Sicilia Snal (25), is a Garo woman of the forest village Sataria in the Modhupur sal forest. It is merely a 62 thousand acres forest patch, yet the third largest forest of Bangladesh, a country having one of the lowest per capita forest coverage on earth. Sicilia has to routinely visit the nearby forest to collect firewood. This is a traditional right that she and other villagers have always enjoyed.
Nowadays this historical native forest has lost all but its name. It has come down to less than ten per cent of its original size. This has made the life of the Garos, who still try to cling to the forest, challenging. Many have been killed, tortured, put into jail on false cases, women raped and made to migrate to cities to become industrial workers, beauticians, housemaids, etc.
With little formal education in the remote village, Sicilia supplements cash income for her family by selling labour on a daily basis. An additional burden placed on her is the collection of fuelwood from the nearby forest that has been reduced to mere shrubs.
Her life dramatically changed on 21 August 2006. Early in the morning on that day she went to collect firewood as usual. On her way back home, she and a few other Garo women put down their head loads to take a rest for a while. All of a sudden, to their great surprise, a forest guard shoots her from behind with his gun. Sicilia is hit. More than a hundred pellets enter her body; some penetrate her gall bladder and kidney. She fell unconscious. A surgery at a medical college in the nearest town [Mymensingh] removes her gall bladder.
Some pellets still remained in her kidney and could only be removed after she gave birth to her third child. With about a hundred pellets all over her back and hands, she is now restricted from any hard work. Like in other cases, she has not got justice in court. Her case is added to a few thousand other cases that are still pending in the local court.
Bihen Nokrek (35) of Joynagachha, another forest village, was shot to death by the Forest Department (FD) guards in the wee hours of 10 April 1996. A one-member judicial inquiry committee headed by a local court magistrate, produced only a final report, which, according to a FD source, said that the fire [that killed Bihen] had been justified. Bihen Nokrek leaves behind his wife and six children only to languish in poverty and insecurity.
Renu Nekola, a Garo woman of Kakraguni Village in the same area served more than a month and a half in jail for "damaging forests" in 1992. According to Nekola, she was arrested while collecting firewood from the forest on 12 December 1991. Nekola, with a small axe in hand, was caught and charged with cutting a live tree. The magistrate of a local court punished her with one month in jail. However, she had already served one month and 23 days in jail before getting the verdict under the forest act.
Sicilia Snal, Bihen Nokrek and Renu Nekola are descendants of a matrilineal Garo tribe that first settled to this forest centuries back. They had a long journey from Tibet. The majority of the Garos live in the Indian State of Meghalaya. The forest was dense and full of life at one time. The people grew everything. For centuries they used to practice slash and burn cultivation as well on the high land, locally known as Chala.
In the matrilineal Garo society women own property, do everything, can independently choose their husbands, and are seen everywhere doing all types of hard work in the fields and houses with an air of freedom, in sharp contrast with women in the Muslim majority society. While in the Muslim society the women are bound by many restrictions, the Garo women are equal to their men. They smoke tobacco and drink with their men. They do not get too angry if some have committed even adultery. Offences committed can be peacefully settled in exchange for a few pigs that are consumed by the whole village in a festive mood. This is a beautiful people with beautiful minds growing in the forest. This picture is never to be seen in the majority Bengali villages.
These children of forests, who once lived a peaceful life in the forest villages, are now exposed to the outside world due to the fast vanishing forest. The recent major factor for the dramatic loss of native forests in Modhupur and elsewhere is monoculture plantation with exotic eucalyptus and acacia trees funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. The monoculture plantations in short rotations have severe and multiplier effects. More recently, outsiders have initiated massive-scale commercial banana and pineapple plantations among other things.
Without forests, the life of the Garo women in particular has become tough and risky. Fuelwood and forest foods that women have always collected from the forest have become scarce. They still go to the forest that is reduced to mere undergrowth and have to face “goons and guns”. The Forest Department armed guards, the military at times, groups of forest bandits, and the traders from outside —all together— cause insurmountable difficulties for the Garo women in particular. Sicilia Snal and Renu Nekola are just two of thousands of women who face bullets, rape and other types of harassment in their daily lives in the forests.
The severe deforestation, plantation and invasion by outsiders into the forest villages force the Garo women to migrate to the cities. A stunning fact about the Garo women in the capital Dhaka is that if you visit any beauty parlour [for women], you will see Garo girls working quietly and smilingly. They are also found in the physiotherapy centres. They are the ones most trusted as housemaids in the houses of the foreigners. A few thousand Garo girls and women, uprooted from their land and forest, make an eye-catching difference in the capital. They are exceptional women with very different values. Types of work that “pollute” other women from patriarchal societies cause them no “pollution”. Their psyche makes them truly equal to men. So wherever they are, they are the change makers.
The Garo women take the income that they make in the cities back to their villages. The forest has disappeared from around most of their villages, but they stand strong and teach people in other societies the lessons they need to learn. They smile against all odds they face. They do not have titles to the land they build their houses on in the forest villages, but they are the ones who hold the seeds of the forest. Given a chance, the forest can flourish again if in their hands.
By Philip Gain, Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), Bangladesh, email:firstname.lastname@example.org