Development is important to any nation, primarily to improve living conditions and reduce poverty levels.
But what if development is used to trigger the destruction of the life and culture of indigenous peoples?
The Bangladesh indigenous peoples’ painful history of being excluded, exploited, and discriminated against are reflected in their present situation. They belong to the fringes, as marginalised and vulnerable people in the country. Their traditional knowledge, cultural diversity, and sustainable ways of life make a unique contribution to the common heritage of our country.
This means that the issue of indigenous peoples is a challenge for the international community and the Bangladesh government in terms of upholding human rights, promoting cultural diversity, and peaceful coexistence, as well as protecting ecological diversity and achieving ecological sustainability. At the same time, the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are the custodians of some of the most ecologically diverse areas of the country.
The existence of many of the Bangladeshi indigenous peoples can be attributed to their resistance to prior waves of illegal development projects that had been initiated since the Pakistan period, and continue still at the hands of the Bangladesh government.
Their territories and cultures remain the final and most sought-after frontier in its latest expansion, and their resistance is the final obstacle. They stand, both physically and ideologically, at the frontlines in the struggle to put an end to illegal development.
The current model of the economic system in Bangladesh is based on the exploitation of natural resources predominantly located in indigenous territories. The indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are the victims of systematic abuse associated with imposed forms of economic development.
In recent times, the indigenous peoples have faced the negative impacts of false development. Many of these resources are taken from or developed on indigenous peoples’ territories, and very often without their consent.
Historically, the CHT had largely been a self-governed, independent territory, and a totally excluded area until 1860. In 1900, the British enacted the Regulation 1 of the 1900 CHT Act, in order to protect the indigenous Jumma people from economic exploitation by Bengali Muslims and to preserve their tradition and institutions based on customary laws, common ownership of land, and so on.
Throughout the British colonial period, the 1900 CHT Act functioned as a safeguard for the indigenous people, and prohibited land ownership and migrations of Bengali Muslims into the CHT, which meant that people from the plains were barred from settling there. We might say the indigenous Jumma peoples of CHT have enjoyed absolute freedom of life in that period.
However, since the Pakistan period, the CHT indigenous Jumma peoples are being divested of their ancestral lands at an alarming rate. It’s the result of projects and programs carried out in the name of illusive and false development at the heart of CHT.
It seems as though the government has been using the tourism industry as an excuse for taking away the last of the indigenous Jumma people -- and has started grabbing their lands in the name of development. Tourism centres and resorts are mushrooming in the region, violating the traditional land rights of the Jumma people.
Recently, an initiative to set up Alutila Special Tourism Zone, Khagrachari on 699.98 acres of hilly land has once again stirred up deep anxiety, concern, and grievances among the Jumma peoples of the CHT, including those of Khagrachari district.
Though the UN has come up with many new mechanisms and policies to protect and promote the indigenous peoples, in reality, indigenous peoples are still exploited, tortured, and continuously evicted from their ancestral lands in many parts of the world
It was learned that Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority (BEZA), under the prime minister’s office, took the decision to set up a special tourist zone in Khagrachari district. To inform this decision, BEZA sent a letter to the deputy commissioner of Khagrachari hill district on June 15, asking for necessary information of proposed land, including holding number, location, and mouza map.
Most of these lands have been marked, allegedly and incorrectly, as “khas” in the documents of the concerned upazila offices, and in the enquiry reports submitted by the Offices of the Assistant Commissioners (Land).
In fact, the very concept of “khas” land, in reference to the CHT, is incorrect or fallacious in respect of the region’s laws, customs, and conventions. Lands referred to as “khas” have been designated, in these reports and documents, as lands owned by the deputy commissioner on behalf of the government of Bangladesh.
But in reality, the lands in question were commonly known as “Mouza and Jum lands” and have been managed by the indigenous Jumma people for centuries. In fact, the CHT Accord of 1997 vests the management of lands in the CHT with the jurisdiction of both the Hill District Councils and CHT Regional Council.
Over the last few decades, the concept of FPIC has increasingly been used by indigenous rights advocates to guide negotiations between indigenous communities and outside interests.
The principles of FPIC were first formally laid out by the 1989 International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO 169), which establishes that consent must be acquired before indigenous communities are relocated or before development is undertaken on their land.
Free prior and informed consent (FPIC) is the principle to establish bottom-up participation and consultation of an indigenous population prior to the beginning of a development on ancestral land or using resources within the indigenous population’s territory, and indigenous communities have the right to give or withhold consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy, or otherwise use.
FPIC is now a key principle in international law and jurisprudence related to indigenous peoples. One of the significant and most direct descriptions of FPIC is in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Article 10 states: “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.”
Though the UN has come up with many new mechanisms and policies to protect and promote the indigenous peoples, in reality, indigenous peoples are still exploited, tortured, and continuously evicted from their ancestral lands in many parts of the world. The indigenous peoples of Bangladesh are in the most vulnerable situation. The government must adopt indigenous friendly laws and regulations to protect these hapless peoples.
The government should also emphasise on free prior and inform consent regarding the development of any tourism point in the CHT.
John Tripura and Babul Chakma are indigenous peoples’ human rights defenders.