Preserving the beauty of his rich indigenous culture of Bangladesh

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 13:00
  • Australia Awards
  • Bangladesh

AustraliaAwards alumnus Pallab Chakma is now a fierce advocate for indigenous rights and fighting for his community’s equality through his current role as the Executive Director of the Kapaeeng Foundation in Bangladesh.

Preserving the beauty of his rich indigenous culture of Bangladesh

Pallab Chakma’s upbringing in the
south-eastern part of Bangladesh amongst the lush green, deep forests
and rugged valleys and waterfalls in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT),
has shaped both his career and firm strength of character.

Growing up immersed in his indigenous
Chakma culture – Village Common Forest (VCF) customs, a traditional
practice of collective forest management by the community; Jum
cultivation (slash-and-burn agriculture) for growing crops; and the Bizu
Festival, a celebration of end of the year and welcoming new year that
has its origins in preparing the earth for a generous harvest – all
reinforced his connection with his ancestors and their special
relationship with the land.

Eleven Indigenous ethnic groups reside
in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), named Chakma, Marma, Tripura,
Tanchangya, Mro, Lushai, Khumi, Chak, Khiyang, Bawm and Pangkhua, who
collectively all identify themselves as the Jumma people (High Landers
who practise Jum cultivation).

“The Jumma people, and a small number
of descendants of Assames and Gorkhas, have been living in the
Chittagong Hill Tracts for centuries,” says Pallab.

“I belong to the Chakma indigenous
group. The largest among the all indigenous groups in this area. We have
our own traditional customary land management system and judiciary
headed by our Circle Chief. Apart from regular state law, we also
practice our customary system of land management and judiciary by our
own way.”

Pallab is now a fierce advocate for
these indigenous rights and fighting for his community’s equality
through his current role as the Executive Director of the Kapaeeng
Foundation, a human rights organisation of indigenous peoples of
Bangladesh run by indigenous peoples themselves.

He has also made his name with the with
Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum where he holds the position of
Assistant General Secretary in the National Committee and is one of the
editors of the Annual Human Rights Report of Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh, a regular report on indigenous peoples’ human rights situations.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are
described by Amnesty International as a little-known place in Bangladesh
where great beauty is the backdrop to a sordid brutality.

After decades of displacement and
violent conflict, 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord was signed
between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government and the Jumma people
of the CHT over their lands and other administrative issues.

While the Peace Accord ended much of
the decades of armed conflict in the troubled region of Bangladesh, many
of the issues still persist – including legal recognition by the
Bangladesh Constitution, ownership, settlement and their rights to
traditional lands, livelihood and culture, military occupation, and the
Jumma’s political autonomy – and action to combat these human rights
violations have been stifled.

“Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are
discriminated against in many ways. Their traditional lands are being
grabbed by influential and majority groups of people. Sometimes they are
forcefully evicted from their ancestral land due to implementation of
development projects in the name of establishment of tourism complexes,
military bases, reserve forests, and eco-parks,” he says.

“Due to their ethnic identity
indigenous peoples often become victims of wage discrimination in some
parts of the country, and do not have access to justice especially in
the cases of violence against indigenous women.”

“These indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are not even recognised in the country’s constitution.”

Pallab has made it his life’s work to
uphold these traditional collective rights over land, territories and
resources, to ensure all civil and political rights, and economic,
social and cultural rights to protect the vulnerable indigenous peoples
in the country.

As Executive Chief of the organisation
he leads his team and the wider community through a range of activities
to protect their culture and customs including policy advocacy,
awareness, capacity building, networking, mobilising funds, research,
and community mobilisation.

One of the most successful projects
Pallab has been a part of is when last year, he and his fellow
Bangladeshi Australia Awards alumni – Janet Naco, Shohel Chandra Hajang
and Lelung Khumi – successfully lobbied the country’s Government for
legal reforms to stop the pollution of CHT water sources in their
indigenous community.

After years of campaigning and
community empowerment from the group, the Bangladeshi High Court has
directed the involved authorities to immediately stop extraction of
stone from Sangu and Matamuhri rivers in Bandarban, and declared the
practice illegal.

While there is still lots of work to
do, this is a major step in protecting the local Jumma peoples and their
homeland, and the dangers that they have been facing concerning access
to clean drinking water, the coinciding health issues, and subsequent
environmental hazards.

Education has been a significant part
of this journey too, as growing up he noticed many people in his
community were not aware of their rights and were therefore often unable
to contribute in preserving, protecting and developing their
traditional culture and customs.

However, he witnessed the influence
education had in empowering educated members of the community and
galvanising these indigenous groups to protect their rights, so he
decided to pursue higher education as well.

“I consider myself lucky that I got this opportunity to contribute in rising the community.”

After earning a Bachelor in
International Relations in Bangladesh, he cemented a keen interest in
international affairs and politics, and how these structures contributed
to conflict, peace, and negotiation.

He then spotted an opportunity to study
peace and conflict studies under Australia Awards Scholarships,
formerly known as Australian Development Scholarships (ADS), and
immediately applied for it and landing a place in UniSA’s Master of
Mediation and Conflict Resolution.

After graduating from the University in
2013, and now as Executive Director, Pallab has led the Kapaeeng
Foundation through a number of successful programs, however, he still
sees his voice as a great privilege.

“Indigenous peoples are one of the most
vulnerable groups in the society in respect of enjoying civil and
political rights in the country. Therefore, indigenous leaders thought
they should have a human rights platform of their own from where they
could raise their voices against any kinds of human rights violation
perpetrated against indigenous peoples,” he says.

“Now Kapaeeng Foundation is that
platform which works for promotion and protection of the rights of
indigenous peoples in the country. Being an indigenous rights activist
and leading the KF as Executive Director, I am very happy with the work I
am doing for my own people.”

“I consider myself lucky that I got this opportunity to contribute in rising up the community.”

“I believe that, if we stand together and fight together, we could bring positive change to our society,” adds Pallab.”


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