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Editorial: Ethnic minority rights to ancestral land must be respected

New Age, Dhaka, May 12, 2008

A REPORT published in Sunday’s New Age reveals that ethnic minority communities are continuing to face eviction from their ancestral lands not only by powerful individuals in their localities but also by government agencies. A recently published survey led by Jatiya Adibashi Parishad, from which this information has been gleaned, reports that a total of 1,983 families in 10 north-western districts of Bangladesh lost as much as an acre each to evictions in the past decade or so. Given the bitter history of such forced evictions from ancestral land of ethnic minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the consequent political tensions these actions created, these latest figures should draw concern from the public at large as well as the policymakers and the political class. All the more so because the survey results reveal that it is the forest department under the Ministry of Environment and Forests which has been responsible for the greatest number of evictions of ethnic minorities in the north-western districts. While the forest department’s purpose has been to create social forestry projects in the acquired areas, such projects must be shaped so that they seek the consent of and bring benefits to the local communities, without which they are unlikely to succeed. In this regard, we feel compelled to point out that the government must be doubly careful in dealing with issues of ancestral land rights when it comes to agrarian communities across the country, be they Bengali or belong to one of the ethnic minority groups. The policymakers must realise that a great deal of culture, tradition, history and livelihood is involved in an agrarian community’s relationship with the land that it farms. As much as this should be seen as a humanitarian value that respects agrarian culture and livelihoods, right to land is a constitutional right of all Bangladeshi citizens.
We also feel that successive governments of the past have ignored this issue of ancestral rights to land and have created a political minefield, especially through their inaction in settling disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Land Commission that was formed in 1999 to settle the land disputes that rose out of the years of insurgency and violence and forced migrations that the area saw did next to nothing for over a decade. In fact, till April 2008, the commission had only convened once. As we have said in the past, this is a testimony to the gross ethnic chauvinism that the dominant Bengali helmsmen of the country have shown through their past actions and policies. We demand justice for all those evicted from their lands and we advocate this route as a reasonable solution to the political problems that will inevitably emerge in ethnic minority zones as a result of these erroneous government policies.

Aungkyew Mong
Kapaeeng Watch
(A human rights group for indigenous peoples)
Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University
Dhaka, Bangladesh
E-mail: kapaeeng.watch@gmail.com, kapaeeng.watch@micico.ch

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