A conference in the northeast of the country was held recently to focus national attention on the rights of indigenous tribal people and the role they play in protecting the environment. Two leading environmental groups, the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) and the Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) along with Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) organized the January 12-14 event at the university’s campus in Sylhet. The conference drew around 1,000, people mostly indigenous tribals from at least 30 ethnic groups from around Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Sunamgonj and Habigonj. A leaflet published by the organizers highlighted the conference’s aims. “Environmental degradation [climate change] and human rights are two of the most important issues of our times. Simultaneous protection of the environment and the rights of indigenous people is an important challenge facing us all,” it read. It said attacks on the environment around Sylhet had occurred hand-in-hand with encroachment on tribal lands and with violations of tribal people’s rights. Organizers said the gathering was meant to be a wakeup call for authorities and civil groups to help protect tribal people who for so long have been left to care for the environment on their own. BAPA activist and human rights worker Oblate Father Joseph Gomes in his keynote speech said: “Tribal people have been living for generations in forests and hills protecting them. They have a spiritual, social and economic relationship with their environment.” All are now under threat because of large-scale commercial projects, he added. One prime example highlighted was large stone quarry near Jaflong which organizers said has destroyed an environmental treasure and a popular tourist spot. Tribal people who lived on tea estates or depended on betel leaf cultivation whilst taking care of the local environment at the same time were forced from their homes and moved to make way for the quarry. The organizers also arranged meetings with scholars and rights activists and stakeholders to discuss issues like logging, livelihoods and the environment. The result of the convention was a strategic environmental and tribal protection plan with six recommendations called the ‘Sylhet Declaration.” It is our responsibility to unite with tribal people to protect our environment and their rights,” SUST professor Dr. Md. Salehuddin told the conference. Babli Talang, a tribal Khasia woman said the conference was the perfect opportunity for tribal people to be heard. “It was an opportunity to let others understand our rights, pains and joys. It will help reduce prejudices and dispel misconceptions about us,” the 26 year old said. “People thought we merely cut down trees to cultivate betel leaves, but now they know we actually protect trees,” she added.
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