The ethnic minority of Bangladesh has had a long-standing history of losing their ancestral lands through unethical means and facing conflicts as a product of discrimination. Lack of inclusivity and comprehensiveness in development projects have also disrupted their lives on a massive scale. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous families have been displaced and forcefully evicted as a result. This article explores causes, trends, and the surrounding factors in direct correlation to such displacements.
Bangladesh is known to be one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It hosts over 160 million people with only 147,610 square kilometres of land to accommodate them. For reference, this is almost half of the population of the United States with only 1.5% of its landmass. Despite such a large population, 98% of the Bangladeshi people are ethnically homogenous and identify as Bengali, sharing the same cultural and historical background. The other 2% comprises diverse ethnic groups including the Chakma, Marma, Mru, Garo, Khasia, Manipuri ethnicities, and several other tribes inhabiting the remote areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Sylhet, Rajshahi, and Mymensingh. The latest report on indigenous people by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) suggests that Bangladesh is home to 54 different indigenous groups, speaking a total of 35 different languages. However, due to their alarming minority, they are largely disregarded and also face human rights violations on multiple fronts (IWGIA, 2022).
The most fundamental issue faced by the indigenous people in Bangladesh is that the constitution does not provide them with proper legal recognition. There is mention of “minority communities” and “ethnic communities”, but the law does not recognize them as “indigenous”. Furthermore, the government maintains that all people born in Bangladesh are Bengali. This tied with the negative social perception of the ethnic minorities prevent them from enjoying the same rights as a Bengali citizen (Cultural Survival, 2017). However, it is worth mentioning that in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Regulation, 1900; and Act 12 of 1995, the terms ‘indigenous peoples’ or ‘aboriginal’ are used. The constitution also states in article 23A, “the State shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects, and communities”, prohibiting any manner of discrimination towards the indigenous people. The State Acquisition and Tenancy Act (1950) also prohibits selling the land of the aborigines or local tribes to anyone except their own ethnic groups (Ahmed, 2016).
Despite such legal precedents or lack thereof, unethical abduction of land remains to be common practice even today, resulting in indigenous people being forced out of their own ancestral lands. The Daily Star in Bangladesh reported that 22,000 complaints have been filed with the CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission since its formation in 1999, most of which met with inaction (Mahmud, 2019).
Cultural Survival’s report provides an outlook on the conflict and violence indigenous communities are suffering on a regular basis. It found that 2015 alone saw the illegal abduction of 5,216 acres of land by Bengali settlers, private entities, and even government agencies. Alongside that, 26 homes owned by ethnic minorities were set ablaze, 65 homes were looted, 44 people were physically attacked resulting in the death of a minor, 45 families were unreasonably expelled, and a further 1,400 families were threatened to be evicted. Women belonging to minority groups also become regular targets of physical and sexual violence (Cultural Survival, 2017).
Outside of ethnic and regional conflicts, development projects with an overall lack of comprehensiveness and inclusivity can pose threats to the survival of indigenous people to a great degree. Looking back at our recent history, the Karnaphuli Hydro-electricity Project in 1960, which required the submersion of 54,000 acres of cultivable land, caused unprecedented amounts of damage to the indigenous communities of Rangamati. The project resulted in the displacement of a third of the then population of the region and caused severe environmental degradation. Following the construction of the power plant, 200,000 to 450,000 Bengalis were relocated to the region by the year 1985, causing large-scale ethnic conflicts and forcing as many as 100,000 ethnic minorities to seek refuge beyond Bangladesh’s borders. Many of these people were able to return in the ’90s once the region stabilized, but are yet to receive justice or compensation (Mahmud, 2019).
Today, there are two significant development projects expected to rival the negative effects of the Karnaphuli Hydro-electricity Project. These are the Phulbari Coal Mine and the Rampal Power Plant.
The Phulbari project was first proposed in 2006 and has received backlash from indigenous people, experts, and environmentalists ever since. The project plans to take over 14,660 acres of land in Dinajpur, which may displace as many as 220,000 people in the area, approximately 50,000 of which are indigenous. Expert reviews claim that neither the Global Coal Management Resources Plc (GCM); the private entity hired to execute the project, nor the government of Bangladesh has the capacity to relocate that many people even if they welcome it. Seven UN special representatives have recommended the project be terminated because it violates the human rights of thousands of Bangladeshi indigenous people and other civilians. The protests and controversies surrounding the project has resulted in its postponement, but it is yet to be terminated entirely (International Accountability Project) (UN, 2012).
The Rampal project is also a coal-based power plant taking up 1834 acres of land in Bagerhat. The plant is only 14 kilometers away from the boundaries of the Sundarbans; the largest mangrove forest in the world and a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO. The forest hosts a number of indigenous tribes as well as many endangered species. Having the power plant in such close proximity will irreparably damage the ecology of the area. The environmental impact assessment guidelines in the country require such projects to be at least 25 kilometers outside any ecologically sensitive area. A UNESCO report from 2016 has also directly stated that the release of hot water and chemicals into the rivers and canals flowing down the Sundarbans while the power plant is in operation will result in considerable damage to the forest’s aquatic life and canal networks. Despite all that, the power plant is nearing completion and is set to start operating in September of 2022. The plant is expected to have a capacity of 1320 megawatts. Still, the local people surrounding the Sundarbans, especially the indigenous communities, stand to gain nothing and lose everything from its construction, making it another example of a lack of comprehensiveness and inclusivity in development plans (Cultural Survival, 2017) (The Daily Star) (Mamun, 2022).
The tourism industry has also expanded exponentially in Bangladesh, and the lands inhabited by the indigenous people host some of the country’s main attractions in areas like the Chittagong Hills, Bandarban, Sylhet, etc. The private sector has taken notice of this expanding market and are initiating development projects to accommodate tourists. However, in doing so, they are taking over the lands owned by ethnic minorities resulting in internal displacements. For example, a proposed five-star hotel in the Bandarban region by the Sikder group plans to acquire over 1,000 acres of indigenous land, uprooting six entire villages of the Mro tribe. They also remain anxious that construction of such magnitude may damage the natural resources and biodiversity in the area as well as their sacred sites. These are not issues tourists concern themselves with, and this lack of awareness encourages many developers to follow the Sikder group’s example (Khaing, 2021).
Bangladesh has developed a number of acts and treaties in recent decades that provide indigenous people with some form of legal basis, but the aforementioned examples clearly entail that the equality and protection discussed on paper are hardly being reflected practically. Public authorities themselves are often liable for the struggles faced by ethnic minorities. Their exclusion from development projects is also indicative of the government’s political will (Sakib, 2021). The evidence suggests that there is still a long way ahead for the indigenous people in Bangladesh to achieve justice and equality on the same level as Bengali citizens, however, raising awareness regarding their situation and lobbying for their rights in whatever capacity can only help to accelerate the process.
Research Intern, Act for Displaced
I’m currently studying at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies at the University of Dhaka. I’m interested in the internal displacement issues in Bangladesh as well the Rohingya forced migration from Myanmar.