A rubber company has allegedly burnt all the trees of nearly 300-350 acres in a remote hilly area in Bandarban to ashes, destroying around 100 acres of fruit gardens belonging to different minority ethnic communities.
Ethnic community members have alleged that as part of a conspiracy to grab their lands, people of Lama Rubber Company set fire to the hills adjacent to their villages, only to evict them from the lands they have been inhabiting for years by provoking fear in their minds.
Raging for nearly 12 hours from 10am to 10 pm on Tuesday at the mountains of Sarai union of Lama upazila in the district, the devastating blaze also damaged the homesteads of the area's Langkam Mro Para, Joychandra Tripura Para and Rengyang Mro Para, where 39 Mro and Tripura families have been living for more than a decade, alleged the members of the affected ethnic families.
Joychandra Tripura Para and Langkam Mro Para are located at the same place while Rengyang Mro Para is a ten-minute walk from there. Almost all the families of the three neighbourhoods are involved in jhum cultivation. Some families earn their livelihoods from fruit gardens, according to the locals.
During a visit on Saturday morning at the spot, this correspondent saw that the natural forest and jhum cultivation lands of the entire area have been completely burnt down, turning it into a barren land. The small fountains in the hills have been filled up with burnt plants and shrubs, polluting the water. In addition to the water crisis, an environmental risk has also been created in the whole area.
The ethnic community members said the fire not only burnt the animals and birds of the vast hilly forest area, but destroyed their habitats also, posing an existential threat to the biodiversity of the entire region.
They also alleged that even after repeated complaints, the administration took no step to douse the fire at the remote hilly area, located only 30km away from the Chunti sanctuary in Bandarban.
Johan Tripura, Headman of Joychandra Para, said, "Ten to fifteen people from the rubber company were seen at the spot where the fire first erupted at 10 am. They, however, repeatedly denied any involvement in the blaze. Then one after another fire started breaking out at different hills simultaneously. At that time, about 60 more workers of the rubber company were guarding the places."
"On that day, the fire continued burning the trees of hills and plants of our gardens from morning till night. No one was able to put out so many fires around," said Johan Tripura.
Bishwachandra Tripura, a resident of the same neighbourhood, said, "Everyone became terrified when the fire later spread to nearby areas. Seeing the fire all around, people started running here and there. People even get up on the roofs of their houses with bucket full of water to put out the fire."
Rengyong Mro, a resident of Langkam Mro Para, complained that his mango and cashew nut orchards on a 15-acre land have been burnt to ashes totally.
Another resident of Langkam Mro Para told TBS that he had bananas, cashew nuts and mango trees on his three-acre land. There were 500 ekashia trees. On that day, the fire burnt his gardens to ashes.
A local public representative also accused Lama Rubber Industries of causing the fire. Mohammad Idris, chairman of Sarai union, said, "The rubber company reduced a 400-acre area of hilly land to ashes by setting fire to the trees in the mountains."
Officials of Lama Rubber Industries Limited, however, categorically denied the allegation.
Mathi Tripura, a resident of Langkam Mro Para, told The Business Standard, "The Lama Rubber Company set fire to the hills to occupy the land. At one point, the fire in the mountains moved very close to our neighbourhood. At that time, we even had to sprinkle our drinking water, collected with great difficulty through walking a long way, on the blaze to save our houses from the fiercely burning fire."
Lama Upazila Nirbahi Officer Md Mostafa Jabed Kaiser said, "Our assistant commissioner (land), fire service personnel and police members went to the spot hearing about the fire in the mountains. It was difficult to control the fire as there was no source of water in the area."
When contacted, Bandarban Deputy Commissioner Yasmin Parveen Tibriji said, "About 1,600 acres of land were leased out in 1995 for rubber plantation in the area which was set on fire. We asked the rubber plantation owners about the matter, but they denied any involvement. The Lama upazila administration is investigating the incident."
Two arrested following court order to register case
Meanwhile on Thursday, Langkam Mro filed a petition with Lama Court over the fire incident. Upon hearing the petition, the court of Lama Senior Judicial Magistrate Belal Uddin delivered a verdict, instructing the local police station to register the case.
Following the court order on Thursday, police arrested Lama Rubber Industries Manager Mohammad Arif Hossain and Delwar Hossain, another accused of the case, on Friday night.
The other accused in the case are Lama Rubber Company Managing Director Md Kamal Uddin, Syed Moazzem Hossain, Md Zahirul Haque, Md Nuru, Duryodhan Tripura and Haziram Tripura.
Who set fire to the mountains and why?
Langkam Mro Para, Joy Chandra Karbari Para and Reng'en Karbari Para are located beside Lulaing Road, a remote hilly road in Sarai union. In the last 10-12 years, 39 families have settled in these three neighbourhoods. Until then, the area was densely forested and uninhabited.
Around 15 years before their settlement, in 1996, the district administration had leased out 1,600 acres of land for rubber plantation to 64 persons who jointly formed the Lama Rubber Industries Limited.
According to local residents and public representatives, the company failed to plant rubber trees in the entire area during the last 27 years. Beginning in 2010, 10 Mro and 19 Tripura families started settling on the unused hilly area, triggering disputes between the lessees and the settlers from time to time over the possession of the land.
Last Sunday, Lama Rubber Industries Limited allegedly cut down trees in the hills and set them on fire, which spread to the neighbourhood of ethnic communities and damaged several fruit gardens belonging to them.
"The rubber company has occupied 300 acres of our land by force, land which we use for jhum cultivation. Whenever we protest, they sue us. Now, they have set fire to the mountains to evict us," Langkam Mro, Karbari (village head) of Langkam Mro Para.
"Between 2011 and 2017, a total of 80 families in the three neighbourhoods. As a result of harassment and intimidation by people of the rubber company, 41 families left the area for good. At present, only 39 families live in these three neighbourhoods," he said, adding, "How can we survive with so much harassment and intimidation?"
On Thursday, manager of the rubber company Mohammad Arif Hossain, who was arrested on Friday, categorically denied any involvement of the company in the fire incident. "People of the Tripura and Mro communities have been repeatedly trying to occupy several parts of the land we have taken lease. I think this fire has been set as part of a new conspiracy," he told TBS.
But, on Saturday, Managing Director of Lama Rubber Industries Kamal Uddin, another accused in the case filed over the incident, admitted to TBS that they had set the fire.
"We burnt 300 acres of cashew nut gardens and orchards. But no houses of the ethnic communities were damaged. All their homesteads were unharmed, he told TBS.
He claimed that the cashew nut gardens were set up on their lands. "We are on the lands we have taken lease. We did not go outside our leased lands," he claimed.
However, Headman Johan Tripura claimed that people of the ethnic communities had started settling in the area since 2006-7. "As per the rules of the hills, in 2010, they had been given possession of the land they settled on," he said.
But Bandarban Deputy Commissioner Yasmin Parveen said, "The land is still allotted to the rubber plantation owners."
Challenging the deputy commissioner's statement, Moazzem Hossain Riyadh, chairman of Save the Nature of Bangladesh, said,
"Since Lama Rubber Industries has failed to build up the rubber garden, there is no chance that the lease will remain in force after 33 years."
He alleged that as part of a larger conspiracy, the hills were burnt down with the aim of building up tourism business there in the future.
Int'l CHT Commission expresses concern
Meanwhile, in a statement sent to the media on Saturday, the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission expressed deep concern over the incident of 100 acres of jhum plantation of indigenous Mro people in Langkom Karbari Para of Lama Upazila of Bandarban being set on fire.
The Commission has demanded an immediate and impartial investigation, legal action against the perpetrators, and protection of the ethnic minority community people and their jhum land.
The CHT Commission is alarmed by the continuous and widespread land-grabbing and acts of violence, including arson, by corporate entities in the CHT, and the government's repeated failure to provide safety and security of the Indigenous Peoples, said the press release.