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Land grabbing is fueling a tribal exodus from Bangladesh

Many Munda people have migrated to India after losing their land and livelihoods
A Munda tribal day laborer is seen in the Shyamnagar area of southern Satkhira district in this file image.

A Munda tribal day laborer is seen in the Shyamnagar area of southern Satkhira district in this file image. (Photo: UCA News)

Published: February 13, 2024 11:11 AM GMT
Updated: February 13, 2024 11:37 AM GMT

Satish Munda, along with his wife and two children, disappeared from Kalinchi, a village in Satkhira district in southwestern Bangladesh, about two weeks ago.

The family, belonging to the forest-dwelling Munda tribal group, went missing on Feb. 3 after a village arbitration council declared a local Muslim loan shark the owner of their tiny homestead near the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Anis Gazi, a shrimp farmer cum moneylender, had accused Satish, 28, of defaulting on a 76,500 taka (US$699) loan his father, Ranajit Munda, took out four years ago.

Ranajit, 70, who is illiterate, was asked to put a thumbprint on a blank judicially-stamped paper to receive the amount, which was later filled in by Gazi.

As per the contract, the Munda family was required to pay 4,000 taka (US$37) in yearly installments. Satish was reportedly 1,000 taka short in the latest installment, so Gazi told him to pay back the entire outstanding amount with interest.

For a poor brick kiln worker earning 550 taka per month and struggling to support the family, it was an impossible demand to fulfill.

Gazi allegedly went to the arbitration council, mostly consisting of his relatives, which ruled in his favor even though it had no legal authority to do so.

Local newspapers reported that Satish and his family broke down in tears following the council ruling as they no longer had a home.

For years Gazi had sought to expand his shrimp farm next to the Munda family home. Now, he claims the family sold the land to him years ago.

“The family sold the land to me. I have allowed them to live there for a yearly rent of 4,000 taka,” he said.   

Satish and his family disappeared the day after the ruling, said Gopal Munda, a village policeman.

“They left silently, without a word,’ said Satyacharan Munda, 44, Satish's elder brother.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Abul Kalam Azad, the police chief in the nearby town of Shyamnagar said police cannot act officially unless a complaint is filed.

S.K. Al Mamun, chairman of the Ramjannagar Union Council, a local government body, said he had heard that Satish had left for India, just a kilometer away from Kalinchi — a route many have taken to flee creditors.

Satish reportedly sought Mamun’s help to protect his home but did not wait for it. Locals said he also had other debts.

People leaving after losing their land and livelihoods are not uncommon in Satkhira and other parts of Bangladesh.

In fact, it has become increasingly common in Satkhira where Munda people have lived for many generations.

The Munda are originally from forested areas of central and eastern India, but thousands started migrating to what is now Bangladesh in the 16th century and continued during the British colonial period, researchers say.

Munda are also known as "Bunos" (people of the forest), a reference to their traditional occupation as forest clearers. Most Munda earn a livelihood by collecting honey and wood from the forest, while some others are engaged in agriculture, fishing, and daily labor.

Historical records say the Munda migrated to areas close to the Sundarbans to work as forest clearers under Hindu kings and zamindars (local chieftains). They were credited for turning dense forest areas into agricultural land and later became tenants of the zamindars.

“Mundas are a part of the Sundarbans ecology,” said Pavel Partha, a biodiversity and ecology researcher.

“Them having to leave the Sundarbans is a sign of the forest’s eroding natural and cultural equilibrium,” he said.

He said the Mundas are being forced from their land while the forest faces threats from the construction of a coal-fired power plant and various industrial projects.

Environmentalists also blame unregulated fish and shrimp farms for widespread pollution and the erosion of biodiversity in the Sundarbans considered a natural shield against cyclones and tidal surges in low-lying coastal regions.

In recent years, a government ban on entry to the Sundarbans for five months of the year has had negative impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the Munda people and other forest communities.

Locals say they need to bribe officials to enter the forest to collect honey, mangrove palms, and crabs for survival.

The loss of livelihoods has forced many Mundas to look for alternative income, but their lack of education means they have few options, said Partha.

In 2022, Mundas in Satkhira numbered 2,305, down from 2,500 in 2011, according to the Sundarban Adibashi Munda Sangstha (SAMS), a non-government organization promoting Munda people's rights.

About 80 percent of Munda migration is linked to land disputes and debt, said the organization’s executive director, Krishnapada Munda.

“Satish was apparently threatened with serious consequences if he did not leave,” he said.

A recent SAMS survey revealed that 220 out of 450 Munda families in Satkhira are now landless, living on government land or other people’s.

“This is a bizarre situation because these families once inherited large swathes of land,” said Krishnapada.

Like the Mundas, other small ethnic groups in Bangladesh are also on the decline due to land grabbing.

In the coastal districts of Patuakhali and Barguna, about 300 kilometers from Satkhira, ethnic Rakhine are disappearing.

In 2021, Catholic charity Caritas conducted a survey revealing there were just 46 Rakhine-inhabited villages in the two districts. Previous research revealed there used to be 237 in 1900.

It also found tens of thousands have migrated to Myanmar and other countries due to land grabbing and rights violations.  

In northern Bangladesh, tribal groups have been battling to save their ancestral land from numerically and financially powerful Muslims who are often backed by politicians and local authorities.

Tribal Santals are fighting to reclaim land taken from their ancestors in Gaibandha district for a sugar mill that ceased operations more than a decade ago.

Overall, Bangladesh's tribal population stood at 1 percent in 2022, down from 1.10 percent in 2011, according to the 2023 census.

Except for Muslims, who make up more than 90 percent of Bangladesh's more than 172 million people, ethnic and religious minority numbers have dropped, it found.

It is ironic that Munda people who fought against British colonialists in the 19th century to protect their forest rights are now being driven out of their homes, says researcher Partha.

“Mundas are victims of structural discrimination which is behind their silent migration into India,” he said.

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