How do we ensure effective Community Legal Services for the Indigenous Communities in the plain land and Chittagong Hill Tracts region in Bangladesh?

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Community Legal Services (CLS) Programme organised a two-day long training on ensuring effective community legal services for the indigenous communities in the pain land and Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region in Bangladesh during 13-14 August 2016 at DSA Conference Room, Rangamati, CHT. A total of 9 partner organisations BELA, Brotee, BLAST, BLAST-YPSA, CODEC, Green Hill, CODEC, Light House, Nagorik Uddyog and RIB participated in the training, as they are directly working with indigenous communities in the plain land as well as in the CHT region in ensuring access to justice and legal empowerment at the community level.

The key objectives of this training were to enrich the concept of indigenous peoples and the needs of working for the rights of indigenous communities in Bangladesh; enhance the capacity of the partner organisations on how to ensure effective legal services for the indigenous communities’ i.e. special laws and policies regarding indigenous peoples, sensitivity, special needs; and last but not least, to identify the issues from the community for further advocacy and campaign at the national level to promote access to justice.

Chakma Circle Chief barrister Raja Devasish Roy was the key resource person for the workshop. The key matters discussed during the workshop were who are Indigenous Peoples (IPs), brief historical background of IPs in Bangladesh, diversity, intersectionality and social inclusion, relevant laws and policies for plain land indigenous peoples, challenges and opportunities, relevant laws and policies for the Adibashi people, challenges and opportunities, identification of issues for further campaign, advocacy and lobbying, and setting strategy for way forward.

First day of the workshop started with PNGOs presenting their activities in connection with the rights of indigenous peoples and shared their expectations with the resource person. Resource person discussed the definition of Indigenous peoples, international development on the rights of indigenous peoples, different dynamics of state’s non- recognition, the history of deprivation and struggle of IPs in to establish their rights. Many participants mentioned that one of the key challenges they face that Adibashis do not trust Bengalis; they do not want NGOs to resolve their problems, they are not interested in making change and filing litigation.  In reply to this concern, resource person conducted a brief group work on how the NGOs have developed the proposal, whether the communities/stakeholders ensured active participation during the project designing phase or not, number of IPs in project management level as well as field level. The findings came out of the group work was very little or no participation of IPs in project design stage and number of indigenous staff at the management level is rare. Barrister Devasish Roy emphasised on developing strategy to increase IP communities’ active participation during all stages of the project and increasing the number of indigenous staff as different level to build trust among the communities and overcome the barriers to ensure legal services for the IPs. He also discussed elaborately the reason behind those challenges, the history of deprivation and structural discrimination, systematic land grabbing, lack of understanding, and reluctance of the government officials to protect the rights of IPs.

Resource person also discussed the provision of section 97 of East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950 to protect the rights of plain land Indigenous Peoples and emphasised on using that act for local level advocacy and lobby. He also mentioned that that there is a provision to frame rules under this act; government can enact rules, though it has not been initiated by government last 66 years. He emphasised that CLS grantees can focus on building rapport with local DC and ADC revenue as the have got certain power,   if   they  become indigenous     friendly,

they can resolve many land related problem of plain land indigenous peoples. He also focused on Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institutions Act 2010 (Amendment of this act is on process to include all the indigenous groups) and requested CLS NGOs to use every opportunities under this act in promoting indigenous peoples rights.

Discrimination against IPs by NGOs:

  • Many instances project/NGOs impose their decisions to the IPs
  • Stopped IPs traditional activities on the ground of mainstreaming social/moral value
  • Less importance on the participation of women
  • Discrimination on selecting staff/participants (absence of positive discrimination for IPs)

Key challenges identified:

  • Many cases IPs lives in remote or Hard to Reach areas – therefore communication is a problem as well as language barrier is another challenge
  • Trust building among the IPs
  • DLAC lawyers are not that sensitive towards IP clients and not very keen to do the cases
  • Lack of documentation in traditional dispute resolution forum – IPs generally do not keep their land related documents
  • Conflict between the local IP leaders, absence of women in traditional dispute resolution forums.
  • Absence of National Agency for the development of indigenous peoples
  • Non-recognition of traditional system/Institutions (Nokma, Manjhi Parishad etc) by the State

Areas/Issues identified for local and national level advocacy and lobby:

  • Recognition and preservation of traditional dispute resolution forum with positive changes
  • Special measures need to be undertaken for recovering land documents of IPs
  • Special measures for the protection of indigenous land rights.
  • Provision of using mother tongue for primary education
  • Special quota for IPs for local government as well as inclusion of IPs in different Govt committee
  • Inclusion of IPs in Govt Safety Net Programme
  • Legal and administrative reform to remove structural discrimination against IPs

The feedback received from the participants showed that the workshop evidently helped them enhance their skills as well as confidence to work for indigenous communities. The participants considered the handout to be of high value and rich in information which they received during the workshop.