Indigenous people should be granted stewardship for the land they exist on, said speakers at a virtual seminar yesterday.
Stewardship is a concept different from ownership because it makes the residents collectively responsible for maintenance of the land and its biodiversity. The webinar, titled "Inclusion, Cultural Integrity and Land Rights of the Indigenous Peoples in Asia" was jointly organised by Kapaeeng Foundation, Bangladesh; Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD), and The Daily Star.
"It is only in the indigenous culture we can promote the culture of stewardship instead of ownership. They do not own the land but we are guided by nature itself to maintain the land in a way that will be good for all of humanity," said Dr Meghna Guhathakurta, advisor, International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission.
"There is no indigenous custodian role over the reserve forests," pointed out Raja Devasish Roy, chief of the Chakma Circle.
Meanwhile, the reserve forests are being destroyed by those exploiting resources illegally. "If the people become custodians of the land that they have taken care of all this time, provided they protect it, there will be no need to take it into state ownership," said Gam A Shimray, secretary general, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.
Pallab Chakma, executive director, Kapaeeng Foundation said the Muraichhara Eco Park in Kulaura, Moulvibazaar affect the Khasi and Garo ethnic groups.
The Modhupur Eco Park and Reserve limits the access of Garo, Koch and Barman ethnic groups to lands they have traditionally used, while the Barapukuria Coal Mine in Dinajpur affects the Santal and Munda.
Meanwhile the Sajek Tourism Complex in Baghaichari of Rangamati affects the Tripura, Lushai and Pankhua indigenous groups.
"At Sajek, the indigenous people have very little or no share in these tourism complexes. All these development are forcefully driving away the indigenous people from their lands," said Chakma.
Dr Sadeka Halim, dean of social science faculty at University of Dhaka said that our constitution does not protect the land rights of the indigenous people.
"The constitution talks about protecting their culture and traditions," she pointed out. "Indigenous people are 5 percent of the world's population but hold stewardship of 80 percent of its biodiversity," said Mai Thin Yumon, Asia Focal Person, Global Indigenous Youth Caucus.
Shankar Limbu, secretary general, Lawyers Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples from Nepal stated, "For indigenous people if there is no land rights, there are no rights."
"For the plains land indigenous people, there is no legislation protecting their rights. The government made a commitment to form a land commission for plain land indigenous people in 2008, but that never went anywhere," said Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum.
"It is time to fight back. This awareness is not being spread to the indigenous people; these discussions are happening in rights based seminars," commented Mayfereen Ryntathiang, president of Grassroots from Shillong in India. Shamsul Huda, executive director of ALRD also spoke at the event.