On September 14, 2020, the forest department forcibly cut down banana plants raised on a "grabbed" forestland under Dokhala range in Madhupur upazila, Tangail without serving any prior notice to the affected, according to a report by The Daily Star. A local forest department official was quoted as saying that they were conducting the drive following directives from the government and that they don't need to serve any notice to the "grabbers" before conducting such drives. Who are these land grabbers? Why is it that the forest department is claiming the land to be theirs? These are concerns that need to be addressed.
The local indigenous peoples of the Madhupur Garh area believe that it is their ancestral place where they have been living and cultivating crops for generations. The owner of the land in question is Basanti Rema, a Garo indigenous forest-dweller of Pegamari village in the Sholakuri union of Madhupur upazila.
Before we discuss this, it's important to recall that Bangladesh ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1972. Moreover, the government of Bangladesh pledged to consider ratifying the ILO's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 and endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) 2007.
Following the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) rules before taking any land of the indigenous peoples, or evicting them from their ancestral lands, is crucial. Unfortunately, no consent was sought during the latest eviction drive. This was in direct contravention of the UNDRIP that deals with consent. Article 10 of the UNDRIP says, "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." Article 19 of the declaration says, "States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them." As a member country of the United Nations, Bangladesh needs to follow the UNDRIP properly.
Moreover, in conducting the eviction drive, the forest department also violated the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 of ILO. Article 11 of this convention says, "The right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands which these populations traditionally occupy shall be recognised." Article 12 (1) says, "The populations concerned shall not be removed without their free consent from their habitual territories except in accordance with national laws and regulations for reasons relating to national security, or in the interest of national economic development or of the health of the said populations." And article 12 (2) says, "When in such cases removal of these populations is necessary as an exceptional measure, they shall be provided with lands of quality at least equal to that of the lands previously occupied by them, suitable to provide for their present needs and future development. In cases where chances of alternative employment exist and where the populations concerned prefer to have compensation in money or in kind, they shall be so compensated under appropriate guarantees." This convention was ratified by the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972.
By now, it is abundantly clear that the local indigenous peoples in Madhupur Garh area are not land grabbers. They did not grab lands from other persons. They have been occupying their ancestral lands for generations. Therefore, the government should respect and recognise the traditional ownerships of these forest-dependent indigenous peoples.
Unfortunately, a lot of incidents involving human rights violations against indigenous peoples are taking place across the country with the help of state and non-state actors. Thousands of acres of lands belonging to indigenous peoples were reportedly brought under the process of acquisition, mostly for the establishment of special economic zones, tourism complexes, business establishments, and creation of new reserve forests in Chittagong Hill Tracts and plain lands. The latest incident cannot be seen in isolation from this trend. According to some media outlets, the drive was led by Jamal Hossain Talukder, assistant forest conservator (ACF) in Madhupur, ranger Abdul Ahad and local ruling party leader Jahangir. They destroyed around 500 banana plantations of 0.40 acres of land which was the only source of income for Basanti Rema's family. Being outraged by the incident, the local indigenous people surrounded the Dokhala beat office and demanded punishment for the perpetrators as well as adequate compensation for the victim family.
On February 15, 2016, the Forest Department of the Environment and Forest Ministry issued a gazette notification declaring 9,145 acres of land in Madhupur Garh area—home to the Garo, Barman and Koch indigenous peoples—as reserved forest under the Forest Act 1927. The government made this decision without taking the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples of Madhupur. It provoked fear that more than 20,000 forest-dependent indigenous peoples living in the area would be adversely affected. The communities have since been protesting against this decision. Local indigenous leaders alleged that the main objective of the government's move is to grab the lands of indigenous peoples by manipulating loopholes in the Forest Act, 1927. After the September 14 incident, they fear that destroying the crops of indigenous peoples' lands is part of a conspiracy to evict ethnic communities from the area. The responsibility to protect these peoples and their rights and allay their fears rests squarely on the government.
The Forest Act 1927 is very old and thus needs to be amended. I would urge the government to publish the "draft version of the Forest Act 2019" that is now available on the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. But this draft act did not take into account the interests of forest-dependent indigenous people appropriately, unlike the forest act 1927. The enactment of a new forest law should ensure the protection of the rights of forest-dependent indigenous peoples as well as the accountability of the forest department.
I think the government should conduct an impartial investigation into the incident of cutting down banana plants in Madhupur while the perpetrators must be brought to justice and appropriate compensation should be provided to the affected farmers. Also, to resolve the land problems of indigenous peoples of plains, the government should establish a separate land commission for them. It's important to note that the ruling party pledged in its 2008 election manifesto to form a separate land commission for indigenous peoples of the plains so as to establish their traditional rights over the lands. Thirdly, the government should withdraw the gazette notification declaring over 9,145 acres of lands at Madhupur as reserved forest. Fourthly, as per the ILO C107 Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957, the government should recognise the lands traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples across the country. And finally, the state or other private actors should seek free, prior and informed consent of concerned indigenous peoples in case they plan to enact or amend any policy related to them and/or implement any projects in their lands.
Shohel Chandra Hajang is an indigenous human rights defender and a member of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum. He is currently working with the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) in Thailand. Email: email@example.com