Environment plan for CHT 
All 14 grassroots workshop completed
 

 

 

Quamrul Islam Chowdhuty

The author is Chairman of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh [FEJB], Secretary-General of Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists [AFEJ] and Chairman of Commonwealth Environmental Journalists' Association [CEJA]

Grassroots-level people seized the opportunity. They took the lead. Consultants took a back seat. The eyes of the hill people were bright with eagerness. Getting an opportunity  at last to pass on their views to enablers, they enthusiastically pinpointed different sets of problems of different eco-specific zones of the three different hill districts. They also came up with different sets of solutions. And in addition to that, they also pointed out the government bodies and other agencies, including those of the donors, who would be most effective in implementing the solutions. They argued with each other over different strategies to shape a sustainable future. This was a sort of revolution  that came about through a series of some 14 workshops held in the last three months allowing the audience to have the floor, with officials and consultants taking the back seat. The wave went from Thanchi in Bandarban to Panchhari in Khagrachhari.

These people were far more vocal than those who had participated in the 26 grassroots work shops held across the rest of the country during the formulation of the National Environment Management Action Plan (NEMAP). The hilly people were so conscious about the dependence of their future on the health of the environment that they vigorously called for the rapid implementation of the people's participatory environment management action plan for the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) to help restore and maintain the ecological balance. Participants at four grassroots-level workshops in Bandarban identified some problems that were not aired at the six workshops in Rangamati district. Some of those were also not identified at the four grassroots-level workshops in Khagrachhari district. But there were some common problems shared by the hill districts.

"The face of Chittagong Hill Tracts will change," said K. S. Prue, a member of the royal family of Bandarban, adding that once the ball starts rolling, things will take a different shape and environmental problems will be resolved easily. "Preserve our forests, our heritage, our culture of conservation. The Hill Tracts is the finest jewel in the crown of Banoadesh," he said. Daw Nai Marrna at Thanchi, the first grassroots workshop on November 18, 1999, fully agreed with him. She, along with about 100 participants at that workshop, demanded early execution of the CHT-NEMAP. To them it meant an end to the encroachment into the deep forests of the most remote southeastern hilly area of Thanchi, which can he reached after a 15-hour journey by a motorized boat from Bandarban district town. From Thanchi to Panchbari people came up with their own environment plans.

They participated in an unprecedented way. Everywhere 100 to 150 participants from seven different professional groups took part in the crafting of the CHT-NEMAP. "It's a unique experience for me to actively participate in such a workshop to help formulate our plans," said Anew Marma, Headman of Manikchhari. Dipali Chakma, a farmhand of Matiranga, echoed Anew. Chang Khisa, former headmaster of Khagrachari Government High School, warned, "Please don't play with us. Implement this environment plan without delay. Our hopes are high. Don't dash it."

The participants in all the workshops identified over 30 issues of concern, out of which 10 were common. The common issues identified were forest depletion, depletion of fisheries, scarcity of drinking water and irrigation water, health and sanitation, riverbank erosion, lack of environmental education and awareness and the malaria menace.

They further suggested massive afforestation, strict enforcement of laws, scientific cultivation on the hills, installation of ringwells, tubewells and deep tubewells, re-excavation of ponds and rivers, water conservation, use of alternative sources of energy and creation of mass awareness.

The participants identified the main problems as lack of electricity, communication problem, unemployment, poor marketing facilities for agricultural and other produce, lack of cattle,attack by wild elephants, pigs and rats, killing of guest birds, pollution of river waters, jhum cultivation, and lack of mother and child healthcare.

The last workshop of the series held at Khagrachhari Government High School was joinfly organised by the Environment Ministry, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs Ministry, the Regional Council and UNDP on February 26, 2000. The inaugural session was addressed by Director General of Department of Environment A.R. Khan, editor of The Independent Mahbubul Alam, Environment Ministry's Dr. Mahfuzul Haque, Chairman of the Forum of Envirownental Journalists of Bangladesh Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachhari Ashraf Makbul, Environment Ministry's Omar Ali and Sunil Kanti Bose and NEMAP-CHT Consultant Jana Bikash Chakma.

 The process of framing an Environment Management Action Plan for the three districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts was kicked off at Rangamati on October 26, 1999. The Chairman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council (CHTRC), Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma (Santu Larma), who presided over the preliminary workshop, emphasised the need for evolving a pragmatic environmental management action plan to maintain ecological balance in the country's hilly region.

The participants present at the launching workshop also filled in the questionnaires [around 300] and submitted them to the facilitators. They were given more copies of the questionnaires with a request to get them filled up by their friends, colleagues, neighbours and then mail them to the Programme Management Unit, SEMP.

It was observed that people of these places responded very warmly and expressed deep appreciation for having been consulted prior to the preparation of the NEMAP-CHT. The active participation of women, headmen and karbaris, who appeared to be very keen to shape their future in an eco-friendly manner, made each of the workshops interesting and significant and offered ample grounds for hoping that environmental issues would be given due importance by the people of the CHT. As the groups differ in their professions and livelihoods, their identification of problems naturally had some professional bias. For example, farmers focused more on problems of agriculture, such as water, pesticides, polythene bags and stampede by wild elephants, while the women put priority on drinking water and heath/sanitation issues. The teachers focused on lack of education and environmental awareness, while the government officials identified absence of officials from duty stations, lack of communications and infrastructure and the land question as major problems. People's representatives and headmen/karbaris put priority on aforestation and alleviation of poverty, while the social workers identified poverty, deforestation, lack of education and drug addiction as major problems. Identification of priority problems was also influenced by the varied topography of the six thanas. For example, participants from Jurachari and Longadu valley areas were concerned more with water level at Kaptai lake and irrigation problems, while participants of steep and hilly Barkal were concerned more with drinking water and livestock breeding. The solutions offered by the participants also reflect their educational levels. For example, tribals and local communities offered solutions based mostly on local resources and indigenous knowledge, while the government officials offered structural solutions like building of larger dams across the streams.

In all the areas, participants focused on issues that concern their immediate neighbourhoods, livelihood and security. Naturally, the problems mainly concerned the economic and physical survival of the local communities. Obviously the issues of deforestation, jhuming, agriculture, fishing and health/sanitation were common to all the seven groups. The government initiative of expanding the Reserve Forest did not find favour with the participants. Instead, they suggested social forestry and community management. The hill people also put emphasis on settling the land disputes for sustainable environ- mental management of the area. As most of the local people are very poor and illiterate, they put the blame mainly on poverty and lack of education for environmental degradation. Instead of outright banning the age-old jhum cultivation, the participants suggested alternative options of employment and eco-friendly jhuming, if there is any such thing.

Participants of all the six thanas surrounding the Kaptai lake alleged that the PDB was not fol- lowing the "Rule Curve" in maintaining the water level at Kaptai lake. Instead of 99 ft. MSL [mean sea level], 103 ft. MSL was maintained on 18 January 2000. Due to the high water level farmers could not cultivate their rice fields. They suggested that water level be kept at 60 ft. MSL allowing them to cultivate the fringe land. The participants in all the places suggested the option of storing rain and fountain water for satisfying the need of drinking water. Death due to malaria was identified as a major issue of concern everywhere. Headmen and karbaris raised the issue of poor agricultural production, lack of electricity and land erosion. They suggested that instead of MP's, their representatives should he included in the Forest Committee for issuing permits, and the Forest Department should be put under the Regional Council. The social workers suggested that the mother tongue of each tribe be made compulsory from grade three. They also opined that local tribal teachers should be recruited for primary and secondary schools. The teachers raised issues like flash floods, drought, difficulties in ploughing hillocks, etc. Government servants and the journalists mentioned issues like hill fire, unplanned agriculture and invasion of agro-chemicals.

They also said that unwillingness of the government servants to work in the CHT has created obstacles in the implementation of development projects.

Thus, the ultimate solution for environmental degradation in the CHT districts lies in the easing of heavy biotic pressure on natural resources. This has to be done through alleviation of poverty, creation of employment options, provision of health services and educational opportunities, and, above all, through settling the land question.

The major environmental issues identified by the participants of these grassroots workshops are as follows:

Deforestation, denudation of hills and killing of wildlife : The participants alleged that as hills are khas land, people indiscriminately fell trees to meet their daily needs. They also blamed corrupt forest officials, traders, and persons involved in illegal cutting and trading of wood for denuding the hills.

Adverse effect of jhum cultivation : They pointed out that jhum is practiced mainly by the tribal community on the upper ridges of the hills. It is a traditional method of agriculture. Tribal people and a good number of participants were against banning jhum cultivation. They suggested that other practices like terracing and use of jhum land for horticulture and cultivation of spices should be explored. The point that they underlined was that alternative means of livelihood for the jhumiya people should he provided before taking any action.

Poor communication system: At Thanchi, and also at Lama, people were much concerned about the poor communication system of the area, particularly the absence of a viable link with the district town. Some groups identified it as their first priority. The Shangu river is navigable only for five months a year. It takes 15 hours to reach the district town by motorized boats and two days by road. Roads being built by Bangadesh army are expected to be completed by 2002. The terrain is difficult and hills have to he cut for the roads. Some local people suggested the building of ropeways, if possible.

Scarcity of drink water : Very few tubewells were seen in the three hill districts. Ringwells do work occasionally. People mostly drink Jhiri [rivulets from the hills] water. They suggested that water could he conserved in the jhiri by putting up dams -- a very costly proposition, and far from environment-friendly. Others suggested facilities for year-round storage of rainwater.

Malaria and water-borne disease: At Thanchi, workshop participants witnessed the death of a child due to cerebral malaria. They suggested compulsory use of mosquito nets and introduction of health education among the local people. A Malaria Research Centre at Bandarban has been long overdue.

Health and sanitation: General malnutrition and poor sanitation were identified as the main problems in the health sector. The participants suggested health education and curriculum development, to begin with.

Hill cutting and extraction of stones: Participants blamed the faulty permit system introduced by the district administration and corrupt practices for hill cutting and extraction up stone and called for strict enforcement of laws.

Flash floods and natural disasters : it was observed that hilly rivers passing through V- shaped gorges could inundate the banks. Thanchi and Lama bazars are regularly flooded by flash floods from the Shangu and Matamuhri rivers. Panchhari is flooded by Chengi river. The affected areas remain waterlogged for a few days after every flood and thus sustain severe damage. The areas are often lashed by cyclones. Landslides are a common occurrence during the rnonsoon. People blamed increasing siltation of the rivers due to soil erosion, deforestation, faulty agricultural practices, etc., for the land- slides. At Lama, participants suggested digging a river loop to prevent regular flooding.

Soil erosion: Participants pointed out that soil erosion was mainly due to faulty agricultural practices and deforestation.

Ignorance of environmental issues: All the groups suggested that environmental education should be introduced in the region. They also stressed that more and better schools should be set up. In the hills, there are a good number of one-teacher schools.

Excessive drinking: Alcoholic addiction is prevalent among the tribal community, and participants at the Thanchi workshop identified it as a major social problem having adverse impacts on the environment. This is because such addictions cause poverty, which leads to over-exploitation of natural resources.

Attacks by wild elephants: Farmers at Lama complained about the on-again off-again incursions by wild elephants. They demanded that the local administration take effective measures to protect the villagers against such attacks.

Invasion of polythene: At Bandarban, Nakhongchhari, Panchhari, Khagrachhari and Matiranga, some participants identified the large-scale use of polythene as an environmental menace.

Tobacco cultivation on the Matamuhri and Maini banks: Participants at Lama and Dhiginala complained about the adverse effects of tobacco cultivation by the multi-national companies. A considerable acreage of woodland is lost to tobacco cultivation each year, they pointed out, alleging that tobacco, being a mono-crop, was adversely affecting horticulture and vegetable production. Women groups, in particular, were against tobacco cultivation. Others said that instead of totally banning tobacco cultivation, which generates employment, the authorities should find out methods of eco- friendly production of tobacco in the region.

At Khagrachhari grassroots workshops some of the participants raised cluster village as a problem which was not heard in other two districts.

After completion of all 14 grassroots workshops, three district-level workshops will be held in mid-April and the regional-level workshop is scheduled to be held in June to finalize the CHT- NEMAP environment plan. That is the silver lining for the hilly people.

 

 

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