When the UN declared the Indigenous Peoples Day and Decade, Indigenous peoples comprising 45 ethnic groups, found a common venue to raise their demands in Bangladesh.
Since then, indigenous peoples have been celebrating 9th August as International Indigenous Peoples Day.
Bangladesh government has enacted Indigenous Peoples rights in the Laws and Policy, and has shown positive attitude towards the ratification of UN and other international human rights instruments, including the ILO Convention No. 107, International Convention for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, International Convention of Economic Social and Cultural Rights, International Convention of Civil and Political Rights etc. on the above laws are safeguard to the protection of the indigenous peoples rights.
Furthermore, the adoption of UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples on 13th September in 2007 is a major breakthrough to claim their rights.
This followed more then twenty years of discussion within the UN systems. Indigenous representatives played a key role in the development of this declaration.
Under the Article 41 of the UN Declaration:
“The organs and specialized agencies of the United Nations system and other intergovernmental organization shall contribute to the full realization of the provisions of this Declaration through the mobilization, inter alia, of financial cooperation and technical assistance. Ways and means of ensuring participation of indigenous peoples on issues affecting them shall be established.”
Furthermore it has emphasized the role of UN agencies and other bodies:
“The United Nations, its bodies, including the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and specialized agencies, including at the country level, and States shall promote respect for and full application of the provisions of this Declaration and follow up the effectiveness of this Declaration.”
Based on this the fundamental issues such as non-implementation of the CHT Accord, recognition of land rights and the military deployment along with other issues have a pivotal provision under the UN Declaration. Regarding military deployment, in the Declaration have stated in Article 30(1) as
“Military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples, unless justified by a significant threat to relevant public interest or otherwise freely agreed with or requested by the indigenous peoples concerned.”
Regarding the implementation of the Accord it has stated as in article 37 of UN declaration which states:
‘Indigenous peoples have the right to the recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties, agreements concluded with States or their successors and to have States honor respect such treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements.’
Moreover, regarding on the land rights in the Article 26(1) states,
“indigenous people have the right to the lands territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired”.
The responsibilities of States have clearly stated in the same Article as,
“States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”
In 1901, British police officer Snyed Hutchinson estimated that 109,360 people out of the total population of 124,760 were dependent on jum cultivation, while only 11,000 people practiced plough cultivation despite the British government sanctioning a special budget since 1869 for promotion of plough cultivation in CHT.
Snyed Hutchinson found it doubtful that a sufficient quantity of lands suitable for the cultivation of wet rice was available to support the entire CHT population:
“There is certainly a very great amount of land that can be reclaimed, but this is not necessarily (being?) Suitable for rice cultivation.” [Hutchinson, R.H.Snyed: Chittagong Hill Tracts, Eastern Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers, 1909]
A survey conducted in 1967 showed that
“about 190,000 acres are being cultivated by about 475,000 persons, which means a density of 1,600 persons per square mile of cultivated land. The emptiness of the Hill Tracts is therefore a myth.” [Schendel, Willem Van et. al: The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in Borderland, 2001]
Due to the topography of the CHT, there is very little farmland available to cultivate on a viable and sustainable basis (an assessment found that only 3.2% or 76,466 acres of land in the area was suitable for wet-rice cultivation; Tripura, Prashanto and Harun, Abantee: Parbattya Chattagrame Jhumchase, 2003).
While the highlands can be used for other forms of cultivation, such as horticulture, tree and bamboo farming, and for the traditional jum or swidden cultivation, the sharp inclines of the slopes and the presence of marketing problems (horticulture and tree-farming being directly dependent on market sales) make it difficult for the highlands to sustain a very large population that is dependent upon cultivation as the primary means of livelihood [Roy, Devasish: The Land Question and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord].
Furthermore, land has been occupied or transformed since the colonial period, which is still continuing.
The causes of land scarcity in CHT include creation of the reserve forest in 1880s (25 percent of total land size), 40 percent cultivable land submersion under Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam in 1960s.
The indigenous people displaced by Kaptai dam were never rehabilitated, and the subsequent settlement of Bengalis from the plain has aggravated the crisis.
Therefore resolving the land dispute, and rehabilitating the internally displaced indigenous people, is necessary to resolve the violent conflict in the region– all of which are linked to implementation of the CHT Accord.
Indigenous people’s rights to land use and ownership need to be through international legal instruments.
The population settlement program in the CHT is the viable example in relation with the ICERD.
The provisions of ICERD (ratified in 1979) by Bangladesh government have clearly defined racial discrimination in Article 1(1) as:
‘…any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other of public life’.
Thus UN Declaration and other human rights instruments pave the way to implement the CHT Accord.
There is no alternative for ethnic coexistence. As well as the commitment of the Accord, Bangladesh government would fulfill international legal obligations.
Writer : Sontosh Bikash Tripura