Of promises and marginalised communities: The Koch and Bangalee who volunteer to protect Rangtia forestland

21 March, 2022, 11:00 am

Last modified: 21 March, 2022, 02:03 pm

Pransa and Bangkim – two Koch men were coming from our opposite direction. They were returning home with bundles of Taro leaves – a favourite food of the Koch community. 

In the dry season, the Taro leaves are only available along a spring named Helna Khal flowing through the jungle. The Koch men travelled around one kilometre from their house to pick the leaves. What would they do otherwise? The ethnic minority cannot find cheaper vegetables at kitchen markets.

Their predecessors used to live on forest resources. This forest supplied food and medicines. Those days are gone, but the descendants still think of the jungle as an integral part of life. 

They collect ant eggs for trade and their cattle forage on the forest bed. One kilogram of ant eggs can be sold at Tk600-800. And the forest bushes that are used as fodder are free of cost.

Prasna Koch said, “Deforestation leads to soil erosion. Rainwater drains sandy soil down to the paddy field. If there was no deforestation, there would be more trees. And we would see more dry leaves getting decomposed and the crop fields would get more runoff containing organic fertiliser.” 

Prasna and Bangkim left.

The Department of Forest officials recently formed a patrol team of 18 villagers, composed of Bangalee and Koch people to protect the forest. Photo: Mumit M

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The Department of Forest officials recently formed a patrol team of 18 villagers, composed of Bangalee and Koch people to protect the forest. Photo: Mumit M

The Department of Forest officials recently formed a patrol team of 18 villagers, composed of Bangalee and Koch people to protect the forest. Photo: Mumit M

Suddenly, there was a humming of voices and it began to grow louder.  

A group of villagers led by Harmuz Ali appeared from a jungle corner. 

Father of three children, Harmuz is actually a marginalised farmer. But he was chosen, amongst some other villagers, by the forest department to patrol the ‘protected’ forest. 

‘Previously, outsiders from the west and elsewhere came in a group, cut woods and excavated stones illegally. For a few years, we have been keeping surveillance to check such wildlife crimes,” Harmuz said.

He said his team has full support from other community people. 

Rangtia is Hanufa Begum’s birthplace. The mid-aged woman used to live on the sale of dry tree branches. When she became a member of the patrolling team, Hanufa stopped collecting dry wood. 

“If I do what I used to do, other women will follow me. They will cut green branches instead of dry ones,” Hanufa said like a green campaigner. 

The world is celebrating the International Day of Forests today. And this year’s theme is forests and sustainable production, and consumption of forest resources. We tried to ask the villagers and understand their knowledge on the topic. 

Some said, “There is a huge number of forest-neighbouring families. Only the dry parts of trees – from which lakri is sourced – are not enough. That is why sourcing firewood on green plants, kochi daal, persists.

So, sustainable consumption is still a fancy idea, at least for now.”

We observed the patrolling team members eagerly waiting for their monthly allowance as promised by the SUFAL project. They, however, didn’t even know what amount they would receive. 

For the project, the Forest Department has picked 60 households as beneficiaries among 450 families, directly or indirectly dependent on Rangtia forest resources. The 18 patrol team members were the representative beneficiaries. 

According to SUFAL officials, the beneficiaries will also receive a grant to explore alternative livelihoods. When we enquired what they will do if they are funded, they said they will rear cattle or poultry. The Koch women said they can weave traditional fabrics, while the Bangalee women said they can make bamboo baskets.  

When asked whether they will volunteer for the protection of the forest in case the fund is withdrawn, they replied, “We are poor. How long can we survive on volunteering?”

The Rangtia villagers’ question was conveyed to high officials of the forest department. And we raised questions about the delay.

Deputy Chief Conservator of Forest and project director of SUFAL Gobinda Roy said the department conducted studies between 2017 and 2019 to learn about the feasibility of forest restoration through collaboration with the community people (forest-dependent villagers). 

The fund was not disbursed as the villagers’ committee formation was delayed. 

As the committee has been formed now, the fund has been allocated for disbursement, he said.

The Shal Gajari forest, straddling the Bangladesh-India border in Sherpur district, turns into a hotspot of wildfire during the dry season. Photo: Mumit M

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The Shal Gajari forest, straddling the Bangladesh-India border in Sherpur district, turns into a hotspot of wildfire during the dry season. Photo: Mumit M

The Shal Gajari forest, straddling the Bangladesh-India border in Sherpur district, turns into a hotspot of wildfire during the dry season. Photo: Mumit M

“Earlier, we tried social forestry with exotic species in a deforested land. The idea proved unsustainable. Beneficiaries took care of trees for 10 years and the matured trees were logged. Again the land became denuded,” said Roy.

The high official added that the department has set forest restoration and conservation as the main objective of SUFAL. And the project prioritises plantation and conservation of indigenous species.  

Under the collaborative forest management, only some matured plants will be harvested on an incremental basis and the benefits will be shared among participants. In exchange for caregiving, the participants will receive grants to explore alternative livelihoods.

“Forest restoration is the only option. Otherwise, the wildlife habitats and ecosystem cannot be conserved,” said Roy. 

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