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List being made to oust grabbers of forestland in Rangamati

List being made to oust grabbers of forestland in Rangamati
Move evokes criticism as fate of ‘forest villagers’ unexplained
Shantimoy Chakma, Rangamati

The Forest Department in Rangamati is preparing a list of alleged land grabbers to evict them from different government forests. This has evoked criticism from indigenous leaders as they were neither informed nor consulted.

The Conservator of Forest (CF) of Rangamati Circle, in a letter directed officials concerned in five forest departments to prepare lists of ‘land grabbers’, sources said.

The five departments are CHT South Forest Department, CHT North Forest Department, Jhum Control Forest Department, Unclassified Forest Department and Plywood Forest Department.

Chief Conservator of Forests (CF) Dr. Saiful Islam also sent letters to forest departments on January 25 asking officials to prepare lists of ‘land grabbers’ and to inform Deputy Commissioners (DCs) ‘as early as possible’ to evict them.

The letter also said that illegal structures mushroomed on forestlands and in areas close to forest ranges, bit stations and at Kaptai National Park. Many illegal structures and clubs were built even in Banarupa Tribaladam and Forest Colony, the letter said. These structures should be demolished, it said.

When contacted, DFO of South Forest Division Asit Ranjan Pal admitted preparing list of ‘land grabbers’. Demolition will start after the list is complete, he said.

Asked whether ‘forest villagers’ would be evicted, he said, “I do not know exactly about the matter”.

Rangamati Deputy Commissioner Dr. Harun Ur Rashid Khan said some DFOs discussed the matter with him.

He however said the eviction drive will be launched keeping in mind genuine locals are not affected.

When contacted, Dr. Saiful Islam said, “We will start eviction drive after completion of lists”.

He said any body living illegally on forestland is a land grabber.

He avoided a direct reply when asked whether forest villagers would also be evicted.

He said, “Social afforestation will be launched in three CHT hill districts soon. The project is awaiting approval of the ministry. I hope it will be approved.

“Local people will be included in the project on the basis of profit sharing. Three to four acres of land will be provide to each family”, he said.

Under the project, short, mid- term and long term crops will be cultivated so that locals can benefit more, Dr. Saiful added

The move has been criticised by the leaders of CHT Forests and Land Rights Protection Andolan (CHT-FLRPA). It will displace people living in forests for generations and destabilise the situation in hills, FLRPA president Goutam Dewan told this correspondent. Dewan is also ex-chairmen of Rangamati Local Government Council.

FLRPA sources claimed that about 3.50 lakh people including Bengali and tribesmen who do not own lands have been living on government forestlands for about three decades. They are called ‘forest villagers’.

The forest department at different times declared many areas in hills as ‘unclassified forests’ and published gazette notification but there is no provision for such ‘unclassified forest’ in CHT Act of 1900, the FLRPA sources claimed.

During British period, some 750 square mile areas in Sitapahar, Kaptai and Mynee valley were declared as reserve forests in 1875. Later, in 1880 and 1883, more 1,345 square miles in Matamuhuri and Sangu in Bandaraban and Kachalong and Rayingkhing in Rangamati were brought under the reserve forests.

The forest department started creating reserve forests and engaged local people as labourers. Descendents of the labourers now living in the forest areas are called ‘forest villagers’.

In 1991, the forest department declared more 2, 18,000 acres of land in 83 mouzas in CHT as reserve forest. But the process was postponed in faced of agitation by local people. Nevertheless, the forest department still consider those areas as reserve forests as the gazette notification has not been cancelled, the sources said.

Goutam Dewan however expressed his ignorance about preparation of lists of land grabbers.

“I do not know whether the forest department really wants to evict people living there for long.

“I think it would be a wrong decision to evict them without consultation with Hill District Council and local bodies”, he said.

He said, the land issue in CHT is quite complicated. There are many types of lands and to deal any land issue, there are so many authorities like Land Commission, Chakma Circle, Hill District Council and Headmen Association.

“So I think it (eviction) will create both discord and disorder in the whole of CHT”, Dewan said.

He said, “Since the colonial period, our headmen have been playing a vital role in land affairs. They can lease any type of land to local people and as such we are enjoying the lands. It would be unacceptable to us if the forest department all of a sudden claims ownership of any land”.

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