Political Ecology of Degradation of Forest Common in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh

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"Tribal communities of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) depend largely on forest commons1 to fulfill their basic subsistence requirements and cash income. Like many other Asian countries, forest commons of CHT has degraded severely. While in early 19th century entire CHT was covered with dense forest, it is now denuded severely with some scattered trees and shrub and weeds. In the pretext of protecting the forest resources from overexploitation by indigenous people, almost entire forest of CHT was nationalized during the British colonial period. The question arises, why forest commons are undergoing degradation in CHT, while state establish its control over forest resources and rules and regulations were formalized and codified. As per Hardin's (1968) thesis, forest of CHT should not be degraded as property right was given to the state and was defined clearly. "Conventionally indigenous people are blamed for degrading resources through their traditional fallow based swidden cultivation. However, indigenous people were using forests from time immemorial. The resource was not degraded until the external intervention. The history of external intervention in the forest in CHT is more than two centuries old. The process of degradation of forest commons cannot be fully understood without understanding the political and social processes, which condition access, control and management of land and forest resources. By examining the policies during the past two centuries and associated effects on forest commons in CHT, this paper makes an attempt to explain the degradation of forest commons of CHT. "The analysis revealed that the process of degradation of forest commons started during the British colonial period with the nationalization of forest, establishment of reserve forest by denying the customary rights of indigenous people, entrusting the management of forest to bureaucratic departments, weakening the traditional institutions. Before the nationalization, the community had responsibility to conserve forest resources within their jurisdiction. There were community sanctioned and respected rules and norms. The centralized approach of management combined with inefficiency, corruption and indifference of local people resultant from state policy of alienation led most part of the forest common in open access resources, which caused overexploitation of forest resources by both insiders and outsiders. The process of degradation was accelerated through privatization of forest land for sedentary agriculture, which created pressure on forest resources by reducing the availability of common land. "The construction of hydraulic dam on Karnafuli River, which submerged vast area of forest and leasing out of forest common for plantation for supplying industrial raw materials during the Pakistan period have created further pressure on forest resources. The process of degradation was further accentuated by the policies of settlement of lowland people in forest commons of CHT and extension of reserve forest, afforestation programs and leasing out of forest land for rubber plantation to private individuals during the Bangladesh period. "The paper concludes that the degradation forest commons in CHT is not because of the traditional practices of indigenous people. The genesis of degradation rooted to in the past and present polices. Nationalization of lands and forests, creation of reserve forest, entrusting the management of forest on bureaucratic, privatization of forest commons for agriculture, horticulture and rubber plantation, and settlement of lowland people have had severe impact on management of forest resources in CHT. Finding of this study contradicts with Hardin thesis that privatization and state control over forest resources is the only solution for protecting CPRs."
IASC, environmental degradation, common pool resources, indigenous institutions, tragedy of the commons, Hardin, Garrett