Rights activists have demanded a new forest act, ensuring rights of forest-dependent minorities, be enacted and that the forest department be accountable.
They made the call while addressing a virtual meeting on the draft Forest Act 2019, Saturday. Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD) and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) jointly organised the programme.
Bela Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan presented the keynote paper on the draft prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. She said though the draft is being hailed as an epoch-defining step, it contains nothing new. It instead has added some shallow proposals in certain cases.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the draft is basically the Bengali version of Forest Act 1927.
She said participation and share of forest-dependent people in forest management must be ensured through carrying out changes to the existing legal framework. Before declaring a reserve forest, six types of rights of forest dwellers mentioned in the law must be complied with.
Chakma Circle Chief Devasish Roy presented another keynote on Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) issues. He said the existing act does not define a forest while the draft proposed that any land would be treated as a forest upon government declaration. "This is totally unacceptable," he observed.
"And if that is the case, the act will just identify forests with signboards," he added.
Hill people rejected the "social forestry" concept long ago, mentioning that the Chakma circle chief said proposals in the draft on jhum cultivation contradict the main spirit of CHT Peace Accord. The demanded amendments of the CHT Forest Transit Rules are in accordance with the forest act, discussions with forest people and other policies.
Goutam Dewan, convener of Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizens Committee, said the draft does not preserve the interests of the people concerned.
He said policymakers do not talk to the concerned people though the CHT Peace Accord stipulates there must be discussion with the hill people while formulating a law for the CHT region.
Caritas Development Institute Director Theophil Nokrek said the Garo people had been living in the area and protecting the forest long before the enactment of the Forest Act. Now the forest department is desperate to evict the members of the ethnic minority and Garos are being harassed through multiple police cases being filed against them.
About the members of the ethnic minority living on plain-land, including the northern part of the country, President of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad Rabindranath Saren said forests have been deserted, severely challenging the existence of minority groups.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum General Secretary Sanjib Drang demanded an instruction from the top level of the government to the forest department so that members of ethnic minorities living in several regions of the country do not face eviction attempts.
ALRD Executive Director Shamsul Huda presided over the programme while Sudatta Bikash Tanchangya, Shah-e-Mobin Jinnah, Swapan Kumar Guha, Shafiqul Islam, and Bichitra Tirki, among others, also spoke.