By Signe Leth*
March 12, 2020.- The situation for Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh in many ways echoes the situation of other Indigenous Peoples in Asia: they face heavy militarization; they are stigmatized as anti-national for wanting to be included in decisions affecting their lives – such as industrial development taking place on their ancestral lands, lands which they depend on for their livelihood; and their lands are grabbed at the speed of light, and with their land goes a huge part of their identity. Indigenous women are targeted, and rape is used systematically as a weapon to suppress them. The misery seems to be unending. Yet they are still here; alive, struggling, fighting, uniting.
A couple of weeks ago I travelled to a village not far from Dhaka city to meet with Indigenous Peoples from three different communities and learn more about their movement and struggle. As we left the dusty, noisy, crowded city behind, the scenery slowly changed into greener spaces peppered with paddy fields, palm trees and clusters of houses on one side of the road. In stark contrast, on the other side of the road, the landscape was cluttered with industrial ‘development’ as far as the eye could see: factories, chimneys, smoke, dust and workers – thousands of factory workers pouring in and out of the buildings.
We entered the village, and as soon as we got out of the car, the smells of fried onion, clean laundry and cow dung tickled our nostrils. The sound of clucking hens and playing children was only disturbed by the honking of trucks passing by sporadically. The village was swept clean, laundry was hung out in the sun to dry, the air was crisp and cool.
We were welcomed by the women of the village who draped us with garlands of marigolds, and red and white roses while they burned incense in our honour. If we hadn’t listened to their stories, this all would seem like a very idyllic, good life in perfect harmony; but behind this beautiful picture lies another truth:
Thirty years ago, all the land belonged to our community – we even have the titles to show it. Yet bit by bit the land has been grabbed in the name of industrialization and development. We have almost no land left. We used to farm the land, now most of us go for daily labour in the factories that surround our village. We used to all be Barman, now we are a small religious and ethnic minority surrounded by Muslim Bengali people.
As the industries moved in, the Indigenous people became a minority in their ancestral area, their political strength was gone, and they were also outnumbered in strength.
A few years ago, one Barman family was attacked by a group of Muslim Bengalis. They chased them off their land and locked their house. They dare not return. This is happening regularly.
We sat under a tin-roof transformed into a beautiful meeting space with walls made of cloth dotted with bright orange flowers discussing the situation of the community.
As our land is forcibly taken from us – and others sell their land to at least get something before it is taken anyway – we are pushed into the forest. Here, we do not have titles and we are not allowed to live here, but we have nowhere else to go.
There are 50 participants from four different villages in the area representing Garo, Barman and Koch peoples – all are actively engaged in the Indigenous Peoples’ movement. Their stories are all similar – except for one:
A Muslim family forcibly took our ancestral land 40 years ago. We kept the papers, and when we had no other option left for our survival, we went to court with our title papers. The Muslim family, who had occupied the land, had no papers to show, so after a long process, we got back four acres of land.
The community fights back, they unite, and they protest. Most often it results in them being sent to jail, but other times they at least get some compensation for their land, and in this one case, they managed to get their land back.
Approximately 80% of the Indigenous population in Bangladesh lives in the flatland, plains districts of the north and southeast of the country, while the rest reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Indigenous People in the plains and the CHT are affected differently by government policies, militarization and stigma. Overall, Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh are more marginalized and poorer as compared to the rest of the population, as evidenced by Indigenous-driven data from The Indigenous Navigator**:
- Poverty rate higher than the national average (65% in CHT; above 80% in the plains)
- Average income less than the national average (26% in CHT; 41% in the plains)
- Overwhelming dependence on the agricultural sector (72% in CHT; 80% in the plains)
- Salaried jobs/businesses (3% in CHT; less than 1% in the plains)
- 90% of Indigenous Peoples in CHT had some form of land entitlement; median land ownership was 3.2 acres; almost everyone has had some form of land dispute or unrecognized ownership; 25% have lost their land in the past three decades
- On average, 66% of Indigenous households in the plains were effectively landless
- Access to credit: 54% in CHT; 62% in the plains (with 10% coming from moneylenders)
- Only about 5% of Indigenous Peoples in the plains were aware of the Special Affairs Division fund (now known as the Development Assistance to Special Areas)
- High degree of non-governmental organization (NGO) presence in the plains, but very few Indigenous communities are part of NGO activities
- High degree of ‘identity crisis’, particularly in Indigenous communities with small populations
**The Indigenous Navigator has been developed in response to the need for quality data that can be fed into existing human rights and sustainable development monitoring processes at local, national, regional and international levels. The tools facilitate indigenous communities’ own generation of quality data on their situation and simultaneously enhances their awareness of their rights.
*Signe Leth is IWGIA Senior Advisor on Asia, Women and Land Rights