Garo Unrest in Modhupur forest

Source – Dhaka Courier, 09 January 2004

By Philip Gain

The killing of a Garo man on January 3 has caused an uproar among the Garos of the Modhupur forest. The bullets allegedly shot by the forest guards instantly killed Piren Snal of Joynagachha, a remote village in the Modhupur forest, and seriously injured Utpal Nokrek who has survived after surgery in Dhaka. About twenty-five, other Garos were also injured in the assault of the forest guards and police on a demonstration of the Garos.

A few thousand Garos from many Garo villages had assembled at Jalabadha on January 3, a remote spot in the Modhupur forest, to resist the government construction work for concrete walls and other infrastructure at Jalabadha and other spots in the northern part of the Modhupur forest. The forest guards and police stationed to suppress resistance against the government construction work at Jalabadha, went impatient with the protesters and opened fire from their guns from a close distance.

“We, a few thousand Garos were staging a peaceful demonstration. We were heading towards a spot at Jalabadha to request the authorities to stop the construction of concrete walls cutting through the much-despoiled forest and other infrastructure. The forest guards and the police stopped us as we went close to the construction site. As we tried to push through, the guards and the police began to shoot at us,” said George Nokrek, a Garo youth who was among the protestors.

Many a Garos who participated in the demonstration claimed that their demonstration was peaceful and they were barehanded. There was no need for gunshots to stop them.

The Garos have burst into anger after the killing of Piren. Thousands of Garos and their supporters took to the jungle paths and Mymensingh-Tangail highway on January 4 and 5 to protest the killing.

The Garos have demanded the expulsion of the Minister for Forest and Environment, the DC, SP, and DFO from their positions. They have also demanded a judicial inquiry, cancellation of the “eco-park”, permanent lease of the Adivasi land, fair trial and compensation for the killed and those injured. The DC of Tangail announced in a huge protest rally on January 5 that the government had already constituted a judicial inquiry committee.

About 20,000 Garos and Koch of the Modhupur forest have experienced many hurdles to retain their traditional homesteads and the right to forest produces. Development activities, plantations, invasion of pineapple and banana controlled by outsiders and loss of land have already heavily curtailed their access to local resources on which they have customary rights.

The Garos of Modhupur see the construction of concrete walls and other infrastructure under the Modhupur National Park Development Project as a new threat. The stated objective of the government plan is the protection of 3,500 acres of sal forest and the promotion of eco-tourism. But the Garos do not believe that the walls would protect the forest. These would rather restrict their movement and limit their access to land and forest resources already severely limited. Worse, the infrastructure such as barracks, guest houses, artificial small lakes, etc. for the promotion of eco-tourism would disturb their social harmony. Moreover, the Adivasi women, who venture into the forest, would become more insecure.

The killing of January 3 is not just an isolated incident. In the past few years, the forest guards have allegedly killed a number of Garos. Rape and other physical assaults on the Garo women are often reported. Forest cases also keep the local people under constant pressure.

At one time the livelihood means, culture, traditions, and knowledge of the Garos were absolutely dependent on forests.

But today statistics and evidence tell that the Mudhupur sal forest is a spoiled land. According to Tangail DFO, out of 46,000 acres in the Tangail part of the Modhupur forest, 7,800 acres have been given out for rubber cultivation, 1,000 acres to the Air Force, 25,000 acres have gone into illegal possession and the FD controls only 9,000 acres.

Most of the land that has gone into illegal possession is used mostly for the production of pineapples, banana, and cassava. Pineapple for cash is the cultivation of decades. But pineapple business is now dominated by the Bangali traders who come from other parts of the country. The banana plantation has expanded fast in recent years. This new cultivation for cash is also controlled by the Bangali traders. Outsiders invest in both cultivations for big cash.

The Adivasis are increasingly getting confined to their villages for expansion of pineapple, banana, and commercial plantations of invasive species. Now as they see concrete walls raised close to their villages and blocking their walkways, they sense more troubles.

The government had tried to ease tension among the Garos. The Minister for Forest and Environment (MoEF) Mr. Shahjahan Siraj had a meeting at the Dokhola Rest House on July 4 last year with the Adivasi leaders. The Minister consoled the Adivasis and even rebuked the forest officials. “Those who live in the forest have more rights over it than anyone else,” said the Minister.

State Minister A.K.M. Mosharraf Hossain (energy and natural resources) who accompanied Minister Shajahan Siraj went one step further and said, “The Forest Department is responsible for the destruction of the forest.”

The Minister also gave his words to dispose of the “false” cases filed to crush the resistance of the Garos. But at the end of the meeting, the Minister gave his decision that the government would go ahead constructing the walls – but not at the inconvenience of the Garos. The Garo leaders also agreed among others to form a committee to work with the government.

But when the committee was formed more than a month later, a split among the Garos became obvious. None of the Garo leaders in the front line at the meeting with the Minister was included in the committee. There is an allegation that the government manipulated the formation of the committee and only those supporting the government position were included in the committee.

There is also an allegation that the government put tremendous pressure on those who opposed government manipulation. This resulted in stronger opposition against the walls.

Since then, the Garos have been organizing rallies, meetings, and showing black flags, etc. to express their rejection of the government plan of wall construction and eco-tourism. But nobody thought the forest guards and police would shoot and kill the forest people.