Aug 31, 2011

Chittagong Hill Tracts: Troubled by Land Rows

Thousands of complaints on land ownership are ignored. 

Below is an article published by The Daily Star:

The government is sitting on thousands of complaints about land ownerships in the hills as the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission has remained inactive since its inception 10 years ago.

The commission was unable to resolve a single dispute in the region.

Land disputes in CHT have become acute as the government neglected the land rights of indigenous people, and conducted sponsored demographic engineering by settling Bangalees in the hills over the past decades, said observers.

Meanwhile, land disputes resulted in eight clashes between indigenous hill people and Bangalee settlers in different parts of the region claiming 14 lives only in the last two and a half years, according to news reports.

Traditional community land ownership of the indigenous hill people in CHT declined to 28.76 percent from 76.21 between 1978 and 2009, says a study.

Over the same period, possession of land by government agencies increased to 25.77 percent from 5.22 percent, found a study on CHT land conducted by Chairman of Dhaka University Economics Department Dr Abul Barakat.

The forest department announced 2,18,000 acres of land as reserved, all of which used to be regarded as community land of the indigenous people.

Only in Bandarban the government allocated 1,605 plots consisting 40,077 acres of land to Bangalees for commercial rubber plantations.

Many of these pieces of land used to be owned by indigenous hill people based on traditional verbal agreements. Now they find themselves ousted from their land that they had owned for generations.

The five-member land commission, an outcome of the CHT Peace Accord 1997, sat only once, before the government suspended its activities for an indefinite period last December.

The suspension came as the indigenous communities demanded the commission to work in line with the provisions of the peace treaty, and identify ownerships of land before conducting any land survey.

Before the suspension, people filed 5,000 applications with it regarding their disputed pieces of land. "But the number of land disputes in CHT is even higher," said Abdul Hamid, secretary of the commission.

A huge number of applications might have been submitted to the commission if its activities had not been suspended, he said.

Representatives of the indigenous hill people oppose a few provisions of the Land Commission Act-2001. They say that some of its provisions contradict the CHT Peace Accord. They have been protesting the commission's activities and demanding removal of its chairman.

"Indigenous hill people have lost faith in the commission chairman due to his controversial activities. So far, he did everything unilaterally, ignoring all commission members including me," said Raja Devasish Roy, Chakma circle chief.

The government appointed Justice Khademul Islam Chowdhury as the commission chairman on July 19, 2009. On March 14 last year, the commission office was set up in Khagrachhari.

Rather than holding discussions with the members to find ways to improve operations of the commission, Justice Khademul called several administrative meetings without bothering to include its members, sources among the indigenous population claimed.

The debate between the commission and the leaders of the indigenous hill people started when Justice Khademul proposed to carry out a land survey in CHT.

It has to be done by the government through the land ministry after resolving all land disputes, not before it, the leaders said.

"If the land survey is carried out before solving the disputes, then it will be very difficult to identify the real ownership of any piece of land," said PCJSS leader Sajib Chakma.

Under the traditional land ownership system of the indigenous communities, they used to possess land based on verbal agreements without any written document, which used to be respected.

Over the decades the government did not recognise the traditional land ownership system in CHT.

Now most of the indigenous people lost their land due to document forgery by Bangalee settlers, and 62 percent indigenous people of CHT are passing their days in extreme poverty, the study conducted by Dr Barakat says.

Justice Khademul however said, "Whatever decisions I have made in the commission, those were made according to the law, and maintaining quorum."

The government has yet to make any move to bring an end to this deadlock.

The government has yet to make any move to bring an end to this deadlock.

State Minister for CHT Affairs Dipangkar Talukder told The Daily Star, "You will know if the government makes any move.