Land grab and resistance in the Chimbuk hills
The Mro community of the Chimbuk hills is passing days in great uncertainty. The hills around them are being cut, trees are being felled, and water sources are being disrupted taking a huge toll on this otherwise sedate region. Over the last few months, the people of Chimbuk hills have seen engineers and contractors being ferried in impressive SUVs to measure the site and plan construction of state-of-the-art structures, noisy trucks bringing in construction materials, while workers are shoving in pillars piercing the Mother Earth.
All these portend a calamity for the local Mro people. They are deeply concerned that not only would this "development" initiative take a severe toll on their lifestyle and livelihoods, it would also harm the flora and fauna and thereby the ecological balance of this pristine expanse, one of the very few that exist in the country.
It is interesting to note that in Bangladesh's 50 years of existence, this community which did not have the fortune to host a junior high or even a primary school to educate its children is now being thrust down with a mega project of a 5-star hotel and an amusement park. Fear is pervasive that Mro households in Karpupara, Dolapara and Evapara will face eviction; others in close vicinity in Markinpara, Longbaitanpara, Riamaneirpara and Menringpara are also likely to meet the same fate in the not-so-distant future.
The news of the onset of the tide of "development" sweeping the Chimbuk range caught its residents by surprise. So far, they believed that as members of a bona fide indigenous community, they were protected by a number of national and international laws, regulations, protocols, declarations and customs. On October 8, they appealed for redress to the highest executive of the state through the District Commissioner without success. As the construction process gained traction on the ground involving tractors, diggers, lorries and other heavy equipment, the Mro people, finding no other recourse, began to organise to protect their rights and entitlements that are guaranteed by the Constitution and laws as well as international treaties that Bangladesh is party to.
It has been estimated that between 800 and 1,000 acres of land will be adversely impacted by the project involving a hotel, amusement park and artificial lake. Twelve hills will be connected with cable cars. Water, power and other utility services for the facilities, including the residential quarters of the staff members, would require construction of a network of buildings, roads, drainage and sewage system.
All these structures will be constructed on a land that hosts dwellings of hundreds of Mro families, forest, streams and fountains, orchards, temples, sacred cremation grounds, holy stones, revered hills, and the like that are integral to the identity of the Mro. Already, the noted Natibong hill has been re-christened with a Bangla name. Initially, it will lead to displacement of at least 115 families of four villages, and 10,000 more Mros of adjoining villages are likely to be affected. The livelihoods of most members of the community dependent on jhum cultivation will be severely impacted. Mango, pineapple and papaya orchards will suffer due to diversion of the natural flow of streams. Along with harming the ecological balance, the project will impede the movement of people that is essential to pursue livelihoods and social and cultural interactions.
News reports inform that security forces have taken lease of 20 acres of land from the Bandarban District Hill Council (BDHC). The head of BDHC admitted that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for lease of land was signed, but the land is yet to be transferred as the approval of the government was pending. He was unable to say under what authority the construction activities have commenced (Deutsche Welle, 13/11/2020). An arrangement has been worked out between the Sikder Group-owned R&R Holdings Ltd. and the Army Welfare Trust for a thirty-five-year lease on a profit-sharing basis. Refuting the claims of land grabbing, R&R Holdings informed that the BHDC has an eight-percent ownership of the project (DS, 8/11/2020). The group further said that a further 10 acres have been added to the original lease of 20 acres. The concerned Brigade Commander of Bangladesh Army assured that, if the need arises, shops and houses will be built for the affected Mro people.
Like their counterparts in other hill communities, Mros were also adversely affected by the past development projects of the state and were deprived of fair compensation. In the recent past, they lost 11 acres of land acquired for a firing range. Large segments were acquired for rubber plantations in Nilgiri. In several cases, parcels of land that were taken remained unutilised. Although some plots were released for non-utilisation through the intervention of a local MP, those were re-allotted to others instead of being handed over to the original owners.
Analysts have raised some pertinent issues. Fundamental among those is that the project violates the Constitution of the republic, provisions of CHT Regulations 1900 (reinstated by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court on November 22, 2016), Bandarban Hill Council Act 1989, Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Commission Act 2001, and many established protocols and traditions.
Article 18A of Bangladesh Constitution commits the state "to protect and improve the environment and to preserve and safeguard the natural resources, bio-diversity, wetlands, forests and wild life for the present and future citizens." Article 23 obliges the state "to adopt measures to conserve the cultural traditions and heritage of the people," while Article 23A obligates the state "to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethic sectors and communities." It is worth noting that the progressive Articles 18A and 23A were inserted into the Constitution by the 15th Amendment in 2011 under the Awami League government.
The Hill District Council Act precludes BHDC authorities from transferring ownership of land to other parties without the expressed consent of the people and recommendation of the concerned mauza headmen. Therefore, any arrangement drawn by parties in breach of the provision makes the instrument void under the law. Under the CHT Land Commission Act, the Commission is solely responsible for adjudicating on land disputes. Thus far, the failure of the government to frame the Rules of Business of the Commission has precluded it from functioning effectively. The project also violates the 1997 CHT agreement that explicitly prohibits building of any commercial facility that impairs the interests of the indigenous people.
Another gaping hole of the lease transfer mechanism is its failure to secure the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the Mro people impacted by the project. FPIC is an emerging standard in engaging with indigenous peoples and is becoming part of customary international law. The UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) asserts that it is the duty of the state to obtain FPIC of indigenous peoples to effectively determine the outcome of decision-making that affects them. FPIC is a standard protected by international human rights law. "Anybody with property understands that you can't just take the property without consent, unless there's some over-arching governmental purpose," observes James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He further notes, "Because of this special significance of lands and resources to the cultural survival of indigenous peoples... it would have to meet a very, very high burden of justification." Surely, leasing of land for construction of a hotel and an amusement park does not meet the criteria of "very, very high burden of justification."
The Mro community has protested the restrictions imposed on their free movement in the Chimbuk hills due to cordoning off larger areas than the area under lease by security forces. They have also claimed that they have been subjected to threats and intimidation.
On November 13, the community organised a human chain and rally in Cheragi Hill. The unique protest was a cultural showdown. Instead of chanting slogans, the beat of drums and sound of traditional phlong flute reverberated through the hills, perhaps echoing the pang of the Mro's hearts for the land—a critical element of their identity—they are about to lose. Community members of all ages participated in the event. Mothers made sure that their children join the protest to stake a claim on what is theirs.
This move of according priority to profit over people and using common resources for private gain in violation of the law has triggered disapproval of the mainstream Bangladesh community. The Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, the International CHT Commission, the Adibashi Forum, Jatiya Mukti Council and many other public platforms have condemned the commercialisation of the Chimbuk hills and demanded immediate cessation of "developmental" activities. They also stated that through its involvement with this controversial project, the concerned security force is tarnishing its own image. Perhaps the political leadership should reassess if publicly-funded state institutions should at all be involved in commercial enterprises that may bear the risk of compromising their professionalism.
The failure of the government to uphold the constitutional rights of the Mro people has been palpable. Article 11 of the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 of the ILO (C-107) obliges the state to recognise the "right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands which these populations traditionally occupy." Bangladesh ratified the convention in 1972, when the Father of the Nation was at the helm. Rescinding the imprudent decision to lease out the land of the indigenous people for private gain will surely be an apt tribute of the government in his birth centenary.
C R Abrar is an academic with an interest in migration and rights issues.