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Resilient to Landslides: The Indigenous Tribal Communities of Bangladesh

Bayes Ahmed4 July 2016

Landslides are common socio-natural hazards in the Chittagong Hill Districts (CHD) of Bangladesh. Communities living in the hills of CHD can be categorized as urbanized and tribal, each community experiences a different level of risk to landslides. With this knowledge, I conducted fieldwork in the three tribal hill tracts districts (Bandarban, Khagrachari and Rangamati) in Bangladesh from November 2015 – January 2016. The primary objective of this fieldwork was to understand what makes the tribal communities resilient to landslides. The IRDR and Commonwealth Scholarship Commission funded the fieldwork. I conducted household level questionnaire surveying and community based focus-group discussions in four tribal communities in CHD. This blog is all about sharing my experience working with a remote tribal community named Sandak Para in Thanchi sub-district, Bandarban, Bangladesh.

Landslides causing human casualties and massive property destruction are mainly visible within the urbanized communities in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. Indiscriminate hill cutting and development of unplanned settlements in the hills during the monsoon mainly cause the landslides. In contrast, the tribal people living in the remote and rural hill areas experience few or no similar landslide disasters.

Thanchi_BayesSandak Para Community in Bandarban.

The typical tribal houses are made of locally available materials – bamboo, wood, mud and corrugated iron sheets. The foundation is laid on bamboo/tree trunks on a raised plinth from the ground and the roof is typically thatched.

Thanchi_Bayes_2Typical tribal housing – Sandak Para, Bandarban.

Tribal people have lived here permanently for few generations and no Bengali (people not living in the hills are called as Bengali/ settlers by the tribes) were found in the community. The traditional shifting cultivation (or slash and burn agriculture) is the primary occupation. There is no formal electricity supply, but people use solar power for household activities. There is no drainage network. Water supply is a major problem as people are mostly dependent on water from the Sangu River or from the nearby falls. The average monthly income of a household ranges from US$12-20 that is low earning in Bangladesh.

The architecture of the houses is helping to make the community physically less vulnerable to landslides. The raised plinth allows the rainwater to flow naturally and freely below the houses. The construction materials of the houses are lightweight and therefore not life threatening, even if the houses collapse in earthquakes or landslides. The tribal people do not cut the hills like in the urbanized areas, instead they try to build houses horizontally in the same line of hill-slopes using bamboo or tree trunks in layers. This is the indigenous knowledge applied by the tribal people to protect themselves from landslides or slope collapses.

Vulnerable Houses in CHDHouses built by cutting hills vertically in urbanized hill communities.

From initial observation, I found that the tribal communities are also addressing the different thematic dimensions of vulnerability in relation to landslides:

Economic dimension: alternative livelihood options, less damage to physical assets, and not using the hills for commercial activities.

Social dimension: no massive damage to social systems ranging from individual to collective, accessibility to necessary infrastructure and services, and social cohesion.

Cultural dimension: by treating the hills as sacred place and using centuries-old rich indigenous and local knowledge to deal with the hill environment.

Environmental dimension: protecting the hills by not destroying the hill-forests and cutting the hills in an unstable manner.

Institutional dimension: there are no power politics and few external influences; instead there is a strong local and regional network with autonomous administration.

From my fieldwork, it is evident that the indigenous tribal communities in CHD are more resilient to landslides than the urbanized settlers. It would be highly recommended to address community vulnerability by incorporating indigenous knowledge in local planning to reduce the risks of landslide disasters in the highly urbanized hill areas of Bangladesh.

After several days of long and tiring work in the field, I took a boat ride with my field assistants; who are from the Marma tribe, in the Sangu River towards Remakri. The mesmerizing beauty of Sangu River, the surrounding green and untouched hills, the helpful tribal people, freedom from the chaotic and polluted city life and finally clean air and fresh food, all made me feel like I was in the most beautiful place on earth. I want to go back to this place again, just to enjoy the natural beauty and share some more moments with the indigenous tribal people of Bangladesh!

Bayes_4 Bayes_5Scenic beauty of Sangu River, Bandarban.

© Bayes Ahmed

Email: bayes.ahmed.13@ucl.ac.uk