Sirajul Hossain

Photographer & Naturalist

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The Proposed Wildlife Act – A proposition of legitimate rubberstamping

Posted by sirajul on December 17, 2011

Text and Photographs By:  Sirajul Hossain

[Shorter version of this article was published in the Daily Star:
The proposed Wildlife Act: Anomalies persist
on 17th November, 2011.
Link: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=210678 ]
 

The government of Bangladesh is formulating a new set of laws for the protection of wildlife in the country named the Wildlife (Protection) Act 2011, which is a follow up of Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973. A workshop organized to discuss about the improvement of the existing law held in Bangladesh Forest Department on 30th April 2008. Unlike the common practice in Bangladesh, as participants we were delighted seeing the broad participation of various government authorities and interested bodies and friends of the wildlife of Bangladesh. From their numerous inputs, we hoped for a diverse and effective legislation will be forwarded. But ironically we are seeing in the draft that most of the propositions have not been incorporated and all our participations used as eyewash. A monopolized authority has been structured and very vague and undefined committees have been proposed which can be formed by the personal choice of any secretary or minister to rubberstamp a partisan, biased or erroneous decision. It is unclear that this hijack has been done by the ministry or by someone interested in the Forest Department itself with their limited idea on the broadness of the issue.

Forming a suitable and efficient law regarding wildlife is challenging in any country where human pressure is so high. Our perception regarding wildlife is changing so rapidly in recent years which are very rare in any other sector of human planning and legitimacy. A decade ago forest was seen only as government’s source of revenue and the wildlife there was seen as sport hunting games. A century ago forest and its wildlife was seen as a threat and danger to human habitation. Now we see all those as national treasure and protection as a prime concern. These quick turn of ideas creates enormous misunderstanding and confutation which may interrupt traditional livelihood for the people who live close to the natural landscape.

Any law carries a philosophy behind it. The Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973 is actually some modification of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 of India, which is actually a package of legislation enacted in 1972 by the Government of India. All are a follow up of the British rules of protecting forests from the colonial age. The philosophy still persists in the proposed act which is going to the parliament for legislation where the sublime agenda of its formulators are still the same as its predecessors to protect everything from the people for the queen.

The proposed wildlife act is an ill motivated package to take in control of the paradigm of the wildlife of Bangladesh by the government in an omnipotent fashion. The proposed act is formulated in such a subtle way, that one man’s decision can control the mechanism and that one man, the chief of the Forest Department has been empirically proven powerless in the practice of governing and decision making freely. That one man always became the puppet of the forest secretary or the minister who can be politically motivated and in most cases with corrupt intention.

A good law must be something that is formulated in such a way that the present and the foreseen practice of manipulation do not pierce it. And at the same time people’s practicing life do not get hampered in a large extent if enacted. The proposed act has been engineered just to do the opposite, if enacted as it is. Any wrongdoing can be Okayed by the mechanism prescribed bypassing the people’s right in critical issues and it can also disrupt many law abiding people’s daily life of those who are living in and around our wilderness.

The goal for the proposed act is to protect wildlife of Bangladesh. But how do we know that what is to be done to protect the wildlife of Bangladesh? Protecting wildlife is a very complex issue which incorporates many law and order, scientific and technical and social and policy issues including economy and finance. The law not only should focus on the protection of the species but as well as protecting the habitat of the species which are often shared with the human habitation all over the country. We have to understand that wildlife and its habitat is such a treasure of a country which is in most cases non- retrievable, that means if we lose them once, it is nearly impossible to get them back again.

The biggest flaw of this proposed act is that it is structured in a pyramid structure where the Chief Wildlife Warden knows everything and decides everything what to do. Of course he may get advice from the Scientific Committee and the Wildlife Advisory Board can suggest him but the committee and the board are fairly scientific and technical management commissions and the members of these committees are not defined in the proposed law. None of these committees suggested any members having such powerful and decision making significance that their position and action can be respected by all to save our wildlife. From the practice of our government and the ministry we know that this is the root of all wrong practices and manipulation. According to the proposed act the Chief wildlife warden is actually the existing Chief Conservator of Forest. Empirically we also know that it is a spineless ‘Yes Sir’ post which actually carries order from the Forest and Environment secretary or the minister. The fear is, the members of those board and committee will also be selected from some ‘yes sir’ experts and ‘friends’ of the ministry and the Forest Department to ratify all they want.

But wildlife laws are for the rights of the wildlife and we have to formulate it in such a way that even if the government one day wish to violate that right – that also become impossible. If we see the structure of the laws of the other countries, we see that ‘what to do’ to protect the wildlife is formulated by a wide range of powerful members from various government and non government organization forming a national body. To avoid the personal preference and the political influence, those committee members are mostly institutional heads. We have to be aware that the government itself can try to do something which can threat wildlife or its habitat for its own interest like mining or military necessity which also should be prevented by the law from the beginning.

Our experience shows, as the proposed pyramid structure, if the Chief Wildlife Warden decides or suggests some action to be taken for the sake of protecting or helping wildlife of the country. If that decision is not pre-ratified by the other involved government departments, or not justified by the non government or individual experts of various discipline, it will be very difficult for him to peruse and execute that error free into reality. As an example, if we see the wildlife act of India [The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, with The Amendment, 2002, http://westbengalforest.gov.in/pdf/the_wildlife_p_act_1972.pdf%5D where the top decision maker of ‘what to do’ to protect wildlife is actually comes from the suggestion and planning from a high power board called “National Board for Wildlife” headed by the Prime Minister as chairperson. The other members are; The Minister, Forests and Wildlife; three members of Parliament; Member Planning Commission; Five persons to represent NGOs; Ten persons to be nominated by the Government from amongst eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists; Secretary, Forests and Wildlife; Chief of the army staff; Secretary of Defense; Secretary of Information and Broadcasting; Secretary, Finance; Secretary, Tribal Welfare; Chief of The Department of Forest; Chief of Department of Tourism;  Director-General, Forestry Research; Director, Wildlife Institute of India; Director, Zoological Survey of India; Director, Botanical Survey of India;  Director, Indian Veterinary Research Institute; Member-Secretary, Central Zoo Authority; Director, National Institute of Oceanography, and so on. All the members are defined in the order and this body should meet twice a year and formulate the policy and harmonize it with other issues and will submit written recommendation for the necessary task.

The above wide and powerful body suggests and approves the necessary best possible actions for the protection and wellbeing of the wildlife to the government and the Chief wildlife Warden is to execute the approved tasks. It is noticeable that most of the above board members cannot be selected by anybody or any department on personal choice, instead most are institutional heads which is a process to nullify personal influence and political manipulation. If the advice and suggestions and orders do not come from a wide bodied national board including the participation of the Prime minister and the finance department, no advice from the sole proposition from wildlife department neither will be seriously heard nor will get any finance to execute.

The proposed Wildlife Act is seriously flawed in this respect as the provision is there also to form committees by gazette notification of which one is a Scientific Committee and another is Wildlife Advisory board. But the task for both the committee is vaguely defined and mostly its task will be to advise and approve the proposal and reports prepared by the Chief Wildlife Warden. The biggest flaw and weakness is that the members of these committees are not defined. That means, the relevant government authority may select members who are in favor of them, and very likely favoring the political influence of the ruling party. Practically the committees will be the rubberstamp of the Chief Wildlife Warden or the minister himself. For the sake of wildlife, to avoid all the malpractice, all these committees should be predefined in the law and to be formed from the head of the institutions. This institutionalization will reduce the chance of politicizing the system.

In most of our wildlife habitats, people live in and around and share the place with wildlife. From hundreds of years people from the small ethnic groups are living in and around the national parks and protected areas in Bangladesh. In the proposed act new rules has been suggested for the protected areas for the forest harvesting, trespassing or in many cases the punishment has been increased for the violators. The laws did not define how it will deal with the people living inside the national parks and it totally ignored the issue of the small ethnic groups who are living in and around the protected areas. This deliberate omitting of the issue will create serious clash with the daily life and the law and the wildlife management either will be troublesome for a legitimate government official. Or it will strengthen the evil hand of an ill-motivated one to threaten the members of the small ethnic groups living there. So, how the act will deal with the small ethnic groups and other human settlers who are living in and close to the protected areas should be clearly defined.

The proposed act also legitimizes the co-management practice in the protected areas. Already we have experiences some pilot projects of co-management in some protected areas of Bangladesh. Until the co-management areas were under close and effective monitoring of the project, in average it was showing some good impact. But as well as the close monitoring of the project stopped, or the control and association from the central project office loosened, immediately the co-management mechanism has been politicized by the local influential body or the local MP. This will seriously hamper the government’s own activity of forest management as well as the local goons will get a legitimate hold to the forest and the wildlife there. To avoid this politicizing malpractice, a carefully thought, institutionalized (members selected from the local institution heads) co-management structure should be pre-defined in the law.

It is very fortunate that we are living in a very precious biodiversity hotspot of the planet. After all our mismanagement and malpractice, still our Sundarban is getting the pride of the biggest single natural tiger population in the world. Our Lawachara National Park is one of the finest forests with wide variety of biodiversity still thriving. If all these we can save and develop, we can get much of our golden heritage of wildlife back. To make conservation effective and to control the destruction of the wildlife and its habitat, I strongly suggest to revise the proposed act with a stronger conservation philosophy in the background and to make laws for the sake of true wellbeing of the wildlife of Bangladesh. I also strongly suggest forming a National Board of Wildlife to make the measures wise and effective.

Sirajul Hossain

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Nature: From Sacred to Profane

Posted by sirajul on May 9, 2011


Collecting Honey in Sundarban                                                                   Text and Photo © Sirajul Hossain

Text and Photographs By:  Sirajul Hossain

Whenever I go to Sundarban in the honey harvesting season, I like to hear the stories of life of the Mouals (honey hunters), stories they tell from their heart and with utter seriousness. They speak about their joy, fear, frustration and their apprehension of life. They speak with such a sublime gentle acceptance of loss and disasters like their son’s death by a man eating tiger or loss of a younger brother in last cyclone that I sometime wonder where actually they find this much altruism and sensibleness.

When Maxim Gorkey was in exile in Italy, he wrote some stories about the people of the island of Capri where fishermen at those times were always living with the danger of the sea. He wrote, these people, who are living with the danger of life every day, they are the finest people and they are wise men like philosophers. Whenever I speak with the honey hunters of Sundarban, I enjoyed their intellectual company and they reminded me of Gorky’s stories.

I was always enchanted and wondered by the glimpses of their wisdom, their ability to sacrifice with calmness and their acceptability of the inevitable, their respect to the elders and their love to their spouses and families. On the contrary I was always puzzled and confused by their super spiritual mentality and blind faith on many things. Their endless faith in good and bad spirits, believe in Bonbibi and other myths, believe in rituals and the spells of the Gunin and Ozha over modern practice equally puzzled me. It was always difficult for me to conceive the existence of their wisdom and dogma in a single brain.

I did not find these people very religious per se, did not also find much difference between the Hindus and the Muslims in the scale of their spirituality and lifestyle in that sense. I also never could convince myself that living in fear of death all the time, these people became too afraid of death and that’s why they fear God more than many other. It was not easy for me to rationalize their extreme spiritual thoughts and activity. But one vivid personal experience helped me to put some light on it for me.

Hard life but with a smile                                                                                    © Sirajul Hossain

It was in the beginning of April and like every year several hundred honey hunters gathered in front of the Burigoalini forest office with their boat. At around 10am, the forester fired his rifle and kicked off that year’s honey season. About hundred boats immediately started a fascinating race where all the boatmen participated in a very festive mood. They all came far from home finishing their domestic rituals ensuring their spiritual safeguards after taking blessing and goodbye from their families and loved ones. Although, it was known that some of them will not return back alive, either will be taken by the man-eating tigers or will be killed by snakebites. In their festivity I also joined. I took many photographs of their enthusiastic race and a group of honey hunters agreed to take me with them inside the forest where they search the trees one by one for the beehives. That is the most tedious and dangerous part because mangrove is not at all suitable for hiking. Sticky mud is often up to the knee, we need to cross countless number of canals, sometime walking, sometime swimming and when you walk on the hard soil – it is full of mangrove pneumatophores and thorny bushes all around.

In the morning of the second day I met my group again and they were preparing their journey for honey. They took all their necessary things and of course – the most important is a couple of boxes of matchsticks. The only tool they need is machete to cut some special herbs with which they make several torches mixing some green leaves with dry ones which produce a lot of smoke when lighted. I joined with them with an excited mood and followed them hives to hives till the afternoon. It was frustratingly tedious sometimes but I got some great pictures and was quite happy with that. It will be untrue if I say that the fear in the back of my mind was not there that I might be one of them who will not come back this year from the forest alive. But that fear was never in the foreground and I had the believe that if I am not lost – which was not impossible because I was always slow compared to my team mates and my camera equipments were making me even slower – I will be safe with them.

A Bonbibi Shrine                                                                                                  © Sirajul Hossain

But without any incident we came back from the forest in the afternoon and I was roaming around the forest office premises in the late afternoon to get some close shots of some common birds doing their final foraging for the day. When the sun was setting, I saw a pair of boat was coming towards the forest station, the guy on the boat was shouting loudly calling the forest personals. I was curious and went close to the boat and at the same time the forester also arrived. The man on the boat said his brother went to the jungle last morning and was taken by the tiger. They searched for him the whole day and found the body in the afternoon. He removed the blue polyethylene cover and showed us the body. The beard man in his late forties lying there lifeless, no injury in the upper body except the broken neck but the bottom part from the abdomen was missing. Two legs, mostly bones folded unnaturally were kept with the body aside. The event was so shocking and horrifying to me, because in the same jungle where I was photographing delightfully, a tiger was eating this man very close. The enchanting, glorious, colorful, photogenic jungle suddenly showed me a very sad, heavy, realistic face where apparently my reasoning to go there became the biggest joke in the world. The artist I floating in the world of colors and shades and beauty suddenly landed in the hard soil of the dangerous tiger mangrove.

We had plans that we will go to the forest for the beehives again next morning. That night was a heavy night for me. When I think of them, I still cannot forget the half eaten dead body and face of the man who rescued the brother. Then it was my time for reasoning, why I am here. Why should I go to the forest next morning, is it just for some colorful photograph of bees, birds and beehives? I had no answer.

The devastated man with the half eaten body of his brother                                   © Sirajul Hossain

Next morning, when I again saw those people, came with the same determination and spirit as the day before, to raid the jungle again – I had no hesitation any more to go with them. I felt no fear. Instead I felt a different intrigue to go with these fellow men again. I wanted to see, conceive, and understand more of them and their life by participating with them through this journey together in this dangerous jungle. From then I became more interested to know about the spirits of the jungle, which binds all of us together – me with the honey hunters, the honey hunters with the bees, the bees with the flowers, the flowers with the trees, the trees with the tigers, the tigers with the trees, the trees with the rivers and the rivers with the ocean, and it goes on. That night I became attached to those people somewhere.

It was soon clear to me that spirituality engulfed religion here and people formed a sphere of sacred universe where all the earthy being are connected together by the spirit and all has a divine purpose for their existence. In this universe, ‘Bada’, the forest, became a sacred place, just like the arena of a temple and everybody and everything related to the forest including themselves has a spiritual role to play for good. But the interesting thing is, the ultimate goal of this spirituality is not to please some supernatural somewhere – it is for the virtuous sustainability of the sacred – the forest with all its spirits. Somehow they know in their subconscious, that if this integrity is broken – all will collapse.

Holy dip in Dubla island                                                                                       © Sirajul Hossain

As Bangladesh and the entire sub-continent were almost full of jungle and wild animals from the beginning of the history, our people were also quite spiritual in that sense. Any society which evolved close to nature, showed this spirituality all over the world. And in the religions and culture evolved in those regions, Nature always remained intertwined with the spirituality and the Divine. In the valleys of Ganges and Brahmaputra, two great religions evolved: Hinduism and Buddhism. An expert in mythology, Joseph Campbell says, these are ‘nature religions’. If we look carefully we may see, in all these nature religions those originating in the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan (Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism) all regard nature with a critical aspect of the Divine and that should accordingly be treated with reverence. On the contrary, the relationship of the three monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) with nature has been absent or neglected.

It was said in the Bible very clearly:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
[Genesis 1:28]

Similarly Islam also placed man on a very similar anthropocentric throne above all the earthy creatures. The three main monotheistic religions were born in a place which was surrounded by stones and deserts. At that time animals were also there, but almost all were domestic or used for human purpose. The human controlled life of those animals and the role of man on them as the master probably was the reason for this idea of extreme supremacy of human over animal. This also motivated them to see animals as human necessities. All these cultural aspects reflected in those religions which born in the deserts of Israel.

A Fisherman collecting his net supporting sticks in Sundarban                               © Sirajul Hossain

Campbell argues another very important idea which is the anti-life, anti-nature mindset that the monotheism produces. In most of the nature religions and cultures the serpent is the symbol of life, whereas in the Abraham’s monotheism the serpent is the Satan, the evil. Campbell says, the power of life causes the snake to shed its skin, just as the moon sheds its shadow. That’s an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent represents as a symbol of the immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. There is something tremendously terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination and the terror of life together.

He says, the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the mythological Serpent King is the next thing to the Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow — the falling skin. The serpent was revered in the American Indian traditions, too.

Then he says, that amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.

Campbell says, However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature

Now, here the interesting fact is, when the myth, the culture and the spirituality are profound, established and practiced in favor of Nature from the ages in a community, I think religion really cannot be so big factor which really can change people’s psyche and behavior with the nature. That is what we see in the honey hunters in Sundarban that the jungle is sacred to both similarly, to the Hindus and Muslims. But the people who already lost their myths and spiritual lifestyle and the connection with nature and sanctified universe, supernatural ideology alienated from nature can really takeover the whole empty space. As Campbell said “The idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy.”

So to conserve nature, to protect the biodiversity and all life-form around us, we have to preserve the traditional people that they can live with their ancient myths, culture and spiritual lifestyle. Especially of those who are living with the close proximity with nature. Instead if we invite people from other places with no spiritual sense or who are supernatural beyond nature will soon destroy all, which we are doing already in many places. And if we fail to protect the traditional people of the forest, to whom the jungle was like a temple, nature was sacred will become profane very soon.

Unedited Version.
Published in: Nature Quest June-August 2010

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