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Tribals in forest project quandary

Deal to end land disputes sounds too good to be true

Tribal people have struggled for land rights for years Tribal people have struggled for land rights for years
  • ucanews.com reporter, Moulvibazar
  • Bangladesh
  • June 4, 2012
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Khasia tribesmen in northwestern Bangladesh have voiced doubts over a state-sponsored “social forestation project” which authorities say would effectively end a longstanding land dispute between tribals and the government.

Tribesmen were told the aim of the project was to solve land disputes between them and the government, sustain betel-leaf cultivation, a traditional Khasia crop, and boost bio-diversity in the forests.

The forest department says the project, covering about 13,350 hectares of government land, will involve training the Khasia in better cultivation techniques and assistance in improving their socio-economic conditions.

A meeting last week of 50 Khasia headsmen representing around 30,000 people in Sylhet division’s Moulvibazar district, near the Indian border, failed to reach a decision on the government’s proposal which was put to them on May 22.

“I don’t know why they can’t make up their minds. We told them the project will be highly beneficial for them,” forest department official Hasinur Rahman said.

However, Babli Talang, a tribal rights activist, said the deal may not be as good as it seems.

“Forest rangers in Sylhet have told us the government wants to involve the Khasia in a tree plantation program but not in social forestation,” said Talang.

There will be no legal documents but they want us to say yes immediately, he said.

“We suspect there is a hidden agenda. Why are there conflicting notions as to what the project is, why is there no legal documentation and why are they in such hurry?” Talang said.

“We don’t know what to do. For years we have struggled to save our lands from land-grabbers backed by the authorities. The offer seems fine on the surface but we have to think carefully,” said Gidition Prodhan Suchiang, a Khasia leader.

Khasia people need to be very sure and make sure that their betel-leaf gardens don’t get scrapped, Suchiang added.

The doubt and distrust follows years of conflict with the authorities regarding land.

The Khasia tribals were never granted land title deeds and many have been evicted from what they say is their own land by wealthy and influential individuals.

There are about 45 tribal groups in Bangladesh accounting for 3 million of country’s population of 160 million.

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