`Leaf Storm’ or La Hojarasca in Spanish, the debut novella by world renowned Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez, was first published in 1955. As a reader, I adore this 100-pages’ novella sometimes even more than the maestro’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or “The Autumn of the Patriarch” or others.
Largely applauded as the first appearance of Macando, the imaginary village later made reputed in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Leaf Storm is a litmus test for a number of the themes and characters later to be crystalized in the book that earned the author noble prize in literature.
The novella is a story that highlights Macondo, a small township that is distinguished by transpiring businessmen or traders and a booming population. The novel is stirred by the author’s memoirs of his childhood in Aracataca. Most of the characters are real live ones except for their names. In his debut novella, García Márquez depicts the establishment of the fictitious coastal town of Macondo in the late nineteenth century, its solvency during the 1910’s, and its degeneration after 1918. This is the chronicle of the entry and exit of the “leaf storm,” the intruders or foreigners who descended on the Colombian coast when the region became rich on the banana industry.
Strangely enough, whenever I have earlier travelled to the Modhupur forest of Tangail, it seemed to me that somehow this particular area strikingly resembles with that one ascribed by Marquez in his “Leaf storm.” Thriving fruit production (pineapple, banana etc.), a very fertile land and large tracts of forest, indigenous Garo population and the outsider Bengalis (particularly the Forest Department officials) and new endeavors of “commercial plantation schemes” in the hereditary, social forests of the indigenous people by ADB and Ministry of Forest, changing ownership pattern of the land and forests of Modhupur and gradual extinction of the Garo people from their lands…Marquez could be very happy if he did know such an ideal plot and canvass for story telling! There are all the ingredients of sketching a grand novel design in the forest tracts of Modhupur but only we, the Bangladeshi fiction writers, have not the craftsmanship to portray Modhupur with all her possibilities and potent areas of conflicts.
Yes, I visited the Modhupur forest for the last time on 27th September with an activist group from Dhaka. The group comprised of university teachers, aid workers, human and indigenous rights activists and others to protest the destroying of the banana orchard on several acres of land belonging to some Basanti Rema of Pegamari village in Arankhola Union of the Dokhla forest range, Modhupur. Thanks enough to today’s “citizen journalism” via cell phone and social network that the savage destruction of banana gardens on Basanti Rema’s land by Forest Department officials was earlier disbursed to the netizens of Bangladesh by 13th or 14th of September.
“I am a poor day laborer. I have one adolescent son and one adolescent daughter. It is to maintain their educational costs that I have leased out around 3 acres of my land to a local Bengali person for banana plantation,” Basanti Rema began narrating in her broken Bangla.
It was a rainy day and we came to Basanti’s house after walking long on the muddy and slippery, rain drenched roads of Dokhla Forest range, Modhupur.
“On the fateful morning, I got out to work as usual as a daily laborer but soon some well-wishers of mine came to me and informed me of the atrocity. I came back to my home and then felt so hopeless seeing the entire banana orchard razed to the ground so mercilessly!” Basanti Rema choked into tears.
“Now I will have to compensate the man who has taken lease of my land. Where from I can get the money?” she gazed blankly at us.
“Does Basanti Rema has any similarity with Isabel of Marquez’s Leaf storm?” I tried to ponder over in my journey exhausted body and mind. It began raining again and some Garo adolescent girls came to us, visitors from Dhaka, with trays full of local pineapples with green chili, bananas and ginger tea containing lots of medicinal ingredients against rain and COVID-19.
“Probably Basanti Rema’s struggle is even harder!” I thought.
It is in the matrilineal Garo society that women carry most of the economic and domestic burden. Although women play the pertinent financial role in the Garo society by utilizing ecological resources of the Modhupur forest, the gradual extinction of natural sal forest particularly since after the Liberation War of Bangladesh had induced serious changes in the hereditary familial and social structure of the Garos in the Modhupur forest.
Actually the Modhupur Garh, a part of Pleistocene terrace area of central Bangladesh, is situated over the uplands of Mymensingh and Tangail districts of central Bangladesh (Latif, 1983). The region is famous for the dry deciduous sal (shorea robusta) forest and forest dwelling ethnic communities, especially the Garos. It is believed that Garos, who love to claim themselves as Mandies meaning human beings, have been living in the forest for hundreds of years. The forest, acting as natural boundary, kept them apart from the plain landers for a long time. This isolation and high dependency on forest resources for livelihood has resulted in the formation of their distinct societal structure and cultural practices (Soma Dey, Deforestation and the Garo Women of Modhupur Garh, Bangladesh).
How the Garo indigenous people have been deprived of their rights to forest?
Although the gradual degeneration of the Modhupur forest commenced since the colonial period, the problem turned intense in 1956 after the official ban on jum cultivation (a form of shifting cultivation) by the then Pakistan government. Jum, the basic ingredient of Garo life cycle, was stringently forbidden by the then State of Pakistan and the hapless indigenous Garo community started to change their earlier lands for jum cultivation into crop fields like the Bengalis in the plains. Now-a-days, “most of the forest land has been denuded, degraded and encroached upon or taken over for commercial or industrial plantation of rubber or fuel wood with exotic species” (Philip Gain, 2002). The forest was further proclaimed as a “reserved forest” in 1955 and some portion of the forest was marked as “national park” by 1962 while implying ban on free movement of the forest dwellers. It resulted in the collapse of centuries old female-forest relationship in the Modhupur garh. In recent years, the greens of Modhupur forest had often turned into vermillion red in the bloodshed of Piren Slan against government induced Eco Park project or a slain Chalesh Richil by army during the caretaker government regime in 2007.
Apart from loss of collective rights of the indigenous people over forest resources, the gradual migration of the Bengalis from the plain land and tyranny of forest officials in the Modhupur forest area had largely changed the distinct status of women in the Garo matrilineal society to a large extent. The particular matrilineal structure of the Garo society indicates the practice that “each person belongs to the kinship group of the mother, not to that of the father" (Bal, 1999). Garo children adopt the surname of the mother and the ownership of property cum inheritance goes to the wife’s lineage. Sons are devoid of property rights according to the hereditary Garo law and daughters inherit the property from their maternal ancestresses. Generally, the youngest daughter (nokna) is the principal heiress and in the particular marriage style of the Garos, the bridegroom is permitted to come and stay with the bride’s parent as soon as the marriage ceremony is completed. It owes to this core matrilineal practice that women do not have to follow any “veil” or seclusion in the society and they are free to move anywhere they wish. This matrilineal practice of the Garos had not changed even after large scale conversion to Christianity in last one century.
Impact of deforestation on Garo women of Modhupur forest
Large scale forest depletion in the Modhupur garh largely owes to influx of Bengalis from the plains, unauthorized wood extraction, change of forest tracts into arable lands, numerous development endeavors by the Christian Church missions, and the Government as well as commercial tree plantation schemes under the pretext of forestry development projects sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB). While, according to the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (2004), earlier the sal forests existed as a continuous belt from Comilla district of Bangladesh to Darjeeling of India. Various documents including the map prepared by the Survey of India reveals that a total amount of 80,000 acres of forest land of the Modhupur garh had been reduced into only 8,400 acres during 1928 to 2000 (Soma Dey, Ibid). The old men of Modhupur till today recollect the memoirs of hunting a variety of wild lives from the forest. This tangible and intangible losses incurred in the Modhupur forest area had largely affected the indigenous lifestyle and culture, tradition and heritage of the Garos while women being the worst sufferer.
Apart from taking tolls on food diversity of the Garos, the deforestation had affected these children of forests in a number of ways. In spite of the forest department injunction on free movement within the forests, the indigenous women have to often roam in the forest to search wild potato, medicinal plants, fodder and vegetables. They then become victims to harassment by the forest guards as the guards tease these women, claim extortion from them, deport them to prison on ground of forest robbery. There are also some alleged incidents of violation of Garo women by forest officials. The Garo women, however, endure mostly from lodging of false cases against the male members of their families. A report in the Daily Star (July 30, 2003) reveals that about 3,700 cases have been filed by the Forest Department (FD) against Garo and Koch people of Modhupur garh and in most cases the real plunderers are the Bengalis who get assistance from the FD officials (Pinaki Roy, 2003).
A case study by Soma Dey, researcher and teacher of Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University reveals that how Kajali Hadima, a 29-years old female of Telki village of Modhupur, had been looking after her family as the single guardian for last 10 years. Her husband had been in Tangail prison for 10 years with 47 cases against him. Most of these cases were filed after her husband was put to prison. Kajali, burdened with two children and to maintain the litigation costs for her husband, already had sold almost all her property and now she works as a house maid and day laborer. This is the story of almost every indigenous woman in the Modhupur Garh.
Rapid forest depletion and influx of the Bengalis is also changing the land ownership pattern in the Modhupur garh. Although property generally passes to female children in the Garo community, now-a-days, male children are also getting family property. Though women are the real title holders in Garo succession, they seldom take any stand in case of family decision to sell landed property to the outsiders. With accelerating rates of poverty within these indigenous people, a trend to sell land property to Bengali settlers (for example, for banana or pineapple plantation) is growing within the Garos and in such cases generally the male members sell the property and the female members loss the right to property. Also the minority Garos are being influenced by Bengali patriarchal lifestyle and Garo parents are passing property ownership to their sons too.
Large scale forestry development projects like ADB funded rubber plantation (1986) so far had transformed the ecology of around 80,000 acres of land in Modhupur and made a number of Garo women landless on a permanent basis. Soon after rubber plantation project, ADB funded the Thana Afforestation and Nursery Development Project (TANDP) for which the Department of Forest had acquiesced huge acres of croplands and even homesteads of a number of indigenous families. many Adivasi families. Thus Forest Department had acquired over 40,000 acres of forest land through a Gazette Notification in 1984.
Adoption of new farming system in the Garo community reduced women’s active role and share in the earlier jum cultivation system. Also the commercial pineapple and banana plantation schemes in the Modhupur use high doses of chemicals and pesticides often exposing the indigenous women and children to different sorts of health hazards.
“The sayings of Khana narrate that Kala ruye na keto pat/tatei kapar, tatei bhat. But today the forest officials have destroyed Basanti Rema’s banana orchards,” mentioned Robaet Ferdous, Professor of Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at a protest meeting held in Modhupur.
“Indigenous people, being only five percent of the total world population, conserve around 80% of the natural resources of the world. But what we get in return?” asked indigenous writer and activist Sanjeev Drong.
Zobaida Nasreen Kona, teacher of the Department of Anthropology, Dhaka University emphasized on the importance of maintaining “social ecology.”
Local Garo youth and women activists affirmed their oath to protect their “Abima” or the “Mother Forest.”