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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Green light to cut 4,000 trees

Submitted by: Kapaeeng Foundation
Source: The Daily Star News

Over 100 trees already chopped down after HC directive; ethnic people, environmentalists protest

A timber trader chopped down over 100 trees and destroyed two betel leaf enclosers at Kailin Punji near Nahar Tea Garden in Srimangal yesterday after the High Court gave the go-ahead to cut down 4,000 trees. Earlier, 1,200 trees were already felled in 2008.

The HC bench comprising Justice Md Mamtaz Uddin Ahmed and Justice Naima Haider in the go-ahead on February 22 allowed the garden owner to cut the trees.

Indigenous people of neighbouring Khasia Punjis (villages) and environmentalist group Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa) apprehend displacement of indigenous people from their ancestral homesteads, loss of traditional livelihood and environmental degradation as a consequence of the wholesale tree felling.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest dubiously issued a permit on June 30, 2008 in favour of Nahar Tea Garden in Moulvibazar allowing it to chop down a total of 4,000 trees in exchange for Tk 47.51 lakh as royalty to the public treasury.

Nahar Tea Garden, however, made a deal with M/s Salim Timber and Traders to sell the 4,000 trees in October, 2006, two years prior to obtaining the permit. The deal involved Tk 1.5 crore.

Following protests by the Khasia community and Bapa, forest ministry on October 19, 2008 suspended the permit.

Before the suspension, the contractor, however, had cut 1,200 trees and removed them with elephants. The court in its February 22 directive did not mention the number of trees already felled.

Interestingly, Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer Md Delwar Hossain issued a fresh permit on February 2 this year allowing the garden owner to cut down 2,350 trees and asked to spare 450, as those are located in the Khasia Punjis (1200+2350+450=4000).

Following a writ petition filed by the timber trader Salim Uddin Mohalder and Nahar Tea Garden Manager Pijush Kanti Bhattacharya, the court on February 22 directed the forest department authorities and local administration to allow the felling of trees as per the earlier work order.

In the Sylhet Divisional Forest Office permit, the garden owner was asked to pay the government an enhanced royalty of Tk 1.19 crore for the trees as per revised rate of forest goods.

The HC in its February 22 rule also asked authorities including environment and forest secretary to show on what legal grounds they had imposed the enhanced royalty and reduced the number of trees by 450 and stayed the permit for three weeks.

"The timber trader started cutting the trees around noon with the backing of several hundred musclemen," said father Joseph, a religious leader of the local Khasia community.

Environment and Forest Secretary Mihir Kanti Majumdar said he would take initiatives to file an appeal today against the HC directive that allowed the felling of trees.

As to why the ministry gave permission in the first place to wipe out as many as 4,000 trees, he said, "We shelved it for some time."

The then Sylhet Divisional Forest Officer Abdul Mabud in a letter to the Nahar Garden manager in August, 2008 said 3,754 of the total 4,000 trees grew naturally and the rest were planted. The trees had 87,174 cubic foot timber and 75,508 cubic foot of firewood.

The trees included Cham, Gamar, Gorjon, Jaam, Koroi, Bonak, Rongi, Shimul, Awal, Khami, Bolos, Lud, Belpoi, Dumur and others.

Khushi Kabir, chairman of Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD), said tree felling on this scale would adversely affect environment, life and livelihood of the local indigenous people. "Forest area in Bangladesh is already very low compared to requirement," she said.

Bapa General Secretary Md Abdul Matin referring to locals' estimate said even though the tea garden has a lease for 864 acres of land, it is on over 1,200 acres of land including 200 acres of Khasia community land.

The garden owner has been realising money by sub-leasing 100 acres of the leased-land in violation of the terms in Bangladesh Tea Management Directory, alleged Bapa Member Secretary Sharif Jamil.

The owner has realised a total of Tk 2 crore illegally in the form of land tax since 1984 from the Khasia communities, said Md Abdul Matin.

Deputy Commissioner of Moulvibazar Mofizul Islam said Khasia community is dependent on the trees for their livelihood by the betel leaf cultivation. He received no complaints about realising tax from the community, he said.

There are around 60 Khasia families in two Khaisa Punjis--Akilam Punji and Kailin Punji--in and around the garden.

The tea garden's manager Pijush Kanti said they needed to cut the trees to expand the garden by 60 acres every year. On realising tax from the Khasia, he said they do not do that anymore but the previous owner used to do it.

Government resumes initiative to conduct land survey in CHT violating CHT Accord

Source: PCJSS

Following the recent communal attack on Jumma villagers in Baghaihat and Khagrachari by Bengali settlers with the support of military forces, government of Bangladesh resumed initiative to conduct land survey in Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban hill district of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

As part of this initiative, Land Ministry called an inter-ministerial meeting at the ministry in Dhaka on 11 March 2010 where Land Minister Md. Rezaul Karim Hira presided over. Land Ministry also invited a representative of CHT Regional Council (CHTRC). However, no representative from CHTRC attended the meeting. Hence the land ministry has failed to decide when the government would begin the land survey in the CHT intended to resolve ongoing disputes over land ownership. Land Minister, however, said he hoped these matters would be finalised at the next meeting in mid-April which was being held in one of the three districts of CHT.

CHTRC sent a letter to Land Ministry arguing that land survey would be contradictory to the CHT Accord if it is done before resolution of land disputes through land commission and rehabilitation of returnee refugees and IDPs as per CHT Acccord.

It is mentionable that the clause 2 of part D of the CHT Accord stipulates, “After the signing the Agreement between the Government and the Jana Samhati Samiti and implementation thereof and rehabilitation of the tribal refugees and internally displaced tribals, the Government shall, as soon as possible, commence, in consultation with the Regional Council to the constituted under this Agreement, the Land Survey in Chittagong Hill Tracts and finally determine the land-ownership of the tribal people through settling the land-disputes on proper verification and shall record theirs land and ensure their rights thereto.”

In violation of this provision the officials of the government have been all the time interested to have cadastral survey of lands in CHT with a view to providing land titles mainly to the Bengali settlers on the lands they forcibly occupied or illegally allotted by the government.

Land Commission issues public notice urging application on land disputes from affected land owners

On 14 March 2010 Secretary of CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Md. Abdul Hamid issued public notice asking affected land owners to lodge application on land disputes with Land Commission. The notice said that application must be filed within 60 days; otherwise no application would be accepted.

Please find the attached notice of Land Commission (in Bangla) for kind information.

It is mentionable that this notice was issued without the decision of the Commission. Since after the appointment of present Chairman of CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission, the only meeting was held on 27 January 2010 in Khagrachari. The meeting was ended without taking any concrete decision.

It is mentionable that the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 2001 was passed by the then Awami League government. However 19 provisions contradictory to the CHT Accord were included in this Acts. These contradictory provisions are yet to be amended so far. Among others, the most importance contradictory provisions are as follows

§ Clause 4, Part D of the CHT Accord contains a provision for settling the disputes of those lands and hills, which have been so far illegally settled and occupied, in addition to settling land disputes of the rehabilitated Jumma refugees. But the Section 6 (1)(a) of the CHT Land (Dispute Settlement) Commission Act 2001 only speaks of the “settlement of the land-disputes of the rehabilitated Jumma refugees”. Consequently, all other land-disputes of the Jumma refugees repatriated from India under the 20-point package will remain unsettled.

§ Section 7(5) of the Act provides, “The Chairman, on the basis of discussion with other members present, shall take decision on consensus on the subjects and other related matters stated under Section 6(1). But if no consensus is reached, the decision of the Chairman alone shall be considered as the decision of the Commission”. This provision of the Act can easily turn other members of the Land Commission into rubber stamps. It will make the Commission an undemocratic institution by empowering its Chairman with a dictatorial power.

In order to amend the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act 200, two meeting were held at Land Ministry on 26 August 2009 and 06 December 2009 respectively. But no concrete decision was taken these meetings. However, without amendment of this Act, government is trying to start resolution of land disputes. The land problem of CHT will be more complicated if the government starts resolution of land disputes without amendment of contradictory provisions of the Act. It means that the Government of Bangladesh is not yet prepared to amend the Land Commission Act and to resolve the land disputes at all.