“Our ancestors have lived on this land for hundreds of years. If they have to leave again, where will they go?”
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in September 2020, like many others, Reng Young Mro decided to go home.
He returned to his village in Bandarban, southeast Bangladesh, in the midst of his university studies.
His main reason for going home was more than just visiting his family...
He had learned that the lands at Naitong Hill, part of his hometown, had been grabbed for a five-star tourism project.
Reng, 27, identifies himself as Indigenous Mro, one of the 11 Indigenous communities living in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). For decades, these communities were subject to violent conflict and harassment by the Government until a peace accord was signed in 1997 between the two parties.
The tourism project would have threatened the livelihoods of the Mro people, who depended entirely on the fertile land of Naitong Hill as their primary source of income. But for Indigenous Peoples, land does not only provide livelihoods. It is intrinsically linked to their identity, culture, and way of life.
The army played a part in this too. The Bangladesh Army Welfare Trust and the Sikder Group conglomerate company R&R Holdings Limited started construction of the tourism project, including a Marriott Hotel, without consulting the Mro community. About 10,000 Indigenous Peoples were at risk of being evicted.
Soon after, about 1,500 people from the Mro community stood in protest, demanding the government return their land.
One of the significant contributors to the protests was the student activist groups led by Reng.
“We found that, instead of 20 acres of land, [the Army and the private company] took 1,000 acres by force. They put pillars here and there and harassed the villagers. We thought we could not let it happen. [One of the reasons] I stood in the protest was because the Mro people had lost a lot of land already,” said Reng.
Between 2016 and 2018, the indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts filed 32,789 applications to the Land Dispute Resolution Commission.
Sadly, this was not the first time the Mro community experienced forced eviction caused by land-grabbing.
“[In 2006], at Sualok Union (a rural administrative unit made up of nine villages), 11,500 acres of land were taken to build an army training centre. Many Mro people had to leave their land and their homes. Then they moved up to Chimbuk and Naitong Hill. Now they need to leave again. Where will they have to go now?”
On the steep hills of Naitong, the Mro people can be seen every day cultivating fruit and vegetables.
Langnan Murung, who also identifies as an Indigenous Mro, provides for his family by doing slash-and-burn cultivation or locally known as Jum. He and fellow residents of Dola Kua Village have lived off this land for generations. Langnan decided to join the protest not just to protect the land but also to defend fellow villagers.
“The women from our community are being asked [by the Army] where they are going. They ask what are you carrying? Why don’t you bring bananas for us? We don't want this kind of harassment. They even search our bag when we go to the market to sell our crops,” said Langnan.
The National Land Coalition (NLC) Bangladesh, which consists of ILC members in the country, supported the Mro community in the protests, offering technical and financial assistance.
The NLC, known by its Coalition members as the Bangladesh Land Rights Network (BLRN), is a multi-stakeholder platform working to push through people-centred land governance and reform in a given country. Their advocacy efforts are also centred on defending indigenous rights in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, working with indigenous youth in the region, and raising awareness of the involvement of youth in decision-making processes.
BLRN has been pushing to enforce the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Land Dispute Resolution Commission.
This body was created in 2001 by the Government of Bangladesh, with the aim of resolving land disputes in the region and as part of the Peace Accord. However, weak enforcement of the Commission has contributed to the commercialisation and privatisation of land and the numerous abuses suffered by the indigenous communities in the CHT.
One of BLRN’s strategies was to encourage the Mro people to submit a case application to the Commission in parallel with the protests.
On 7 February 2021, the Mro community joined hands for a long march from Chimbuk Hill to Bandarban town, which covered about 28 kilometres.
The community called for the government to adhere to the 1997 Peace Accord and to stop the construction of the hotel, which they believed was "a threat to the forest, biodiversity and environment of the area". This was the last march that the community organised.
After more than three months, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission finally advised the Government to abandon the realisation of the project.
Reng and other young activists involved in the protests are still taking precautions even though construction of the hotel seems to have stopped for now.
Two years after the long march, signposts and pillars placed by the Army to mark the construction site still remained on the hills of Naitong and Chimbuk. The Mro people, though, have been left in the dark.
Langnan and a few villagers had gone to a Mro social leader to ask for advice on what more could be done to protect their land.
The leader, who remains anonymous, told Langnan that there were no decisions yet, and even advised them to “go somewhere else” with the complaint.
“How can we get back those leased lands? There is no clear process, which means the company can still come back and take thousands of acres of our land. There is a lot of uncertainty still."
On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we acknowledge the bravery of the Indigenous Mro people in defending their land rights.
Indigenous youth like Reng and fellow student activists are agents of change as they are at the forefront of the most pressing crises like land grabbing.