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Politics over Resource and Environmental Degradation in Chittagong Hill Tracts
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Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) has been used as a means to extract resources for the hegemonic state power. In the British colonial period, CHT used to enjoy greater autonomy. This autonomy was curtailed with the partition of 1947 when CHT became part of East Pakistan. Rather than cooperating with natives of this hill region, the Pakistani government used it as a source of resource extraction. After 1971, the approach of the government towards the people of CHT had not yet changed. Though the CHT Peace Accord brought a formal end to insurgency, there is no end to environmental degradation in the region. Through the lens of realism, this paper explains how state hegemony has dominated resource extraction in CHT. While it is true that resource extraction and infrastructure development are necessary measures for the betterment of the people of CHT, it is also true that these development schemes come at a great environmental cost.


How many monarchs have become climate refugees? Raja Tridiv Roy, former Chakma circle chief of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), became climate-displaced in the early 1960s after the Kaptai Dam was built. It was a man-made cause that not only displaced the monarch, but also displaced around 100,000 people.[1] While CHT enjoyed autonomy during the British colonial period, it was carved up in the Pakistan era and seen as a means to extract natural resources. After the formation of Bangladesh, the approach towards CHT was not changed. Rather, the indigenous people in CHT had to fight for recognition. As a result, along with loss of lives, demographic changes were compounded by environmental degradation.

Chittagong Hill Tracts comprises three hill districts of Bangladesh: Rangamati, Bandarban, and Khagrachari. This paper is focused on the environmental politics of Chittagong Hill Tract and aims to show how CHT has been targeted over time to extract natural resources that caused environmental degradation and suffering of people. The paper will explain this through the lens of environmental politics. The paper mostly focuses on the Bangladesh period where the bulk of environmental changes were caused by governmental policy.

The paper is divided into five parts. First comes the introductory part where primary discussion of the paper and the outline are discussed. Second comes the theoretical framework. As politics of resource extraction are best explained through realism, the second part will discuss realism from an environmental perspective. Third, in the main context of the paper, environmental exploitation of Chittagong Hill Tract will be discussed. Fourth, the paper will explain environmental exploitation through the lens of realism. Finally, the conclusion will summarize the paper concisely.

Realism, Power, Resources, and Environment

Realism is a theory that defines politics in terms of “power” or as the “science of power politics.”[2] Realism believes in the centrality of the states. Realists emphasize the fact that states are the prime actors and the centers of power in world politics.[3] The earliest root of Realism is found in a book written by Thucydides in 431 BC.

Classical Realism, the oldest version of Realism, focuses on human nature, conflict, national security, protecting national interest, and most importantly, power.[4] Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau are the most cited advocates of classical realism.

After WWII, the basic assumption of classical realism as “centrality of the state” was challenged due to the increase of the dependency and role of non-state actors like the UN. Moreover, the concept of complex interdependence proposed by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye challenged the basic assumptions of realism.[5] In response to the neoliberalists, Kenneth Waltz brought a reformed version of realism, called structural realism or neorealism. Neorealism’s core focus areas are the international system, anarchy, and the distribution of power. According to Waltz, unit-level or state-level analysis cannot explain the states’ behavior; rather, it should focus on the system.[6]

The discussion above concludes that realism is a theory of high politics, while the environment is a low-level political issue. It is also claimed that realism is not a suitable theory to explain global environmental politics.[7] Certainly realism fails to explain cooperation among states and the functionality of the environmental regime, but it best explains politics of power and anarchy over natural resources.

Nature is an important aspect of national power. From nature, important resources like precious metals, stones, coal, fossil fuel, and wood are extracted. These resources transform into economic power of the state. Even this economic power can be transformed into, what Nye calls, hard power.[8]

Resources are an important aspect for realism. The powerful extract resources from their subordinates. Hegemonic stability theory argues that the environment can be protected under a hegemonic power.[9] In practice, there is no environmental hegemon. Rather, the hegemonic power extracts resources in the anarchic system. For example, the colonialists took over land in Africa and Asia and extracted whatever resource they could.

Apart from resources and power, realism explains environmental conflict. Homer-Dixon illustrates that environmental conflict can arise from environmental degradation.[10] In the same manner, Kaplan argues that future resources will be so scarce that there will be instability and conflict over them. Kaplan calls it “coming anarchy.”[11] Though there is no pure example of environmental conflict, it works as a “threat multiplier.”[12]

In sum, from an environmental perspective, realism explain three issues. First, the powerful extract resources from the weak in an anarchic system. The resources are used to attain the hegemonic class’s power ambition. Second, conflict can arise (or become a threat multiplier) from environmental issues, especially related to land. Finally, although the environment was considered a low-level political issue in the past, concerns such as climate displacement, human security, food security, and environmental conflict have made it clear that the environment is related to high political issues, which require proper attention.

Chittagong Hill Tract: Nature and Environment at Risk

Chittagong Hill Tract enjoyed regional autonomy in British colonial times, with a legal framework outlined in the CHT Manual 1900. When the partition took place, CHT became part of East Pakistan. Cultural or religious affinity was not the driving force behind the CHT becoming part of East Pakistan; rather, it was attached to East Pakistan to provide a buffer area for the Chittagong port from India and Myanmar.[13]

During the Pakistan period, the Pakistani government took away the autonomy and indigenous police within CHT. At this time, two big projects of the Pakistani government degraded the environment the most. The first was the Chandraghona Paper Mill (1953), which was established there due to the availability of cheap raw material from the forests of CHT. Second, the Kaptai Dam was built to produce electricity. Though it produced electricity for the countrymen, it also displaced many. Around 100,000 people, along with the former Chakma king, became climate-displaced, and 54,000 acres of land were submerged.[14]

During the late 1970s, PCJSS (Parbatya Chottogram Jana Samhati Samiti) formed its own guerilla force aimed at attaining recognition and autonomy. As a result, the then military government took coercive measures to neutralize this force. This had two sets of impact. First, a huge military installment was created in CHT. During the 1980s, the indigenous people to soldier ration in CHT was 6:1.[15] Many of these temporary and permanent camps still exist.

Second, as a part of neutralizing these guerilla forces, the military government started to settle Bengali in CHT by amending Rule 34(1) of the Chittagong Hill Tract Regulation Act.[16] Around 400,000 Bengali were settled during the 1970s to 1980s.[17] This caused a huge demographic shift. According to the 1991 census, 48.57% of people in CHT were Bengali.[18] When the Peace Accord (1997) was signed, PCJSS demanded to resettle these Bengali settlers outside of CHT.

Chittagong Hill Tract is known for its magnificent natural beauty and bio-diversity. But since the 1980s, deforestation of CHT took place[19] for resource extraction. Over time, the government took several measures to stop it.

The most popular way of protecting the forest, in the government’s view, is creating a reserve forest. Any deforestation inside the reserve is forbidden. About 24% of the region (322,331 hectares) is reserved forest.[20] But due to resettlement of hill people during 1970s and 1980s, many were settled in the Reinkhyong, Kassalong, and Southern Matamohuri-Sangu reserves.[21] While any deforestation is forbidden in the reserve forest, many hill people had to disobey this order to earn their livelihood in Jhum cultivation. Many even faced trial or punishment, or were killed by forest guards.[22]

A second category of forest was created in 1962 called protected forest. The creation of this forest was inspired by the British technique of planted forest or commercial plantation. Protected forest is created to produce commercial resources that can be used for industrialization. It is held responsible for destroying flora and fauna in the area.

The indigenous people’s land named village common forest belongs to the unclassified state forest.[23] The indigenous people do not have any legal documents on this land, neither do they hold personal claim over the village common forest. Rather, they share the area and take resources on an as-needed basis. Since they do not have legal documents, there were many cases where Jhum land was taken away by the powerful hegemonic class.

Military has a big impact in Chittagong Hill Tract’s policy-making. There are still large military installments in CHT due to securitizing the issue of national defense and terrorism. In recent years, the military has introduced itself into the development of CHT. Mostly, the Army Engineering Corps is assigned to build roads.

State Hegemony and the Nature of CHT: Theoretical Implication

Chittagong Hill Tract has always been given less priority in Bangladesh. When Bangladesh was formed, it focused on building a nation state disowning the ethnic identity of the indigenous people of CHT. The nation building process of Bangladesh kept these people as a “subordinate class.”[24] The state’s hegemony over the CHT is reflected in the political and economic sector. This paper will leave out the political part of state hegemony. Rather, it will discuss state hegemony in terms of economy and environment.

The discussion from the previous section suggests that there are four themes in the context of resource politics of CHT. First, the Pakistani government removed the autonomy enjoyed by CHT during the British period. Rather, the indigenous people of CHT became more marginalized than Bengalis. Two big projects of developing East Pakistan, the Chandraghona Paper Mill and the Kaptai Dam, were created for the purpose of development of the state. But this came at the expense of the environment. The Pakistani government created the protected forest, where 24,000 acres of land were used to produce softwood as raw material for the paper mill.[25] Also, as mentioned earlier, the Kaptai Dam displaced thousands of people, while many villages of CHT still have no electricity.

Second, the colonial approach of the Pakistani government continued after the formation of Bangladesh as well. Despite denying indigenous identity and autonomy, the government settled Bengalis in CHT, amending paragraph 38(1) of the 1900 Manual.[26] In 1980, the government allocated 60 million Taka to settle 3,000 landless Bengali families, providing each family with three acres of government owned ‘Khas’ land.[27] This settlement was created to divide and weaken the unity of indigenous people so that the government could rule over them effectively. There are several events where Bengali-indigenous conflict emerged due to land issues. On April 10, 1992, a few hundred indigenous people were killed and 550 houses were burned by Bengali settlers with the support of law enforcement agencies.[28] In the same manner, in June 2017, communal violence took place among Bengali and CHT people where indigenous people suffered most.[29] Many Bengali settlers tried to create plain land in the hilly region, which was seen as the cause of a landslide in CHT.[30] Due to resettlements of indigenous people, many villages were settled inside reserve forest areas where any natural resource extraction is illegal. Moreover, they were not provided the necessary village common forest for essential resources and Jhum cultivation. In many cases, women are the main victims as they are responsible for managing firewood for cooking.[31]

Third, the government uses elements of control to suppress indigenous people. The past experience of CHT guerillas is still a matter of concern. In three districts of CHT, no indigenous people have been appointed as DC, SP or brigade commander of cantonments. The suspicion is that a powerful administrative position held by an indigenous community member might work against the integration of Bangladesh. Securitizing this issue helps the government to keep indigenous people subordinated.

Finally, after the Peace Accord in 1997, the necessity for the military in CHT has reduced. Many temporary camps have been withdrawn from CHT over time. But there are still huge military installments in three districts of CHT. In recent times, the military has entered into the economic area of CHT, which is not the sole purpose of military. The military has been awarded several road construction projects. Thanchi to Alikadam road, the highest road in Bangladesh, was constructed by the Bangladesh army in 2015.[32] In 2018, the army was awarded the construction of a 317 km road in the hilly region of Naikhanchori and Barkal.[33] In addition, the military also controls famous tourist spots like Nilgiri and Sajek. Economic activities work as a rationale to keep large military instalments in CHT.


The discussion above suggests that CHT has long been used as a means to extract resources from period to period. The rationale behind this was economic development. But the outcome of this development is mostly enjoyed by the hegemonic class, not the indigenous people.

In recent years, there are several NGOs (local and international) and government agencies that have taken steps to protect the nature and environment of CHT. These organizations are yet to form an effective regime.

Masrur Mahmud Khan is pursuing his masters in International Relations at Bangladesh University of Professionals

[1] Roy, R. (2002). Land and forest rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Talking Points, 4(02).

[2] Sutch, P. and Elias, J. (2007). International Relations: The Basics. Routledge. p. 42.

[3] Ibid. p. 43.

[4]Korab-Karpowicz, J. (2018). Political Realism in International Relations. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/realism-intl-relations/#Neo.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harris, P., ed. (2013). Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics. Routledge.

[8] Nye, J. (2006). Think Again: Soft Power. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2006/02/23/think-again-soft-power/.

[9] Harris, Op. cit.

[10] Harris. Op. cit.

[11] Kaplan, R.D. (1994). The Coming Anarchy. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/02/the-coming-anarchy/304670/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Van Schendel, W. (2009). A history of Bangladesh. Cambridge University Press.

[14] Gain, P. (2000). The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Life and Nature at Risk. Dhaka: Society for Environment and Human Development (SHED).

[15] Ahsan, S. and Chakma, B. (1989). Problems of national integration in Bangladesh: The Chittagong Hill Tracts. Asian Survey, 2(10), 959-970.

[16] Roy, Op. cit.

[17] Chakma, Op. cit.

[18] Gain, Op. cit.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Roy, Op. cit.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Roy, Op. cit.

[25] Chowdhury, K. (2008). Politics of Identities and Resources in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: Ethnonationalism and Indigenous Identity. Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(1), 57-78.

[26] Gain, Op. cit.

[27] Chowdhury, Op. cit.

[28] Gain, Op. cit.

[29] Roy, Op. cit.

[30] Chowdhury, Op. cit.

[31] Dhali, H. (2008). Deforestation and Its Impacts on Indigenous Women: A Case from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Gender, Technology and Development, 12(2), 229-246.

[32] BDnews24. (2015). Prime Minister Inaugurates Bangladesh’s ‘Highest Road’ In Bandarban. https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2015/07/14/prime-minister-inaugurates-bangladeshs-highest-road-in-bandarban.

[33] Dhaka Tribune. (2018). Construction Of 317Km Roads Along Hilly Frontiers Approved. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/development/2018/03/20/construction-317km-roads-along-hilly-frontiers-approved.

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