Published:  07:55 AM, 11 November 2023

Bangabandhu’s Green Consciousness

Bangabandhu’s Green Consciousness

Liton Chakraborty Mithun

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s political vision is very much rooted in the soil of his motherland, Bangladesh. He upholds what Aldo Leopold termed “land ethic” in his seminal book A Sand County Almanac (1949). According to Leopold, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” He also went on to say, "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”. An ecologically-based land ethic pays respect to all members of the biotic community, not just homo sapiens. Although Bangabandhu’s political consciousness revolves mostly around human beings– his Bengali people as well as the other “Wretched of the Earth” (Fanon, 1961) – it also demonstrates a significant ethic of care for nonhumans. Especially, his biophilia and environmental consciousness puts him apart from most leaders the world has ever produced. As an individual and a statesman, he exemplifies ecological sensibilities. Bangabandhur Brikkho O Prokriti Bhabna (Bangabandhu’s Reflections on Plants and Nature) by Mokaram Hossain has brilliantly coalesced the leader’s myriad thoughts and actions with regards to nature and the environment.

Divided in 11 chapters, the book attempts to situate the place of nature in Bangabandhu’s political awakening, ideological development and statesmanship. Born in the rural village of Tungipara in today’s Gopalganj district of Bangladesh, he developed a sense of attachment to his immediate surroundings early on. He loved plants and trees with whom he had a wealth of memories. There is evidence that he used to play around the trees of his village in his childhood. In him grew a strong connection to the trees. As a teenager, he used to practice delivering speeches under a mango tree following famous actor Nirmalendu Lahiri’s dialogue projection style, in his hometown (Rahman quoted in Hossain, 19). Hossain provides quite a few color photos of the trees associated with Bangabandhu’s memories that make the book visually appealing.

As the top leader of independent Bangladesh and even before, Bangabandhu placed a premium on planting trees not just as an aesthetic practice but as an environmental necessity.  He undertook a large-scale, countrywide tree-plantation campaign in 1972. He transformed the historic Racecourse ground at Ramna into a beautiful park that would serve as the lung of a rapidly urbanizing metropolitan city of Dhaka. He stressed the importance of planting trees, not least in the vacant spaces and fallow lands of the country. Aware of the ecological consequences of deforestation, he lambasted the reckless destruction of Bangladesh’s forest resources during the 24-year Pakistan period in Bangladesh’s history.

Bangabandhu’s eco-consciousness becomes manifest as we get to learn about his view on the Sundarbans, world’s largest mangrove forest. He exchanged correspondence with the officials concerned of the government back in 1967-68 demanding that logging and tree-cutting in the Sundarbans be stopped. Nobody paid heed to his demand. He said to the uncooperative officials, “We did not create the Sundarbans by planting trees. Nature has built it to protect Bangladesh. The Sundarbans along the Bay of Bengal is a barrier. If it is not protected, Khulna, Barishal, Patuakhali, and parts of Cumilla and Dhaka will go under the sea, and these places will turn into islands like Hatiya and Sandwip. Once the Sundarbans is lost forever, the sea will swallow the land through erosion with no chances for protection” (Hoque quoted in Hossain, p. 23; my translation). Much before the environmental movement had held sway on public consciousness in our part of the world, Bangabandhu showed an environmental vision much more needed in our times underscored by climate change, global warming and planetary crisis.

Tree-planting remains atop the list of Bangandhu’s hobbies. During his time serving jail terms, he used to plant trees and start gardening. His posthumously published books, such as Unfinished Memories, Prison Diaries, Amar Dekha Noya Chin carry evidence of his biophilic nature. Quoting relevant passages of those books, Mokaram Hossain informs us of how Bangabandhu made best use of his punishing jail time by planting and watering flower plants, cultivating vegetables and weeding out grass. The interned leader grew fondness for birds, especially a pair of yellow birds, nesting in a tree nearby. He made sure no birds were harmed by anybody there. He lamented the absence of those yellow birds as he would serve another jail term a few years down the line. Outside of the jail, wherever he went, he made it a point to plant trees to keep the memory of his visit alive. The biocentric habit remained as he would become the head of the state/government in independent Bangladesh. Ahead of the tree plantation week campaign in 1972, he urged the 35 million active people of his country to plant one tree each–a fact that speaks volumes of his eco-consciousness.

Bangabandhu’s  contribution to the Bhawal Forest, Baldah Garden, and Tea Board is quite laudable. In 1974, the then Bangladesh government developed a park in Gazipur’s Bhawal Forest as part of its conservation efforts. Reports came out that reckless deforestation was going on in the forest rich with flora and fauna. Again, the Pakistan occupational army had torched a vast swath of forestland on the suspicion that a number of Bengali freedom fighters were launching guerilla warfare from a hideout there. It behooved Bangabandhu to conserve the eco-sensitive area from further damage. He sanctioned a grant of Taka 3.5 lac from the Prime Minister’s personal fund to initiate the preliminary efforts at the development of the park. Similar is the story as far as the renovation of the Baldah Garden is concerned. The botanical garden built by Mr. Narendra Narayan Roy Chaudhury, a landlord, is a hub of a wide variety of plants, many of which are rare now. Due to political vicissitudes, lack of financial support, and adverse weather patterns, the garden fell into an existential crisis. It is interesting that he used to hold secret political meetings in Joy House, located inside the garden during the Pakistan period. When communicated about its present predicament, Bangabandhu instantly sanctioned money to the officials concerned to undertake renovation efforts. Beforehand, as the first Bengali Chairman of the Pakistan Tea Board, he took many commendable steps to develop the industry. Under his stewardship, the sector saw unprecedented progress. Mokaram Hossain has provided a detailed description of all these green initiatives of Bangabandhu. When I’ve come to learn about these thanks to the book, I am reminded of Wangari Mathaai–the Kenyan green activist, political leader, and Nobel laureate–who launched a bigger environmental campaign in her country against tremendous political and cultural odds.

To wrap up, Mokaram Hossain’s Bangabandhur Brikkho O Prakriti Bhabna (2021) has opened a new window into the great leader’s less explored credentials as a green politician. The nationalist brand of Bangabandhu’s politics drew energy and vigor from his love for the people and nature of the country. He was certainly a pioneer in the burgeoning environmental movement of the country. Mokaram Hossain has done extensive research to put together the book. What makes the book more captivating is the use of relevant color photos, and useful brief introductions to different plants. The cover photo is striking, the design catchy, the pages hard and the font attractive. As far as the writer is concerned, Mokaram Hossain has 50-odd books on nature and the environment to his credit. Of the many accolades he has received, the most notable is the National Environment Award-2017 given for his contribution to environmental education and activism.  This book, Bangabandhur Brikkho O Prokriti Bhabna (2021), is a quality piece of work that merits wider attention as part of Bangabandhu studies.

The reviewer teaches English at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science & Technology University, Gopalganj and can be reached at [email protected].

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