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Bangladesh: assessing village common forests

Village Common Forest (VCF) is an ancient system of forest use and management practiced by tribal communities living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in South-east Bangladesh. The communities are highly dependent on the forests in the remaining VCFs, which provide wood and bamboo for constructing houses, and are an abundant source of food and medicine. The communities work to ensure their streams and rivers continues to flow.

bangladesh-assessing-village-common-forests However the Bangladeshi government is extremely reluctant to develop a legal framework that supports community forest management, and refuses to recognize VCFs officially. The alternative government-sponsored model of participatory afforestation or “social forest” has been carefully structured to ensure power remains with the government, with communities receiving minimal benefits.

 

Whenever forests are brought under government control in the form of Reserve Forest, the traditional rights and claims of indigenous peoples are squarely ignored. The imposition of the modern land registry and government forest management systems has also contributed to a decline in women’s role in forest management in Bangladesh, and consequently their status within their communities.

 

what happened

Friends of the Earth Bangladesh/BELA aims to secure appropriate conservation measures for VCFs, and promote better understanding of forest rights amongst communities in the CHT region.

 

The first step, undertaken in 2009, was to assess the current VCFs, particularly in Khagrachhari (in the Upazilas of Khagrachari Sadar, Matiranga, Mahalchari and Dighinala) and also in Rangamati. More information was needed about how the VCFs meet peoples’ livelihood demands, and about how the VCFs themselves are faring at the moment. 

 

Friends of the Earth Bangladesh interviewed tribal communities, spoke with a range of government officials, and met with journalists, teachers, civil society members and other professionals. Four multi-stakeholder discussion meetings were held to share the findings of the surveys, and a video documentary recording people’s testimonies about the VCFs and their expectations has also been compiled.

 

The results were clear. Friends of the Earth Bangladesh found that forest resources, including biodiversity, are protected most effectively when local people’s links to it are also protected. When these links are broken, others consider the forests as little more than a commodity to be traded. Exploitative practices and commercial exploitation spring up, degrading the forests and their biodiversity. 

 

Many springs and aquifers that were traditionally sources of drinking water for the communities have dried up, as natural forest has been replaced with commercial plantations that extract more ground water. Those who were reliant on the forests tend to fall into poverty, with no alternative income generation opportunities.

 

However, the survey showed that even though the VCF forest management model is sustainable, it is not preferred or even recognized by the government. In some areas, the total land managed as VCF is significant, but in general the number of VCFs is shrinking. This has seriously affected the livelihood needs of the indigenous communities, as well as the involvement of women in forest management. There is constant pressure from the government to dismantle community structures.

 

what changed

The project itself has helped to define the meaning of forest rights in Bangladesh. It has also allowed Friends of the Earth Bangladesh to document the needs, demands and aspirations of forest dependent communities regarding protection and management of their forests.

 

The importance of the VCF model of community-forest management has been clearly demonstrated, and many stakeholders, including the communities themselves, are much more aware of communities’ rights and the value they bring as forest custodians. The scene is now set for a strong campaign to enhance the status of and encourage community forest management in Bangladesh.

 

what next?

Friends of the Earth Bangladesh will push for a reform agenda to make forest governance inclusive, just and equitable. This will involve supporting communities in asserting their rights, changes to the legal regime, replication of the VCF model, and recognition of the traditional governance structures of forest dwellers in relation to forest management.

 

with thanks to our funders: the sigrid rausing trust

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