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Im Wald der Shantal

The Santal as users of the forest

Today we went on two motorbikes a huge distance of about 50 kilometres into one of the few remaining pieces of forest in the northwest of Bangladesh.This is where the Santal people live, who have already been introduced as traditional users of the forest.

A huge bamboo garden in the north of the country, Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020

The forest where they have their settlements used to be used by them for hunting animals. There used to be tigers and wild boars, hares and tortoises. Now only a few rodents are left. The forest, on the other hand is getting smaller and smaller, although it is a protected area closed by the state for use by the Santal and other residents. Now they take leaves from the trees in big bags out of the forest and use them as fuel. Many trees are home to termites that infest the trees and slowly process them for their own purposes. The Santal Basically, everything has changed in the forest in recent years. In the past, there was no theft here, but today, trees are being illegally felled again and again, even though the law imposes heavy penalties. The Santal can do anything against these professional thieves. If they were to tackle them, they would soon pay with their lives. Rangers are responsible for keeping order in the forest, and they have set up several stations in the forest to protect it from robbery.

The Santal live here in the forest in three villages, about a hundred households, and they all own land. This distinguishes them from all the other villages we have visited so far in the Saidpur area. Their land holdings have been firmly in their hands since 1947. Earlier this land was owned by a zamindar, a landowner appointed by the British, called Rukini kanto. When the British left and the land was rearranged in an agonising process between the Hindus and Muslims of Pakistan and India, the zamnidar fled the region as a Hindu and signed over his land in full to the Santal, who worked the land for him. This changed everything for them.
They were resettled here since the 19th century by the British in the forests of North Bengal to make arable land out of land here. At that time, all of them were forest farmers in the service of landowners, today they are small landowners and grow rice in their fields. Some of them have migrated to the cities and work in the textile factories of Dhaka. These are mostly children who also send part of their earnings back home.

Land-owning Santal, an exception, in the middle of the forest, Picture: Claudius Günther, 2020

They maintain marriage relations to near and far regions, Dinajpur and Rajshahi. The sons stay in the village, the daughters find families in said areas. Most of the Santals here have remained faithful to their religion, which they call Sunaton. Only a few of them have become Christians.

Previous attempts to use their good position in the region politically failed because of the electoral behaviour of their Santal neighbours. On election days, they are easily bribed by
alcohol on election days and stay away from the polls in a state of intoxication. The last attempt to win political office failed by 8 votes. The Bengalis, who get the Santals drunk, mainly use the alcohol that the Santals brew themselves. One type of alcohol is called haria and is described as tasty and digestible and is made from fermented rice. The other type of alcohol, juvani, is made from fruit and sugar and seems to be something like a fruit brandy.

The Santal grow all kinds of vegetables in their gardens besides rice and maize, and banana planatages are also common. Until two years ago, the Santal could catch fish in nearby Bheel, but this is now prohibited.

The fish are professionally exploited by a tenant of the bheel. The tenant has intervened heavily in the ecosystem and built sandbanks and dams for fish production. fish production. The forest is still used by the Santal as a resource of wild herbs. To take away their forest is to take away their culture. The Santal in the three villages in the national park still have the forest, all the other Santal communities we visited no longer do, with the consequences described.

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