Sylhet
Stone mills in Sylhet

Sylhet

Khasi people, Peying River, 16.02.2020
From India flows a river into northern Bangladesh, which is called Peyign / Goyain . Before that, the river is called Om. One of the features of this river was that it was divided just behind the border and two riverbeds emerged from it. One of the riverbeds is the Dawki and faces west, the other riverbed is called the Peyign and faces east. Since the 1980s, the riverbed of the Dawki has dried up, and only runs full during the rainy season. As a river Dawki is no longer a lifeline for its inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the riverbed of the Peyign is used as a donor of river sand and river stones and is transported halfway across the country as building material. Before river stones can be used as building material, however, they are ground by machines, which cause a high level of dust pollution in the entire area. River sand is a very popular filling material for building foundations so that buildings are safe against the water masses in the rainy seasons.

The Khasi people live at the fork of the Dawki and Peyign rivers and are traditional forest users and burners in the area. The Khasi live in villages scattered in the forests and mainly cultivate betel nut palms and betel leaves, which also have a ritual significance for them. Forest is a dwindling resource in Bangladesh. Therefore, the area for slash-and-burn agriculture, the usual way of farming for many national minorities, is also becoming smaller and smaller.
This leads to shorter and shorter resting periods for agricultural land. These are all within a certain migration radius of the Khasi.
Decades ago, more land was available for slash-and-burn agriculture and rest periods of 8 to 10 years for arable land were common. This has shortened to two to three years due to population pressure, leading to a reduction in the fertility of the soil.
As a result, people are losing their livelihoods and ancestral ways of life have to be abandoned.

Khasi houses resting on pillars, Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020


The Khasi live in villages scattered in the forests and build houses on stilts to protect themselves against the water masses during the rainy season. The floor of these houses is made of bamboo slats, which are obtained when large bamboo trunks are split. A slightly corrugated subfloor is created.
Most Khasi groups are now settled in villages where neighbours no longer share their daily routine but pursue diverse occupations, some as employees in the construction industry or as workers in other occupations. Those who farm now produce betel nut and betel nut leaves in gardens that have become the private property of individual families. The community structure is breaking down, leading to social differences within the Khasi villages. They are losing their commonalities and thus their culture.

Tea gardens in Sylhet, Jafflong valley. Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020

In order to stop the overexploitation of the riverbeds for the construction industry, the region was designated an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) in 2015. However, nothing has happened so far. However, since the famous tea gardens of Sylhet are also located in the area and they also see themselves affected by the dust input, headwind can perhaps be expected from these financially very powerful tea garden owners.


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