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Monday, December 26, 2011

Amendment to the Forest Act-1927 and Opinion of indigenous peoples

Amendment to the Forest Act-1927 and Opinion of indigenous peoples

The Cabinet on 10 November 2010 gave in-principle approval of the proposed amendment to the Forest Act-1927 sparking mixed reaction among the forest-dependent people in the CHT and plain land. The amendments contradict the CHT Accord of 1997, CHT Regional Council Act of 1998 and Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban District Council Acts of 1998, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation-1900. The amendment proposals, if approved by parliament, would result in conflicting situation between the Forest Department, and the CHT Regional Council and the three Hill District Councils over the authorities on forest.
According to the section 53 of the CHT Regional Council Act-1998, the government should consult the council and seek the opinion of the forest-dependent people in the hill region. Indigenous leaders are of opinion that the government should respect the CHT Regional Council act-1998 and amend the Forest Act-1927 in line with opinion of the people of the CHT. The following factors justify our demand:

The adivasi communities of the CHT could not take part in the pro-people and sustainable development efforts due to prevalence of a conflicting situation and the political unrests in the region. The government, donors, diplomats, development workers and the civil society have agreed that the development in the three hill districts should be according to the CHT Accord signed in 1997. The Accord recognizes the CHT as a tribal-dominated region and stresses on its overall development to protect the special region. If the proposed amendment approved by parliament, will seriously weaken the CHT Accord, CHT Regional Council Act, three Hill Districts Council Acts,

In fact, the forest department has failed to protect the forest in the CHT. The amendment proposals, which are conflicting with the section 64 of the Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban Hill Districts Council Acts, have denied the natural and traditional lifestyles of the forest-dependent people. The Section 64 of these Acts clearly says, the ownership of all land, excepting the government forest, cannot be transferred without prior approval of the three Hill District Councils. The Article 11 and 13 of the 1957 Convention (no 107) of the ILO on Indigenous and Tribal Population say that the signatory countries will recognize the collective and traditional ownership of land enjoyed by the adivasi communities. The convention also makes signatories obligated to frame their domestic laws by recognizi! ng the land rights of the adivasi communities. Bangladesh is a signatory to the Convention making it a commitment to the international community to abide by the Convention.

The ruling Awami League in its election manifesto pledged to protect the rights, culture and tradition of the adivasi communities and other small nationalities in the country.
The section 6 (a) of the Forest Act-1927 allows the adivasi communities and the forest dependent people to raise their demands for compensation in 18 months in case of government’s decision to declare a particular area reserved forest. But the proposed amendment will drop the provision and the proposal is against the legal and traditional rights of the adivasi communities. The cutting the provision will make the backward forest dependent people more vulnerable instead of improving their socio-economic and cultural status. So, such move from a democratically elected government is undesirable and unacceptable.
The definition of ‘Notified Forest’ set at the Section 34 of the proposed amendment is really a matter of concern for the forest-dependent people. The dispute between the forest department and the forest-dependent people has become a permanent syndrome as the government has declared some areas protected and reserved forest without legally recognizing the traditional rights of the forest-dependent people on cultivation, irrigation, access and others issues. The adivasi communities will face massive displacement if the land under the Hill District Council was brought under the proposed ‘Notified Forest’ through the amendment. The Hill District Councils will lose its legal status in opposing such anti-people decisions of the forest department. The amendments, if implemented, would create conflicting situation with the violation of the Fore! st Act-1927, CHT Regulation-1900, and the Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban Districts Council Act (Section 64). Again, the amendments may cause face off between the forest department and the Hill District Councils.
Filing false cases by the forest department against adivasi communities and the forest-dependent people in the CHT and plain land is a common practice. The proposal for increasing the punishment for forest related offences and crimes would strengthen the corrupt officials and employees of the forest department giving them more opportunities to make the hapless and poor people dependent on the forest hostages. It will enhance corruption in the forest department. Increasing the punishment will make the forest-related crimes ‘non-bailable’ resulting in the languishing of the accused persons in custody. Instead, there should be a section to punish the forest officials for filing false cases against the adivasi communities and the forest dependent people.
The amendment (Serial no. 19) has proposed inclusion of a representative of the divisional forest officer as a member of the probe body investigating the incidents of fire arms use by forest officer. Indigenous leaders proposed incorporating a local elected representative such as upzilla vice chairman instead of the representative of the divisional forest officer. Because, presence of a representative of the divisional forest officer (assistant conservator of forest) will stand in the way of impartial investigation on any firing incidents.
The land and other rights of the forest-dependent people are yet to be settled. But the amendments have proposed giving the divisional forest officer the authorities to evict the illegal land occupiers: this is not only illogical but also against the principle of fair justice. Eviction from land is a civil court’s affair. So, imposing such power to the divisional forest officer would widen up the possibility of misuse of the same. The consequences may be: the forest-dependent people will be deprived of justice.
The amendment proposal (Serial no. 24) has authorized the nearest forest officer to hear the cases of preparing the land records of the forest-dependent people. This is against justice and public interests. The forest-dependent people living near the protected, reserved and other forest areas will have slim chance of getting legal rights on their land if the proposal is approved. The move is a blow to the traditional rights of the forest-dependent people on their land and resources. [This opinion was prepared by 8-member technical committee led by Advocate Jnanendu Bikash Chakma formed by CHT civic society in January 2011].

courtesy: Kapaeeng Foundation

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