Phillip Gain is the author of around 15 books, including ‘The Stolen Forest’,’ Chittagong Hill Tracts: Life and Nature at Risk’, ‘The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Man Nature Nexus Torn’, and more. He has been researching for about three decades on Bangladesh’s environment, forests and the rights of forest dwellers. He is director of the NGO, Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). He spoke in an interview with Prothom Alo’s Partho Shankar Saha on the recent landslides in Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Prothom Alo: More than a hundred people have died in the recent landslides in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Over the past decade or so these landslides have been occurring and people have been killed. You wrote a book ‘The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Life and Nature at Risk’ over two decades ago. So has the situation for nature and the people in the hills deteriorated since then?
Phillip Gain: The Chittagong Hill Tracts used to be a haven of biodiversity. The people of the hills would roam there freely and were safe. But over the last few decades, the policies, strategies and action taken up by the state to control the hill region have pitched the hill people into great risk. The environment has been harmed too. The environment and the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are at risk more than ever before. The hill people have lost their traditional cultivation methods, their knowledge and the environment. All the others there are also at risk now.
Prothom Alo: Are the recent landslides solely natural disaster?
Phillip Gain: Before Kaptai Lake was created, hardly any people would reside in the area of Rangamati where the heavy rains led to the landslides. With water going down in the Karnaphuli valley, the present-day Rangamati town grew up there. It needs to be seen whether such a high location is fit for such a large town. Bengali settlements have sprouted up in many other areas too. Another matter is that when the Bengalis build their houses, they indiscriminately cut into the hills to do so. The hill people normally build their houses on platforms, they don’t cut into the hills. These excavations have weakened the hills, causing the landslides during the rains. Our neighbouring countries have even more hills, but you don’t hear of such disastrous landslides there.
The destruction of forests and plants accelerate a kind of natural disaster. The innumerable Bengali settlements, plantations and other activities have made the hills weak. These could be reasons for the disasters.
Prothom Alo: Has there been any difference in the attitude of the different governments when it comes to the hills?
Phillip Gain: Right back from the colonial days, the governments have been felling trees in the hills and setting up plantations. Bangladesh Forest Industries Development Corporation (BFIDC) was created for cutting down trees or logging.
The government organisation was set up in Pakistan times, but its function hasn’t changed. This attitude towards the forests and hills has endangered the environment. Governments come and go, but this attitude doesn’t change. In keeping control over the hills and the hill people, the governments are committing crimes against the hill region and its people.
Prothom Alo: The hill leaders have long complained that the regional council or district councils were being allowed to function. How important are these institutions in protecting the hills and the resources therein?
Phillip Gain: The institutions have been formed as a result of the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord and which basically represent the hill people, undoubtedly are committed to protecting the nature and resources of the hills. But they are helpless as the spirit of the peace accord hasn’t been translated into reality. Even after the peace treaty, Bengali settlements are being establishment in Chittagong Hill Tracts and nature is being destroyed more than ever before. The so-called afforestation projects, rubber plantations, tobacco cultivation, stone excavation, and all this is seriously destroying the environment of the hills. If the regional council or district council and such institutions could do their specified work, then the people of their hills and their resources would be protected somewhat.
Prothom Alo: What would you recommend as a way out of this predicament?
Phillip Gain: The mistreatment of the forests, people and nature in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is unprecedented. It is not a secret as to who are involved and how they are involved. In such a situation, we can appeal to the prime minister and all the relevant ministers and authorities to create a high-powered neutral task force to thoroughly investigate the situation and identify the mistakes made in the past and then come up with pragmatic recommendations to protect the hills, forests and natural resources there.