Jum-land occupied by Shahriar Caesar in Alikadam-Thanchi in the name of forest conservation

Photo: CCA Website

Hill Voice, 12 June 2020, Special Report, Bandarban:  On the pretext of various development projects and also a number of excuse and name sake, occupation of land and homesteads, eviction, destruction of culture, devastation of livelihood of indigenous Jumma people are underway in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The festive mood of land grabbing and eviction of indigenous Jumma people is being carried out through various development activities including establishment and expansion of military camps and training centers, declaration of reserve forest, land leases to outsiders in the name of horticulture, establishment of tourist centers, infiltration and settlement of outsiders including Rohingyas, etc. Even many NGOs who have come to work in the CHT in the name of community development are not exempt from such land grabbing and eviction of Jumma people.

In recent times, such widespread allegations against an organization called the Creative Conservative Alliance (CCA) have gone viral on social media. Allegations of eviction of indigenous Jumma people in Alikadam and Thanchi upazilas of Bandarban hill district in the name of forest and wildlife conservation have been found against Shahriar Caesar Rahman, the chief of the organization. As a result, for the past few years, people from the helpless Mro community of some ordinary families in the remote villages of Kurukpata Union in Thanchi and Alikadam upazilas of Bandarban Hill District have been living in misery. Hill Voice has conducted on-site investigation to the allegations. The investigation has uncovered more sensational information about CCA and its chief Shahriar Caesar Rahman.

CCA starts working in the name of forest and wildlife conservation

The Creative Conservative Alliance (CCA) started its activities in Alikadam and Thanchi on the pretext of conserving forests and wildlife in the CHT. According to the CCA website, since 2011, CCA has been working closely with the local communities in the Sangu-Matamuhuri Reserve Forest, listening to their concerns and gaining their trust. Among the tasks are to reduce wildlife poaching and commercial hunting through alternative livelihoods in exchange for setting up primary schools, marketing traditional weaving products to reduce ethnic community dependence on forest resources, empowering ex-hunters as forest conservation heroes, and establishing rare plant nurseries, marketing of seasonal crops and raising issues at the highest level of government. In the name of protecting wildlife and biodiversity in the CHT, Shahriar Caesar Rahman also received the prestigious Future for Nature Award worth 50,000 Euros in 2017.

Photo: CCA Website

The CCA website further states that the CCA is empowering local communities in the CHT to speak out and empower themselves to prevent the destruction of their land. Among the CCA activities in the CHT, Parabon (Village Common Forests) Conservation is operating in 9 villages, forest conservation in about 1,235 acres (500 hectares) of hills, and two forest and wildlife conservation schools. However, the locals estimated that in the name of forest and wildlife conservation, thousands of acres of land belonging to the indigenous Mro, Tripura and Marma people have been occupied. As a result of this project, there are allegations that the indigenous Jumma people of 11 villages, namely, Pale Mro Para, Dakati Mro Para, Anum Para, Andali Para, Lakpain Mro Para, Takwain Mro Para, Tripura Para, Likri Mro Para, Likri Tripura Para, Morongwa Para, Simanta Bulu Para of Karukpata Union of Thanchi and Alikadam Upazilas have suffered the most.

Friendship with the Mro people

The CCA chief Shahriar Caesar Rahman first came to Bandarban in the CHT in 2011. During this time, he visited the belts from Bara Madak, Chhota Madak, Lekri of Remakri Union in Thanchi Upazila bordering Myanmar to Karukpara and Poyamhuri of Alikadam upazila. After visiting various places in the deep forest, he started frequent travelling to Mro villages of Alikadam by making relationships with some indigenous Jumma students studying at different institutions in Dhaka. He then developed a close relationship with the Mro villagers to begin work on his project in the Mro-inhabited area. In an effort to build a close relationship, he tried to gain confidence of Mro people by wearing Mro dresses and eating and drinking together with them.

Needless to say, the Mro people to whom or once they formed a ‘khambowai’ or ‘friend’ relationship, protect him/her or them even with their lives and never be unfaithful to him/her or them. It is a traditionally strong customs of many indigenous peoples, including the Mro people. After accepting Shahriar Caesar as ‘Khangbowai’ or friend, Mro people, based on genuine trust and confidence, unquestioningly offered or consented to him in all matters, including the management of Jum lands and conservation of Parabon (Village Common Forests), as he suggested.

The locals alleged that in this way he started taking possession of the lands of the Mro people by developing a close relationship with them. Despite the shrinking of space for Jum cultivation as a result of the declaration of the protected area, Mro people did not betray Shahriar Caesar once they had given their Jum land to their ‘Khangbowai’ (friend). Rather, they have quietly moved to another place or migrated to neighboring country.

Capturing Parabon (VCFs) and Jum land by taking signatures

Under the pretext of forest and wildlife conservation, setting up wildlife conservation schools, putting signboards, etc., Shahriar Caesar used to hold meetings with the local Mro villagers and write down the minutes of those meetings. It is alleged that in the minutes of those meetings, he used to write stating of taking charge signboards for conservation of forests and wildlife and hand over the issues to CCA for conservation. There are allegations that in the minutes of those meetings, he used to write down handing over the responsibility of forest conservation and putting up signboards to the CCA on the pretext of conserving forests and wildlife.

Photo: collected

As a result, the signboards were put up at the initiative of CCA stating the boundaries of the Jum lands and Mouza lands of the indigenous peoples, saying that “cutting of bamboo, trees and hunting of wild animals in the protected areas is completely prohibited”. Although these signboards mentioned the name of the respective Para (village) “by order”, these were in fact put up from Shahriar Caesar’s CCA organization.

A news on forest and wildlife conservation by Shahriar Caesar’s CCA was aired on DBC Television. “The idea of ​​’conservation of the Parabon’ is not so old,” says in the DBC news as per the information of the CCA. In fact, it was a completely wrong statement. Indigenous Jumma people of the CHT have been preserving the rural forests in the Parabon system better known as Village Common Forest (VCF) for centuries under the leadership of traditional institutions. Many of the natural forests in the CHT still survive as this old tradition of indigenous people for wildlife conservation is still in force.

Shahriar Caesar have apparently attempted to steal that traditional method of forest conservation from the indigenous Jumma people and introduced it in his own name. Undoubtedly, the Parabon conservation also contributed to gain his Future for Nature Award. Needless to say, the attempt to steal the traditional method of indigenous people and introduce it in one’s own name can be considered as dishonest and completely contrary to the intellectual property laws.

Migration of indigenous Mro people

More than five hundred indigenous families from remote rural localities of Alikadam, Thanchi, Naikhyongchari, Lama upazilas of Bandarban hill district had migrated to Arakan (Rakhine State) of Myanmar in 2013-2018 under sheer pressure of lacking security to life and property, deprivation of potential services, shrinkage of shifting cultivation areas, severe scarcity of livelihood means – all of which led them to step on allurement trap laid by the government of Myanmar. The indigenous families migrated to Arakan include: Mro, Marma and Tanchangya-Chakma ethnic indigenous groups. Besides, it is also learnt that a few numbers of Tripura indigenous families also found their path along with the migrants.One of the reasons for the migration of Mro families from Alikadam and Thanchi was the obstruction of Jum cultivation by the CCA by declaring their Jum land as a protected area by taking the consent of the simple-mind Mro people tactfully.

The local villagers alleged that by manipulating subtly, Shahriar Caesar had illegally occupied Jum lands of Lak Pain Mro Para, Takowin Mro Para, Tripura Para, Pan Jhiri Mro Para, Malonga Marma Para, O Mro Para, Likre Mro Para, Tripura Polli Para in Thanchi and Alikadam upazilas bordering Myanmar, in the name of conservation of forest and bio-diversity. As a result, many indigenous Mro and Tripura people are known to have been forced to migrate to the neighboring country.

On 20 March 2017 the Dainik Cox’s Bazar published the names and addresses of 132 people from 24 families who migrated to Myanmar from Ward No. 5 of Kuruppata Union and 8 families from Noapara Union in Alikadam Upazila. In addition, the Kapaeeng Foundation, a national human rights organization for indigenous peoples, published a list of 146 more families who migrated from Noapara Union and a list of 121 families in Kurukpara Union in Alikadam Upazila in February 2018.

Photo: collected

Given the high rate of migration of Mro families from Karukpata and Noapara Unions, it can be said without a doubt that the declaration of protected forest of Jum land by the CCA and Shahriar Caesar and shrinking of Jum cultivable land, among others, have played a major role in the migration of local indigenous people.

‘Chicken in Exchange for Tortoise’ and wildlife trafficking

For the past seven years, Shahriar Caesar Rahman has been illegally hunting and smuggling wildlife in the name of wildlife conservation in the Matamuhuri Reserve Forest in Thanchi-Alikadam upazila of Bandarban Hill District. At this time, some Mro villagers in exchange of assistance of Tk. 6,000 per month have been used to hunt some of the species of Tortoises, Rajdhanesh birds, Python snakes, Banrui, etc., which are often extinct in the Matamuhuri Reserve Forest.

Locals further complained that in 2017-18, Shahriar Caesar adopted a new plan to hunt Tortoises in the CHT. That is to give a chicken in exchange of a Tortoise. In this way, he collected many Tortoises from the reserve area through the people of the area saying that he would give a chicken in exchange for a Tortoise. This way, he smuggled those Tortoises to Dhaka.

Shahriar Caesar claimed that a farm at Haor National Park in Gazipur had been set up to conserve the nearly extinct Tortoises with the in partnership with the government’s forest department. Can wildlife be protected at all by conserving it on the farm without taking the initiative to conserve the wildlife in the forest and nature? A man named Rizwanul Haque said that the CEO (Shahriar Caesar) was caught a few days ago while taking Tortoises from the reserve forest to Dhaka, as because his papers were not updated.

A media activist named Hossain Sohel wrote on his Facebook wall that the so-called researcher Caesar and his foreign friend Mr. Scott found out at the Chittagong Zoo that a special tortoise was successfully bred there. They wanted to be involved in the various activities of that tortoise. But because of their behavior, the zoo authorities did not agree to add them.

Then Mr. Scott, a foreign friend who was by Caesar’s side, tricked the price of the tortoise’s egg. At the same time, they wanted to take the eggs out of the country. But even then the zoo authorities could not be persuaded. This suggests that there is a large trafficking trade in the name of tortoise conservation.

School Setup and anti-indigenous education

Under the initiative of CCA, two schools named Ta-Hu School and Ta-Bu School have been set up in the Sangu Reserve Forest of Thanchi in collaboration with the locals with the aim of stopping wildlife poaching and raising awareness of the local people. The CCA website said the initiative could create indigenous-run sanctuaries in the region by increasing literacy and empowering local communities through alternative livelihoods.

Photo: CCA Website

This initiative of education is undoubtedly commendable. But there are allegations that indigenous peoples are not taught at all about traditional forest conservation methods and traditional knowledge in forest and wildlife conservation education. Rather, these schools teach colonial-minded forest and wildlife conservation method, which is against indigenous rights. For example, Jum farming is often cited as anti-environmental and harmful to forest conservation, locals said.

Shahriar Caesar once told Rizwanul Haque that, “The people living there are destroying the forest due to Jum farming, they are cutting wood, killing wild animals! So the school has been opened to raise public awareness.”

In fact, who is more responsible for the deforestation of the country’s forests, including the CHT? Indigenous Jumma people have been cultivating Jum for ages but it is a fact that forests have not been uprooted from the CHT. Rather the big trees are preserved for the sake of Jum farming. The ‘Ranya’ (in Chakma language) that is preserved after Jum cultivation is suitable as a place for wild animals to roam for food.

In fact, collecting forest resources for commercial purpose, corrupt forest officials and employees, plantation of foreign teak by cutting down natural forests, setting up hundreds of military installations and clearing hills by them, destruction of forest from thousands of acres of Jum land and Mouza land in the name of horticulture by the outsider lease holders, establishment of anti-environmental tourism centers by land grabbing, adoption and implementation of anti-environmental and anti-biodiversity as well as anti-indigenous existence and culture-destroying development activities are mainly responsible in destroying forests and bio-diversity in the country including the CHT. As far as is known, Shahriar Caesar’s discussion of these key issues remains unmentioned in his schools.

Initiatives to conserve forests and wildlife are undoubtedly good initiatives. But the initiative to conserve forests and wildlife by banning traditional Jum farming in Jum lands of indigenous people is against the rights of indigenous traditional land rights and traditional farming rights. No one has the right to endanger the livelihood of the indigenous people by unilaterally stopping Jum farming. It cannot be realistic and reasonable. Livelihood and culture-destroying activities can never be environmentally-sound and people-friendly by exploiting the simplicity of indigenous Jumma people.

The CCA or Shahriar Caesar chose Jum Lands, Mouza Lands and Parabon (VCFs) to protect the environment. But he did not focus on restoring nature or creating natural forests on leased lands given to outsiders in the name of horticulture in Alikadam, Lama and Naikhyongchhari, the land on which most forest resources and wildlife have been destroyed.

Because the occupiers of these lands are Bengali Muslims like him, with whom he may not be able to compete with their power or convince them as easily as the indigenous people. It may be that these lands have already been taken away from the indigenous people or the Jumma people have almost been evicted from the land, so there is no need to occupy the land or evict the Jumma people. So Shahriar Caesar has focused on the Jum land inhabited by Mro-Tripura people.

Indigo and Cowpea Cultivation

In the name of forest and wildlife conservation, Shahriar Caesar started cultivating indigo and cowpea in some areas by putting up signboards. Instead of cultivating Jum, he encouraged the Jumma villagers to make a living by cultivating indigo and cowpea. However, the local indigenous people are not accustomed to indigo and cowpea cultivation at all.

Moreover, as far as is known, indigo and cowpea cultivation is not suitable for the CHT region and is not economically viable. Through the CCA, Shahriar Caesar took the initiative to impose on the Jum farmers of the CHT through the indigo cultivation that the British once exploited the farmers of India indescribably.

It is learnt that training has already been provided along with providing necessary materials for indigo cultivation. Hence, by occupying the land illegally, indigo cultivation and hunting of wild animals have become a daily necessity in the activities of Shahriar Caesar Rahman.

Putting Complaint to the UNO

It is learnt that many Mro Para Karbaris sought the cooperation of all human rights organizations in the Bandarban Hill Tracts in order to get rid of such activities and aggression of the CCA. In addition, in 2018, people of the Mro community lodged a complaint with the Alikadam Upazila Nirbahi Officer seeking redressal of the problem.

But no action has been taken by the UNO. The locals said that instead of benefiting from the complaint, more damage has been faced by them. This means that the local administration is also indirectly supporting Shahriar Caesar in these misdeeds. In fact, in the CHT, all the state and non-state actors, starting from the administration, formed indirect or direct undeclared collusion to destroy the existence and culture of the indigenous Jumma people.

Violation of CHTRC and HDC Acts

Land and land management, forest (except reserve forest), environment, NGO activities, etc. are under the jurisdiction of the CHT Regional Council (CHTRC) and Hill District Council (HDC) as per the CHT Accord signed in 1997 and the CHTRC Act 1998 and the three HDC Acts 1998 enacted as per the Accord. In order to conduct NGO activities in any area of ​​the CHT, one has to get clearance from the NGO Bureau as well as the CHT Regional Council. But the CCA has not been heard to take approval from the CHT Regional Council to conduct its activities.

On the other hand, land and land management, forest (except reserve forest), environment, etc. are under the purview of the Hill District Council. Jum land and mouza land are socially owned by the indigenous Jumma people and land management, use of Jum land and Mouza land, conservation of Parabon (Village Common Forest), collection of taxes, settlement of land disputes etc. are done through traditional institutions consisting of Raja-Headman-Karbari as per their customary law. But Shahriar Caesar Rahman or CCA is continuing its project activities ignoring Bandarban Hill District Council or traditional institutions.

Shahriar Caesar has cleverly blamed the political instability in the CHT for being remained as the least explored the rich biodiversity and fauna of the CHT, which was to reveal a very subtle negative view of the CHT.

According to local sources, Shahriar Caesar brought US citizens to the CHT without involving any of the administrative and traditional institutions of the CHT such as CHT Regional Council, Hill District Council, Bohmong Circle. etc. Most probably he brought them to the project area for the financial interest of his project. In this way, Shahriar Caesar once entered the Matamuhuri Reserve deep forest with foreign nationals.

Violation of international law on indigenous issues

Indigenous peoples have the rights over forests and forest lands in accordance with the Indigenous and Tribal Population Convention 1957 (No. 107) of International Labor Organization (ILO), which was ratified by Bangladesh. The Convention recognizes the right to traditional land and the right to practice traditional land management system under the leadership of its own traditional institution.

Another progressive convention of ILO, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 1989 (Convention No. 169) and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations in 2007, have further recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to forests and forest lands. Indigenous rights are also recognized in the Biodiversity Convention. The country’s Forest Act of 1927 also recognizes the traditional rights of indigenous and tribal people over forests and forest lands.

Apparently, Shahriar Caesar is not respectful of these regional (Chittagong Hill Tracts), national and international laws and treaties. When Rizwanul Haque asked Shahriar Caesar if he was aware of the rights of indigenous and tribal people to land and use of forest resources in the ILO Conventions 107 and 169? Shahriar Caesar laughed and said that these do not work in the context of Bangladesh!

However, the 6th and 7th Five-Year Plans of the Government of Bangladesh pledge to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to ratify the ILO Convention No. 169. These international laws and treaties prohibit the deprivation of the rights of indigenous peoples by taking the opportunity of their legal ignorance and simplicity and any of such misdeeds are considered a punishable offense.

Demands of the Local People

Local leaders said that almost extinct wild animals from Alikadam Upazila were hunted and smuggled to Dhaka in exchange for large sums of money. The common people of Matamuhuri reserve forest of Thanchi and Alikadam upazilas of Bandarban district have strongly demanded that the administration take necessary and effective action against Shahriar Caesar, an unscrupulous businessman who smuggled wealth illegally at the undermining the country’s interest.