Around 888 occupants of a forest in Balijuri range in Sherpur's Sreebardi upazila are set to be affected by a government drive to reclaim khas land and carry out afforestation.
Forest department officials have already cut down vegetable and tree gardens of a number of families, with those being crucial to many of the families' subsistence.
Sherpur Assistant Forest Conservator Prantosh Roy told TBS, "We have made a list of 888 occupants in Balijuri range. I have government instructions to recover these lands. I am following the instructions.
Meanwhile, the affected families in the Balijuri Christian Para area in Rani Shimul union of the upazila told The Business Standard (TBS) that on 12 August, officials cut down akashmoni tree saplings, plants and other trees, without informing them, let alone consulting with them, causing a loss of about Tk3 lakh for the victims.
There were asparagus beans (barboti) and bitter gourds in the affected gardens and most of that was about to be harvested.
One family complained that about 100 plants have been cut down in their betel gardens, making them concerned about their survival.
Sumon Sangma said, "We have been living here since 1910. We study and work in agriculture. We live in the mountains and our livelihood depends on the mountains. There are conspiracies to evict us from here."
Another victim named Poimoni Garo said, "I produced vegetables worth Tk45,000 in three months [in this place]. How will I run my family now?"
A group of civil society activists from Dhaka and members of an organisation of small ethnic groups visited the site on Monday and Tuesday, when the problem was not resolved despite protests over the past few days, by people belonging to small ethnic groups, especially the Garo.
At the end of their visit, they met with local forest officials, the UNO and deputy commissioner, to address the matter and request financial assistance for the victims.
Forest department said they did what they did for purposes of afforestation by recovering khas land (government-owned land) in accordance with government instructions.
In this regard, Range Officer (Balijuri) Rabiul Islam told TBS that many lands of the forest department are occupied by people in this area. The vegetable fields which have been cut down are on forest lands and they have been repeatedly asked not to cultivate anything there.
In terms of dispropotionately affecting ethic Garo families, Sherpur Assistant Forest Conservator Prantosh Roy, said, "Not only trees in Garo gardens were cut down, but the same steps have been taken in the case of 25 Bengali Muslim and Hindu families to recover land."
He said under the Sustainable Forests and Livelihoods (SUFAL) Project, efforts are being made to improve the living standards of small ethnic groups. However, due to an influential quarter, many Garos have been dropped from the ownership list. The higher authorities are trying to bring everyone under it and take the project forward.
Sreebardi Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Nilufa Akhter told TBS that instructions from the deputy commissioner will be followed.
"We are also working to improve the quality of life for the Garos. Every year, 10 government houses are being built, which I am giving one by one to those families with the most problems," she added.
Asked about Garo allegations, Sherpur Deputy Commissioner Md Mominur Rashid told TBS, "The victims did not inform me before. I am looking into this as soon as I have come to know it. The demands of the Garos have been presented to the government. Further action will be taken as per instructions of the government.
"There is no reason for members of the 65,000 ethnic minorities in Sherpur to panic. Measures will be taken to ensure that no one is left out of the benefits of the SUFAL project. Besides,the Sreebardi UNO has been asked to compensate those affected in Christian para," he added.