The major issue in the CHT is land. Land is the economic resource base for the indigenous peoples, which they are dependent on for their economic and cultural survival.
The rate at which the indigenous peoples are being divested of their lands in the CHT is alarming.
This is the result of projects and programmes carried out in the name of development and modernization.
After having already lost much of their land because of the Kaptai dam, the indigenous peoples then had their lands taken from them, (often forcibly and generally illegally) to be given to Bengali settler families.
Naturally, this situation had repercussions that led to confrontations and violence as some of the settlers had been provided with rms – ostensibly for their protection.
With the heavy military presence in the Hill Tracts and the lack of institutional protection accorded to the indigenous peoples, reports of violent attacks against the indigenous peoples by the settlers in collaboration with the security forces continued to increase.
Another major concern is that the settlers are being included on the CHT voter lists as ‘permanent residents’ in the CHT; this will effectively make their hold, and presence, in the region more firmly entrenched.
The Government continues to provide food and other rations and benefits to the settlers to ensure their continued presence in the Hill Tracts.
It is questionable as to how many would continue to live in the Hill Tracts without such benefits, especially with its inhospitable terrain, and the resentment of them by the local inhabitants.
None of the indigenous peoples are provided with any such assistance, including the refugees who have returned from India on the premise of an agreed repatriation package.
Most of them remain homeless and in temporary shelters.
A Peace Accord was signed in December 1997 between the Government and the PCJSS.
It provides elements for strengthening indigenous management of the region through institutional mechanisms such as an apex Regional Council, three District Councils (established in 1989), and a Land Commission.
As a result of the regenerated attention on the Hill Tracts, and the flow of funds to the region, a number of national NGOs are also active in the CHT.
They are engaged in implementing projects, most of which are settler-oriented.
Of the few that are targeted at the indigenous peoples, they hardly take into account the special characteristics of the indigenous peoples, rather they apply the same approach as in other areas of Bangladesh.
This has damaging effects on the indigenous peoples society and culture, for example micro-credit schemes are alien to the indigenous culture, and can lead to a dependency on the monetary economy.
The indigenous peoples also have their own organizations and have formed the Hill Tracts NGO Forum as an umbrella organization.
However, the indigenous peoples’ organizations face a major hurdle in accessing funds and other resources as this requires registration with the national NGO bureau, which has been unreceptive to indigenous organizations.
As such, very few have the necessary accreditation to enter into cooperation agreements with international donors and funders.
Concerned that the development agencies would not take the needs and concerns of the indigenous peoples fully into account in implementing activities in the Hill Tracts, the indigenous peoples formulated a declaration to guide development activities in the Hill Tracts in December 1998.
It was called the Rangamati Declaration and was adopted at a conference on “Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts”.
The declaration stressed that a speedy implementation of the CHT Peace Accord of 1997 is a priority and that all development activities should be implemented in consultation with the Regional Council.
The following emerge as key elements to be taken into account when carrying out development activities:
Any development in indigenous areas should strive to be in accordance with the development priorities of the indigenous peoples.
As such, it is important for the donors and organizations to engage in a joint exercise with the indigenous peoples in order to ensure that there is agreement on the priorities for development before commencing any activities in the area.
There may be a time lapse between project formulation and implementation, and situations evolve constantly.
Therefore, it is important to include mechanisms to adjust to the dynamics of the situation, should the need arise.
It is essential to include the indigenous peoples and their representatives and organizations in all processes of the project.
This includes the initial needs assessment, which outlines the guidelines for project support, the project implementation and project review.
It is important that the indigenous peoples are involved at all stages, which helps to build confidence and capacity and leads to ownership in the project.
This will in turn make the results sustainable once the project has ceased operations.
The indigenous peoples should be consulted at all stages, and their opinions taken into account, in order for a project to be participatory and democratic.
The historic as well as current socio-political context provides good indicators for potential areas of contention and sensitivity.
These should be studied, assessed, and taken into account in the implementation of the project.
This provides an opportunity to identify and resolve potential problem areas prior to commencing operations.
The culture of indigenous peoples is often under threat. As such indigenous peoples view cultural protection in all its different expressions as essential to their survival.
Any development activity occurring in indigenous areas should not only be culturally sensitive, but also encourage and support indigenous culture and traditions.
International instruments and policies provide guidelines and frameworks to ensure indigenous rights are not undermined but protected.
In this context, ratified conventions provide common grounds and can serve as indicators of assessment.
In working with indigenous peoples, a creative approach is needed. Strategies that worked in other areas are not always appropriate.
Each intervention has to be tailored to the specifics of each situation as no two are the same and each geographic area or peoples have their own inherent characteristics and distinctions.
Indigenous organizations often do not have access to financial, administrative and technical resources in order to operate effectively.
Commitment to indigenous issues should be long term engagements, otherwise it can lead to ad hoc and piecemeal interventions, which are not sustainable in the long run.
Interventions should be entered into with a spirit of mutual respect and constructive engagement.
Abbreviated from “Impact of Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts: Ways Forward”, presented at 4th Forum for Development Cooperation with Indigenous Peoples, University of Troms, 2003.
Writer : Chandra Roy