultimately we might become like the Amerindians.’

Government sensitivity to Hill People’s concerns remains virtually non-existent. The Karnafuli Dam and Rangamati are major tourist sites and the state tourism magazine proudly proclaims that on a moonlit night the submerged royal palace can be seen.

No-one should assume, however, that the Hill People have not mounted their own resistance. The Karnafuli Dam was the catalyst. The loss of land made people take to education and gave birth to an educated middle class, which was to lead a nationalist movement for autonomy. After the creation of Bangladesh a militant movement evolved in the Hills under the leadership of Manobendra Narayan Larma, in protest at the refusal of the State to grant any recognition to communities other than Bangalis.

Laying aside the gun: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Shantu Narayan Larma after signing a peace deal in 1997.
MD Main Uddin / Drik

The Hill People’s response was to construct their own nationalist identity under the name of Jumma – the word derived from jhum, the traditional mode of cultivation which had been negated by outsiders, but which Hill People saw as the symbol of their pride and distinctiveness. Larma formed a political front for the Hill People in 1972, operating from bases in India, and soon a military wing, Shanti Bahini, was added to it.

The reaction of the Bangladesh Government was brutal. In the name of national security the Hill Tracts underwent full-scale militarization. During this period there were as many as 11 massacres, not to mention innumerable cases of rape, abduction and torture. Many Hill People were forced to leave their homes and live in ‘cluster villages’ where their lives were controlled by the military. Another 50,000 crossed over to India as refugees.

Militarization also ravaged the ecology of the region. In the name of counter-insurgency large tracts of forests were denuded. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board, a body largely funded by the Asian Development Bank, also came under the control of military. Hill People allege that its development plans have only benefited Bangali settlers. The allegation came as no surprise to me as I looked around while having my dinner in the Khagrachari main market, where all but two or three shops belonged to Bangalis. Meanwhile road development projects undertaken with Australian aid are alleged to have been built for military purposes, though the roads also allow Bangali settlers and planters easy access to the forest as they seek to exploit its resources.

After two decades of local resistance and military repression, a peace accord was signed on 2 December 1997. The accord has brought an end to the armed hostilities and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was given the UNESCO Peace Award in 1999 as a result. Yet peace remains elusive in the Hills and the accord has consolidated Bangali dominance. It recognizes the Hill People as ‘tribals’, thus upholding the supremacy of the Bangali ‘nation’. Bangali settlers will remain in the Hill Tracts and, while the accord talks about determining the proper ownership of the land, most Hill People do not have land deeds that will back their claim for the current occupiers of the land to be removed.

In the meantime the plans of the Government continue apace: opening up the Hills for oil and gas exploration by foreign firms and involving the military in the infrastructural development of the Hill Tracts. I am sure such ‘development’ endeavours only remind the Hill People of the Karnafuli Dam débâcle which they regard as their teardrop. I am reminded of Jiku, a student of mine from the Hills, who right after the signing of the accord said to me: ‘We have been betrayed – sold out to the transnationals.’

Amena Mohsin is Professor of International Relations at Dhaka University.

Fortified hills: a Bangladeshi military base in Rangamati.
Abir Abdullah / Drik

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