Hundreds of ethnic indigenous people, mostly Catholics from two parishes in central Bangladesh, joined a protest rally against what they called a government move to evict thousands of villagers from their ancestral land in the guise of reclaiming forest reserve.
The protesters held a rally by chanting slogans and forming a human chain in the Madhupur area of Tangail district on Jan. 25.
They also submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina through district government officials seeking her intervention to stop the move immediately.
The demonstrators held banners with the slogan “Our land is our mother, we won’t let it be snatched away!”
Anger and panic have gripped locals since 2016 when the Forest and Environment Ministry issued a notice that declared 1,945 acres of land in Madhupur to be rezoned as forest reserve.
Ethnic villagers and rights activists say the move threatens the survival of about 7,000 mostly Catholic villagers who have lived there for more than a century.
These people belong to 13 villages under Corpus Christi Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Madhupur covered by Mymensingh Diocese.
Villagers have been holding protests in Madhupur and elsewhere including capital Dhaka against the move, but to no avail.
In the latest development, the parliamentary standing committee of the Forest and Environment Ministry asked the government to issue an eviction notice to illegal occupants of the forest by Jan. 30. It also ordered an eviction drive if the occupants failed to move within seven days of the notice.
Zahirul Haq, a divisional forest officer in Tangail, said the move has been in progress on the orders of “higher authorities.”
“We provided a list of illegal occupants to the higher authority and all depends on the top authority. We are just implementing the orders,” Haq told UCA News.
Rights activists rejected the move as illogical and unacceptable.
“In 1962, during the Pakistan period, the government declared the area as forest reserve, but many of the villagers have been living here for more than century. As per law of the land, no one can evict us from our ancestral land where we have lived for generations. We will stage even larger and tougher protests to resist the eviction move,” Eugene Nokrek, a Garo Catholic and president of Joenshahi Adivasi Development Council, told UCA News.
“We believe our prime minister is completely in the dark about a vested quarter in the government that is attempting to evict poor ethnic communities from their land. We would like to bring it to her attention and we would like to live on our land with rights and in peace as equal citizens of the country.”
A big protest has been planned for Jan. 31, soon after the government issues eviction notices to villagers.
The Catholic Church has lent support to protesting villagers and a senior official termed the move “unjust and inhuman.”
“For years, ethnic communities have been victims of unjust and inhuman policies and actions in the country and the latest case is just another example,” Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
“Ethnic people take care of the environment and forest while vested groups with backing from the government have been destroying the nature and forests. We will do everything to assist the community so that this unacceptable move is stopped.”
Father Gomes said the commission and indigenous groups have been trying to meet the PM to seek her intervention to find an amicable solution to the crisis.
“I believe the government will realize a grave injustice is being done to ethnic people and move away from it soon,” the priest noted.
Abuses, violence and killings of ethnic people over land disputes are common in Bangladesh.
In 2000, the Forestry Department moved to set up a forest conservation and ecotourism project on 1,214 hectares in Madhupur, defying opposition from tribal people.
In 2004, two indigenous activists were shot dead and dozens injured, allegedly by the police, after thousands of indigenous people joined a series of large protests against the project. The protests forced the government to suspend the project that same year.
Several activists have been victims of extrajudicial killings over land disputes. Dozens of ethnic people face numerous fabricated lawsuits filed by the Forestry Department for allegedly plundering and illegally occupying forests.