Thursday, January 29, 2009
Most of Bangladesh is a massive delta with the huge Padma and Meghna Rivers flowing out of the hills of India to the Bay of Bengal. As a result, the Bengali culture is a delta culture, with rice planting and fishing at the core of their livelihoods. But on the periphery of the country are hills, that lie at the borders of India and Myanmar (Burma). There are wide variety of ethnic hills tribes living in these border zones. The Chittagong Hill Tract is the most famous of these regions, and these groups have sought autonomy and even independence from the delta for generations.
With Bangladesh awakening to the potential of tourism, the hill tribes are suddenly a hot commodity. This has both many dangers and much opportunity.
Last week, before my illness we visited with two hill groups, the Tripuri and the Khasci. In our visit to a pivotal Khasci village on the main tourism route in the hill areas bordering Assam,India - we had the opportunity to sit down with their head man. This village has had historic access to the forest reserves in the region to collect the Betel leaf and nut. The Betel nut is consumed by a large variety of Bengalis, as a mild narcotic/stimulant that is chewed and spit out. The marks of red Betel juice can be seen on walls throughout the country. Here in this tranquil Khasci village, we met women who were packaging the leaves and offering us the opportunity to taste the nut. One of our project leaders said to me, "taste the nut right at its source! It is a once in a lifetime experience!" So I did. You wrap a piece of the red nut in a little leaf package, add lime powder, and pop it in your mouth. It is bitter! But stimulating! Immediately, I was reminded of chewing coca leaves. I spit it out quickly, but I could feel the effects for about an hour afterwards.
We headed up to the village head man's home, and he was there to receive us. I asked a range of questions relating to their receptivity to tourists, their consent to have tourism in their village, and the issues that might relate to how they manage tourism in future. It can never be assumed that ethnic, indigenous groups want tourism. There must be a clear, and informed consent process. This is frequently overlooked, when there is a rush to develop new tourism areas, and my concerns are running high in Bangladesh that extreme caution is required.
The headman was clear that the groups visiting his village were too large, up to 100 at a time. They had had problems with folks entering their homes, and most importantly interrupting their work. There is a lack of permission for visitation, and the village had worked with our project to introduce a gate to close the village from unwanted tourism. But he was also very eager to let it be known that they see tourism as economically beneficial and do not want to eliminate it. There was discussion of how a cultural heritage center, that is not in the village that could provide them with a place to present information would solve the problem. We were all enthusiastic about this. He mentioned that tourism provides a new and different type of employment, especially for youth and women.
The next day we visited a Tripuri village. They were not in the main tourism region, but very close. Our project had been working with the women to market their remarkable hand loomed cloth to a hotel shop in the Radisson in Dhaka, via an organization called Folk Bangladesh. This had been very successful. The women were very pleased with the income, and were thrilled to receive us and wanted to encourage more tourism. They had already formed a cultural team that was reviving traditional song and dance. They had not had many visits, and therefore had not seen the negative impacts. But it was agreed a cultural center where they could perform their songs and dance would be ideal, and also a permanent center to display their cloth. Their key challenges were the lack of electrification, and the need for more education.
All our interviews indicated that the hill groups were not receiving equal access to education. Apparently the young girls suffer when going to school- as they are not Muslim, and at times are harassed. This made parents fearful of sending their girls to school.
It was inspiring to see the Tripuri girls so engaged in dialogue. As we sat with them, they were front and center on this project, and quite young women were leading the charge for more opportunity.
The classic double edge sword of tourism development can be easily observed in these cases.