ucanews.com reporters, Tangail and DhakaUpdated: May 24, 2016 04:38 AM GMT
Indigenous students and activists take part in a protest in Dhaka on May 20 against the government's recent directive to rezone land in Madhupur, Tangail district. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
Indigenous people in central Bangladesh are fearful they could be evicted from land they have inhabited for over a century because the government has declared it as forest reserve.
In a secret gazette circular, the country's Forest and Environment Ministry declared 3,700 hectares of land in Madhupur, Tangail district to be rezoned as a forest reserve. Although it was passed in February, the declaration didn't come to the notice of the public until last week.
"The law virtually restricts living, movement, cultivation and even the grazing of cattle in the area, and it also gives the authorities the right to evict people from the area at will. We are really worried about the future," Garo tribal leader Eugene Nokrek, president of the Joenshahi Adivasi Development Council, told ucanews.com.
The declaration, made under Section 20 of the 1927 Forest Act, makes it illegal to live in and use resources from the reserve. It also stipulates punishment of up to five years jail and a 50,000 Taka (U.S. $636) fine for violating the declaration's directives.
The government's move will affect 13 predominantly indigenous villages which are home to a mostly Christian population of 15,000 people from various indigenous groups including Garo, Hajong and Koch who have lived in the area for over a century.
"This is an anti-people law which came into being without any consultation with or the consent from local people. People won't accept it as it threatens their lives and livelihoods," said Nokrek, a Catholic, who comes from Gaira, a village that is now a part of the new forest reserve.
Nokrek alleges that the move is a renewed attempt by the government to acquire the land after a bid to set up an ecotourism project in the area failed.
In 2000, the forestry department moved to set up a Forest Conservation and Ecotourism Project on 1,214 hectares in Madhupur, defying opposition from tribal people.
In 2004, two indigenous activists were shot dead and dozens injured, allegedly by the police, after thousands of indigenous people joined a series of large-scale protests against the project. The protests forced the government to suspend the project in that same year.
Church supports indigenous people
The Catholic Church in predominantly indigenous Mymensigh Diocese, which covers Tangail district, is looking into how they can assist indigenous people regarding the land rezoning.
"This is a saddening development. There are discussions at local level over the issue, but nothing has been decided in relation to making a move against it," Apurbo Mrong, regional director of Catholic charity Caritas Mymensingh, told ucanews.com.
"The church has always stood for the rights of indigenous people, and it will lend moral support at this crucial period now," said Mrong, convener of Justice and Peace Commission in Mymensingh Diocese.
Indigenous people tend to their fields in Madhupur, Tangail district in this 2011 file image. A new government rezoning of land threatens the lives and livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people, activists say. (ucanews.com photo by Stephan Uttom)
About 200 students and activists joined a human chain and protest rally in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka on May 20 to protest the government's action.
"There are some reserve forests in the country where indigenous people once lived but they have vanished over the years. We won't let it happen again," said Drinja Chambugong, president of the Dhaka unit of the Garo Student Union who organized the protest.
"This is a conspiracy to evict thousands of indigenous people who consider the forest as their mother and take care of her dearly. The government must abandon this move, or we will arrange a mass movement against it," Chambugong added.
The government intends to make money out of recreational activities in the guise of conservation, said Professor Mesbah Kamal from the History Department of Dhaka University who is also an indigenous rights advocate.
"A group of unscrupulous businessmen are influencing the government to go ahead with it so they can reap commercial benefits in the future," said Kamal, a Muslim and member of the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples. "Indigenous people will stand against it and civil society will support them in their fight against this injustice," he added.
A forest official said there is nothing wrong with the reserve forest directive as it comes years after the issuance of other declarations and the settling of disputes.
"In 1955 and 1988, the government issued two declaration gazettes with directives on reserve forests and asked people to approach local government if they have complaints," Masud Rana, a divisional forest officer in Tangail, told ucanews.com.
"Over the years, all the disputes have been resolved and the government has issued the latest directive," Rana said.
The official said that the government can conduct any kind of development activity in the reserve forest but there is no intention to evict people.
"Some people are spreading propaganda that the forestry department is trying to take over the area and to evict people, but these are baseless. People with land documents can claim land as they own it," added Rana.
But Garo leader Nokrek said many indigenous people are illiterate, poor and don't have land documents to claim their land.
"These poor people are vulnerable to harassment including eviction because they won't be able to prove land ownership. Unless the declaration is withdrawn they will live in constant fear of eviction," Nokrek said.