A Garo woman tends her fields in Modhupur Garh
For more than 50 years, the tribal residents of Modhupur Garh hill tract have fought a desperate battle for land rights against forestry department officials and Bengali settlers.
The tribal community has complained repeatedly about what they see as efforts by officials to evict them from their ancestral land, where they have lived and worked for more than a century. In response, officials say the tribal community destroys the forest by logging and occupies the land illegally.
After years of conflict, recent events suggest there may be room for hope of a peaceful resolution. Both sides decided earlier this month to discuss a new way forward. Forestry officials and tribal leaders met on December 13 in Tangail at the Dokhla Rangers Office.
Nazrul Islam, a ranger, said officials are now willing to admit injustices in the past and seek peaceful solutions in the future.
“We are trying to include tribal people in our plans and activities. We are far more tribal friendly and are trying to communicate with them regularly,” he said.
But Eugene Nokrek, a local Garo leader, said last week that the change of tactics has not happened over night, and that many difficulties lie ahead.
In 1962 the then Pakistan government declared Modhupur Garh, the northern part of Bhawal Modhupur Tracts as a protected forest and later a national park, Nokrek said, adding that the tribals who settled there in forest villages were simply forgotten.
“Since then authorities have tried to evict tribals and put them through lawsuits one after another,” he said.
According to data compiled by the Society for Environment and Human Development, tribal communities reside in 10,117 hectares of a total of 18,616 hectares in forests in Tangail district.
In recent years, Nokrek said, parts of that land have been taken away by authorities. In one incident, he said, the Bangladeshi Air Force evicted 31 families from 57 hectares of land that had been designated for use as a firing range.
Other swathes of land have been seized for creating rubber plantations, Nokrek said.
However, land disputes in this area have often been much more violent.
Nokrek said that over the last decade, dozens of Garo villagers have been killed by rangers or other settlers moving into the area.
He added that authorities have filed more than 5,000 court cases against tribal communities since Bangladeshi independence in 1971.
Nokrek, who heads the Joyenshahi Adivasi Development Council, says that despite a long legacy of suspicion, litigation and outright violence, both sides have some hope that a better approach can be found to resolving conflicts.
“The current government promised in its election manifesto to ensure the rights of tribal people, and I think the authorities are trying to honor that pledge. Now, no new cases have been filed against tribal people, and some tribals are now working in the forest as community forest workers.”
But he added that authorities still ignore a key point of contention: legal residency on the land.
“We are not legal residents of the land even after dwelling there for many years. The forestry department can evict us at any time if they want to,” Nokrek said.
Though some progress has been acknowledged by tribal leaders, Maloti Nokrek (no relation) said she is doubtful about any promises made by authorities.
“We’ve heard a lot of words about hope, but it’s hard to believe. Now we have good days because we have a minister in the government from the area. I don’t know what will happen if another party comes to power,” she said.
“None of the spurious cases against tribals have been withdrawn, and none of the [alleged] murders were properly investigated. It can’t be a sign of a good relationship.”
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