Colonial influences on our forests

2007-12-14__env021.jpgBangladesh is the lowest landmass of the extended “Himalayan Drainage Ecosystem” or “Himalayan River Basin Ecosystem”. The history of forestry in Bangladesh is a description of deforestation and degradation. The forests were exploited to supply raw materials for the ship and railway industries of the British colonial rulers (1757-1947) and generate revenue for the West Pakistan rulers (1947-71). In independent Bangladesh degradation continued.
Only thousand years ago, eighty percent of the Indian Subcontinent was estimated to possess dense forest cover. Historians believe that much of the area comprising present-day Bangladesh and the Indian State of West Bengal was in wilderness till about 1000 BC. Human settlements started only after 1000 BC by Dravidian speaking people. Economic prosperity of Bengal attracted people from all other parts of India as well as from other countries during the Mughal period. The total population of the area now constituting Bangladesh was only 11.4 million in 1770 and 14.5 million in 1801. Rapid increase in population took place after 1930s, between 1940 and 2001 from 42 million to 129.25 million.
Little is known about management of forest in ancient India.During the Mughal period emphasis on agriculture and revenue augmentation led to clearing of many forests for agricultural purpose. They paid little attention to preservation, propagation, protection and improvement of forests during their reign. Organised forest management activities in India were, in fact, started during the British rule in 1885. Subsequently, a separate forest department was created for Bengal in 1876 for the management and preservation of forests in Chittagong and the Sundarbans. The reservation process in Sylhet was started in 1914 and its first management plan came into operation in 1938. Dhaka-Mymensingh forests were owned by large landlords; the same was true for Dinajpur forests.
Before the colonisation of greater India by Britain in 1760, most of the CHT was covered with forest. Shifting cultivation, with little or no surplus production, was the only form of agriculture practiced by tribal communities who accounted for most of the population. In 1713, a Chakma tribal chief, requested the then Mughal emperor’s representative in CHT “to permit the merchants of the plains to trade in these articles with the hill people”, leading to the approval of request by the emperor. This system also became a means of exploitation of the existing forest.
During the East India Company period (17601860), the Company did not make any effort for conservation and development in CHT. Rather, it largely followed a policy of exclusion and isolation. The Company’s relationship with CHT was limited to collecting tribute from the local population through the commission agents, who were extorting such a high tax that a Chakma chief refused to pay it in 1783. The brooding row between the Company and the tribal chieftains was resolved following the restoration of the latter’s right to land tax collection in 1787. The Company changed its land tax policy in 1789, which authorised the tribal chiefs to collect land tax in cash. As a consequence, the farmers were forced to sell their products and grow cash crops.
The British Government directly took over the administration of India in 1857. Following this, the Chittagong district was designated as a separate administrative entity known as the CHT in 1860. Sedentary agriculture or plough cultivation started gaining acceptance gradually among the tribal people as the availability of land for jhum declined during the early 1880s when about one-fourth of the land in CHT (1345 sq. miles) was declared as reserve forest. Policy changes were also taking place regarding the ownership and use of forest in CHT.
Immediately after taking over the administration of CHT from the Company, the colonial government made attempts to increase revenue from the forest. In this pursuit, almost all forests in CHT were declared as government property in 1871 for commercial exploitation. Collection of forest products was encouraged and the traders were invited to cut timber. The revenue from forest products increased substantially as a result of such policies. During 186271, the annual average revenue from the sale of timber and other forest products was Rupees 11,000; it had increased to Rupees 102,000 in 187475. Another major implication of the nationalisation of the forest was that it changed the status of the forest from a community resource to an open access resource, as the Department of Forestry could not take care of the forest effectively. The process of deforestation was further intensified by the expansion of the railway network, which required a huge amount of sleepers made from hard wood.
Land reclamation and human settlement in the Sundarbans region during the Bengal Sultanate period (12041575) was encouraged by sufis or pirs (Islamic religious leaders). During the Mughal empire (15751765) forest clearance was given state recognition. Whenever any land was sufficiently cleared of forests to be able to produce substantial revenue the land was integrated into the administration system and declared a pargana (administrative unit). The declaration of Ambarabad Pargana encompassing part of Sundarbans in 1734 is such an example. Frontier expansion into the delta’s wetlands accelerated under British colonial rule (17571947). In 1828, however, the British assumed the proprietary right to the Sundarbans and in 1830 began leasing out tracts of the forests to men willing to invest capital and labour into clearing operations.
The Forest Department prepared the first management plan in 1871 with the prime objective of regulating the use of H. fomes based on diameter classes. The Sundarbans was categorised as ‘production forest’. Management plans (six operated consecutively under this policy purview) were formulated to exploit the resources to generate state revenue. The forest was divided into working circles based on site quality and tree growth and selection-cum-improvement system was adopted as the silviculture system. Along with H. fomes commercially important species like Sonneratia apetala, Xylocarpus mekongensis, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Cynometra ramiflora were brought under systematic harvesting based on diameter classes. The Forest Act was revised in 1878 and 1927 to strengthen the control.
In case of plain land Sal forest the colonial government was eager to bring the vast uncultivated forests under taxable agriculture. Landlords subsidised the migration of peasant cultivators to clear forest land and convert it to agriculture. From 1767 to 1816, the Santals staged a series of rebellions, using the forests as a basis for their guerilla resistance struggle. In 1855, Lord Dalhouse, Governor General of India, appointed Dietrich Brandis, a German botanist, to take charge of the teak forests of Pegu in Burma later he became the first Inspector-General of Forests in India from 1864 until his retirement in 1883. Together with his two successors, Schlich and Ribbentrop, both Germans, the Prussian model of forest management was adapted to South Asian conditions. Massive amounts of timber were felled to provide sleepers for railway beds, poles for mines, lumber for the building of urban areas, to meet the needs of industry, and the World Wars I and II.
1927 Indian Forest Act provided legal framework for nationalisation of the forests. All reserves were intended to be retained permanently as forested areas. Across South Asia, concepts of forest management have been heavily influenced by the British colonial administration. British colonial forestry created a complex paradigm that included legal and policy frameworks, extensive administrative infrastructures, production and conservation management procedures, and training and scientific research programmes. The British transferred approaches to sustainable silviculture that were being developed in Prussia. Along with new approaches to sustained timber stand management came European concepts of government ownership of forest lands, and bureaucratic and technocratic management. In its place, forest departments were established across the region supported by training and research departments. To this day, all South Asian nations continue to share this historic legacy.
Support of rural livelihood was the dominant target of traditional forest use in the tropics (stage1). It is evident that origins of the social forestry and the livelihood concept are rooted in this traditional local knowledge. Colonial occupation with the forced dissemination of European value systems (stage 2) led to a far-reaching dissolution of the complex traditional forest use and management systems. After de-colonisation, forest resources were seen in many tropical countries as a potential to accelerate economic growth (stage 3). With the continuing dissolution of colonial links and the noticeable improvement of infrastructure, forest production entered a stage of increasing internationalisation (stage 4). Failures with the previous concepts led to a polarisation in tropical forest policy (stage 5). The current era in characterised by globalisation and the privatisation of forests on the one hand and decentralisation and devolution of forest management rights to local communities on the other (stage 6).Mohammad Asrafur Rahman is an MSc in Sustainable Tropical Forestry (SUTROFOR) from German and British Universities.


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