Page last updated at 06:16 GMT, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Bangladeshi villagers help themselves to Indian wood

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News, Bangladesh-India border

Bangladeshi woodcutters
The villagers have no scruples about collecting Indian wood

The thorny question of properly demarcating the maritime and land borders between India and Bangladesh has been highlighted during Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's first official visit to India.

One of the legacies of the hasty exit of the British from India in 1947 is the fact that the boundary has never been properly marked out.

It is still possible to find houses which straddle the border.

But in recent years India has made clear that its desire to demarcate the boundary is a top priority - and it is currently in the process of building a huge fence which it says is to stop illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Delhi says that it is further committed to improving cross-border security following the deadly Mumbai (Bombay) bombings of November 2008.

But it is not easy to prevent cross-border infiltration - as villagers of the remote northern Bangladeshi village of Sumanchura prove on a daily basis.

Fence on the India-Bangladesh border
India has yet to complete the border fence

The village, directly north of Dhaka and bordering the Indian state of Meghalaya, has for years seen the forests surrounding it denuded.

So villagers have found a new way of gathering valuable wood. They go across the border into India and cut down wood there.

But it is a risky exercise, as the area is regularly patrolled by Indian border guards and in places now has a huge barbed wire security fence.

"We have no other means of earning a living," says villager Abdul Razaq who daily goes to India to collect wood.

He sells the wood on and earns about 100-150 taka ($2) a day from his regular incursions.

"If we are seen by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) we risk being arrested at best or in the worst case could even find ourselves being shot at."

Huge fence

Villagers say that the BSF is much more eager to stop such incursions following the Mumbai attacks in which militants took advantage of lax security around the Indian financial capital.


The Indian government is currently in the process of building its huge fence across the entire length of the 4,000km (2,485-mile) border which separates the two countries.

The fence is primarily being erected to stop illegal migration from Bangladesh to India. In many places it has yet to be completed - and even where it has been constructed it lies behind a stretch of "no man's land" which is supposed to be out of bounds to Bangladeshi nationals.

Because the Bangladesh part of the border has been de-forested over the past 30 years, villagers like Mr Razaq have nowhere other than India to find wood.

Bangladesh conservationist Enam Ul-Haque says that the incursions by villagers into India is a widespread problem caused by years of neglect on the part of successive Bangladeshi governments.

"This land was totally forested 50 years ago. But it was cut down by greedy speculators and left barren. Over the last five to 10 years it has been replanted - with the best of intentions - with gum and acacia trees.

"But there are no insects or animals here because these trees are not native to Bangladesh and do not grow well.

"This area is in effect a green desert because there is no wood for local people who have no choice but to go to India."

Mr Razaq accepts that his actions are not helping forestry conservation efforts.

"But it cuts both ways," he says, "because I have to balance that against the need to feed my family."

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