The Making of Political Forests in the Cittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: The State, Development and Indigeneity
Chowdhury, Md Khairul Islam
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This dissertation offers an anthropological and genealogical account of forests and social forestry, in particular the way they came to be constituted over time in one particular social-ecological context of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh. It draws on ethnographic fieldwork to examine how discourses of forest and forest relations in CHT since British rule have changed and shaped agrarian relations of the hill peoples and their relations to power. As such, this dissertation explores forest history in relation to an ‘ethnically’ different and ‘small group’ of population living within a nation-state so as to understand how nature/environment is constituted as a terrain of governmental power, subject formation, and state building. The analysis is informed by Michel Foucault’s ideas of discourse, power and knowledge; Peter Vandergeest’s and Nancy Peluso’s theory of territorialization and political forests; K. Sivaramakrishnan’s critical work on the production of colonial state, society, and knowledge in a forested region of colonial Bengal, and Tania Li’s and Arun Agrawal’s theoretical and ethnographic work on governmentality, indigenous communities, and resource struggles. The chapters of this dissertation are organized around the political regimes of Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh, highlighting continuities and discontinuities in the making and remaking of political forests. Throughout the chapters, there run several underlying themes: opposition to jhum cultivation; development; environmental change; and social forestry. These overlapping themes take distinct forms in relation to the discourse of political forests at each conjuncture of a particular historical development. Through this analysis, this dissertation argues that the ethnic conflicts in CHT are rooted in the policies and practices of political forests, in particular industrialization of forest resources that resulted in the dispossession and marginalization of hill peoples. However, the persistence of the conflict is primarily due to counter-insurgency developments, especially ‘social forestry.’ The dissertation illustrates how hill peoples’ political opposition to the state and forestry programs through insurgency and alternative development have, in fact, helped to create and expand political forests. While many scholars write accurately but too generally about the land issue as the crux of the prolem ethnic conflict and insurgecy in CHT, this dissertation explains not just that land is problem, but why and how land is problem. In sum, this dissertation contributes to the rich scholarship in South Asian historical political ecology, with a focus on Bangladesh and the emerging field ‘Zomia Studies.’ The dissertation aims to deepen our understanding of the relations between violence, forests and development in CHT and addresses the absence of ethnographic research on ethnic conflict in the CHT in general, and on issues of its forests and lands in particular in Bangladesh.