Ethnicity and jhum cultivation in Bangladesh

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The land is the platform on which environment and ethnicity have regular discursive interaction. Claims of ethnicity and claims to land are intertwined, suggesting the need for a comprehensive understanding of land tenure and land-use patterns in the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT). The land is crucially important and the relationship between ethnicity and environment. It is especially involve in land use and jhum agricultural systems.

There are a number of an ethnic minority groups in CHT. It is important to note that although all these groups share a common mode of subsistence, that is jhum, they nonetheless differ from each other in terms of religion, language, and social organization to some extent. Jhum cultivation, popularly known as slash and burn is the most prevalent form of cultivation in the hills of tropical Asian countries including Bangladesh. Small holes are made throughout the sloppy fields and seeds of different crops are sown in the holes in April. Crops are harvested in succession as they ripe between July to December.

In CHT, at present due to different government development projects, there are two conflicting interests in resource use: one is a system of subsistence agriculture, jhum by ethnic minorities and the other is the commercial exploitation of the environment (forestry, khas lands, etc) by the State and the dominant Bengali.

Now, after many changes in law and the introduction of settlement of plainland Bangalis, there are two broad categories of land in CHT: Reserve Forest (RF).Under the management of the Forest Department and Unclassed State Forests (USF). USF is in practice regarded as the commons of the jhumia that includes village jhum common and settlement areas. Initially, during the British period, the USF was divided into mouzas under the headmen who were formally vested with the responsibility of managing and protecting these forests. The government is gradually taking over the USF for appropriate use for economic reasons and the development of CHT.

USF is traditionally under community ownership. A contradictory form of ownership rights exists in relation to the land tenurial system in the CHT. There has been a contrast between jhum cultivation and plow agriculture, which also entails different concepts of ownership and rights to land. In the valleys, plow land is leased by the administration, and rent is paid according to the size of the land (Roy 1992; Mey 1981). The long lease ensures continuity of individual ownership and land may be inherited. Land for the jhum cultivators is not private property but is treated by them as “de facto” property of the village communities (Loffler 1990: 45). The land is communally owned; every household has equal access to the land, there is no idea of buying and selling land.

More recently, however, since 1989 the government has redefined USF as khas lands (lands that no individual has any claims). Under the new categorization of khas, these lands are now increasingly leased out to private persons in the name of baggan (horticulture) development.

The modern perception of jhum, the characteristic form of agriculture in the CHT, was a primitive method of agriculture. As it entails fallow periods, it was considered to be a waste of resources. On the other hand, Jhumma perceived jhum as a way of life, based on the conception of communal ownership, exchange and sharing and had been in harmony with their ecology (Dewan 1990; Roy 1996, Mohsin 1997; Schendel 1992; Tripura 1992).

The Government policy of land use in CHT had a different mission in contrast to the traditional local method of jhum. For many years, repeated efforts were made to replace jhum cultivation with plow cultivation because this was expected to yield higher revenues and to be less ‘wasteful’ of timber resources and land.

In the CHT, the government now has introduced two types of land tenure system: “proprietary right” granted to the sedentary plow cultivators together with individual ownership rights, while the jhum cultivators were given the right to use the land over which the state retained proprietary rights (Roy 1992; Mohsin 1997; Gain 1998, 2001). This kind of land entitlement created a contradictory land tenure system, undermining the traditional customary right, that is an ‘individualistic system’ as opposed to a ‘community system’, and beginning the policy of land alienation (Roy 1996,1998; Kalindi 2000).

The government also initiated the policies regarding modernizing agriculture and scientific forestry in order to maximize the revenue gains and reduce indigenous peoples’ access to resources. The entire power structure was changed, making the State owner of almost all land and leading to land alienation. Control of resources had passed from the people to the government or a larger state institution as well as private leaseholders went there from plan lands. The tea and rubber plantation is rampant in the CHT. The other significant change in relation to land and resource exploitation in CHT was the development of scientific forestry. The local people were barred from entering and using the resources of these forests in an attempt to protect them. The forest as a communal space thus became a commercial venture.

More than 40% of their best cultivable land was submerged under the reservoir of the Kaptai Dam constructed in 1962 causing displacement of about 100,000 people, who became environmental refugees migrating inside the country. Jhum cultivators were the worst affected as they were not compensated by the government since they had no direct ownership of the land.

The industrialization of the economy was also begun with the establishment of the Komafhully Paper Mill. The Hill Tracts with the wood for making papers. Furthermore, jhum was completely banned as a cultivation practice in the Government protected forest areas. Little consideration was given to the social and cultural values of the hill people who were thus marginalized through their exclusion from the forests.

The exploitative nature of the Kaptai Dam hydroelectric project and the transmigration of the Bengali settlers have caused a massive shortage of land in the CHT which is attributable to government policies rather than a failure of jhum cultivation as a method” (Report of the CHT Commission 1991). Land rights have also similarly been usurped; the local people have been turned into environmental refugees leading to a worsening situation for the ethnic minorities.

Another dimension of ‘modem’ resource utilization involved the renewed declaration of the Reserve Forests by the different governments. This paved the way for the government to legitimize the acquisition of land under jhum cultivation. Jhum was completely banned as a cultivation practice in the government ‘protected forest’ areas.

The policy clearly revealed the motive of land encroachment it is ironic that the government blamed jhum cultivation solely for soil degradation and deforestation (Ahamed 2002) given, that with the diminution of the forest, the sustainability of jhum cultivation was becoming untenable.

Traditionally jhum is the predominant form of subsistence agriculture for all the inhabitants of the CHT. The CHT topography and climate make it imperative that the people fall back upon jhum agriculture for their livelihood. Their agriculture is mainly oriented towards subsistence, with limited production of cash crops. The principal crop is rice with other vegetables, com, lentils, chillis, and garlic grown on a smaller scale.

State policies undertaken in the name of development have also marginalized the hill people of CHT from their land, as the result they are becoming increasingly landless.

It has been suggested that jhum agriculture correlates with conceptions of collective ownership of land. For example, a report by the Land and Human Rights Commission (1991) states that hill people could only subsist from their fields as part of a community, bound in ties of mutual reciprocity. For the jhum cultivators of the CHT, land is common property, belonging to the community, kinship groups, and even members of the spirit world, with individual families exercising the right to use the land.

Despite the fact that jhum is declining due to various socio-political reasons, the tradition of jhum cultivation is nevertheless still perceived as the basis of hill people’s cultural identity. In the CHT, there are efforts to uphold a common cultural identity.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. M. S. Siddiqui

    Dear Daniel,
    Thanks for your thought and observation over methods of cultivation in CHT. Jhum cultivation has low yield than ‘modern’ (pain land) cultivation system. Jhum system does not affect the natural echo-system. The methods of plain land require plain land and farmers use to make some plain lands on the bed of hill. Jhum is in-built in the culture of tribal and are not willing to change the system.

  2. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Mohammad,

    thank you for this background information. As you initially said, in this area two totally different concepts of land use come together. I think it is highly important to grant sufficient space for both of them to be properly analyzed by us. Basically, we should try to understand both parties, the traditional and the modern concept of cultivation. Granting sufficient space, we also need to evaluate how and in which way both concepts and interests can coexist. In order to bring a specific balance to this area, it might make sense to see what lies behind these two fragments. The traditional cultivation of land forms part of the cultural identity of the local people. Such traditions form part of fix annual working rhythms, include specific festive activities, and often have an even strong impact on local dialects or language at all. The point seems to be that by taking away such a foundation stone of a local minority, the cultural background and the social basis is removed and no more socio-cultural security can be found. This simply means that the concrete minority needs to be integrated into the larger ruling community. Such integration is not an easy task at all. It is often rejected by one or both sides and is additionally able to fail because of a multitude of reasons.

    On the other side, we should give credit to the modern exploitation of the land and the interests and possibilities that it offers. First of all, the term of exploitation should include sustainable concepts of long-term use of land fields. Further, it is the interest of the local government to increase the turnover of the cultivation of land. The more financial outcome it offers, the more could be re-invested into community work and employment. Even though this does not sound bad, but we still have to consider the interests of the local minorities living in this area.

    I think the starting point should be to look for local peace first, as otherwise none the above-mentioned concepts will flourish. The next consideration might be to establish a concept of mixing both ways of land use. Hereby, the cultural heritage is guarded and on the other side, modern ways of land use have access to the area. Running both concepts for a while enables both sides to get to know each other. Possibly, they experience and appreciate each other. Normally, an increasing financial turnover is a well-accepted motivation to forget cultural heritages and to follow new paths. If this happens, the local government should reflect if there can be found, at least, an ideological value of maintaining it.

    But yes, Mohammad – this is just a short note and reflection, as you truly showed the complexity of this conflict. Would you say such thought might have a positive impact?

    Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

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