Victoria Solbert

international sustainable development professional

Secret Places of Bangladesh

By vicsolbert | July 16, 2014 | 0 Comment

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Locals, CREL field staff, and me commuting across the lake to a field site.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, the hidden jewel of Bangladesh, literally. The beautiful scenery of this region hides darker histories, of which Kaptai lake is a perfect example. The lake is gorgeous, with steep emerald green hills descending into the water, the shoreline dotted with small boat docks and houses. The lake was created however when the Kaptai Dam was constructed in 1962 by the then ruling Pakistani government, flooding huge tracts of prime arable land, 40% of that available in the region, displacing tens of thousands of Chakma tribal people who were never compensated for their losses. Many fled to India. To add insult to injury, while the dam was built for generation of hydroelectric power, all of the electricity is sent to the large city of Chittagong, with the communities living around the lake only today beginning to receive electrical connections themselves.

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The scenic Kaptai Lake.

The story of Kaptai lake is indicative of the continuing struggle for land rights and autonomy between the national government and local peoples. The CHT it home to 11 different ethnic groups, but they have been continually marginalized by the Bengali dominated government. After independence, tensions peaked when the new government of Bangladesh began forcibly settling poor Bengali people into the CHT, leading to a mobilization of armed resistance by the local people. The 1980s saw thousands killed on both sides of the conflict. While relations are currently more open, sporadic violence still occurs and government relations can change rapidly depending on national politics.

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As this side of the lake is only accessible by boat, we got to do a bit of walking to get between sites. Was a wonderful change of pace from endless driving.

Because of all this, it is necessary for all foreign visitors to the region to obtain a permit before entering the CHT. While an NGO worker was kidnapped just outside Bandarban in 2007, I think the permit requirement may be just as much to keep foreigners from learning the sordid history and political situation of the region as it is for safety reasons. Permit enforcement can be quite fickle as well – on our first day in the field in Kaptai National Park, my colleague Sobuj became visibly agitated when our last interview went over our 4pm deadline for getting out of the park. Apparently the validity of my permit was up to the whim of the guards, whom we had to check in with on our way in and out the restricted zones each day, and if they had been annoyed by our tardiness they could have kicked us (or at least me) out of the region entirely for the remainder of our trip. Thankfully all the guards seemed to be in good moods while we were there and they were very friendly.

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Interviewing women from a Financial and Entrepreneurial Literacy Training course.

This complicated history directly affects much of the work of the CREL project in the region. Many families, both of indigenous tribal decent and third generation Bengali settlers, struggle to get legal recognition for the land they occupy. Thus in a once fertile agricultural zone, the primary barrier to getting out of poverty is access to land on which they can farm. While one arm of the CREL project is attempting to assist with political negotiations between the local people and the Forest Department, that has of yet found no solutions, another arm of CREL is already providing agricultural training to people who are considered to be “encroachers” on park land. While it may seem strange to be training people on how to farm in a National Park as part of a project whose overarching goal includes preserving natural resources, without farming these people would be cutting down trees, poaching, overfishing, or grazing cattle within the park area instead.

Masi ne Marma demonstrating how they weave the beautiful traditional garments they wear.

Masi ne Marma, a member of the CREL handicrafts producer group, demonstrating how they weave the beautiful traditional garments they wear and will soon be selling to urban areas.

CREL is also attempting to build other alternative income generating activities, such as handicrafts production. Many of the indigenous people make beautiful traditional textiles. It is difficult to find markets for their work however. Their traditional scarfs and wraps/skirts are just slightly different than the typical dress of the rest of the population of Bangladesh, as well as being a bit more expensive due to the labor and quality. Thus there is almost no local market for the products beyond their families and neighbors. This leads to an almost contradictory situation of women day laborers from some of the poorest communities in the region having, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful clothes! CREL has just linked one handicrafts group, so far of 25 women, to two boutique markets in the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka. As the first order for products has just been filled, hopefully this arrangement will begin to build income for these communities, and preserve their traditional craft.

Despite this being a rather negative post, I had a great time in the region, and think it might be my favorite in Bangladesh. The people as always were very friendly, the scenery amazing, and a wider diversity of religions, ethnicities, clothing, and foods than the rest of the country were present. Also there were big hills – it is definitely nice to get above the flatlands and have a little more variance to the skyline.

 

– Iqthyer Uddin Md Zahed, Conflict between government and the indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) Volume 16, Issue 5 (Sep. – Oct. 2013), PP 97-102 e-ISSN: 2279-0837, p-ISSN: 2279-0845.

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