In this special series of reports, IPS journalists travel to the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speak with Rohingya refugees, humanitarian workers and officials about the still-unfolding human rights and health crises facing this long-marginalized and persecuted community.
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh, Nov 29 2017 (IPS) – Parul Akhtar,* a Rohingya woman in her mid-twenties, may never wish to remember the homeland she and her children left about three weeks ago.
Too scared to speak out, Parul, the mother of two young children, rests inside the makeshift tent she now calls her home in Kutupalong in southeastern Bangladesh, which is hosting thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.
But it is still fresh in her mind as she recalls the violence she and her family endured day after day when truckloads of army soldiers, along with local Buddhist men, came to violate women, loot valuables and burn homes while picking up young men in her village in Rajarbil in Maungdaw district in Myanmar.
“My body shivers when I recall those days,” says Parul, visibly upset by the horrifying memories.
Standing in front of her tent in Modhuchhara camp in the vast and so far the biggest Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, about 35 kilometers from the nearest city of Cox’s Bazar, Parul, narrates the ordeal of escaping the atrocities.
“It was a nightmare trying to escape and dodge the embedded informers, army and of course, police,” Parul says.
“When I came back to consciousness, I found my brothers and husband missing. My children were also not spared.” –Nasima Aktar
RODELAS, Brazil, Sep 30 2017 (IPS) – The Tuxá indigenous people had lived for centuries in the north of the Brazilian state of Bahia, on the banks of the São Francisco River. But in 1988 their territory was flooded by the Itaparica hydropower plant, and since then they have become landless. Their roots are now buried under the waters of the reservoir.
Dorinha Tuxá, one of the leaders of this native community, which currently has between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants, sings on the shore of what they still call “river”, although now it is an 828-sq-km reservoir, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, along the border with the state of Bahia, to the south.
While singing the song dedicated to their “sacred” river and smoking her “maraku”, a pipe with tobacco and ritual herbs, she looks dreamily at the waters where the “Widow’s Island” was submerged, one of several that sprinkled the lower course of the São Francisco River, and on which the members of her community used to live.
“This song is to ask our community for unity, because in this struggle we are asking for the strength of our ancestors to help us recover our territory. A landless indigenous person is a naked indigenous person. We are asking our ancestors to bless us in this battle and protect our warriors,” she told IPS.
The hydroelectric plant, with a capacity of 1,480 megawatts, is one of eight installed by the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (CHESF), whose operations are centered on that river which runs across much of the Brazilian Northeast region: 2,914 km from its source in the center of the country to the point where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the northeast.
After the flood, the Tuxá people were relocated to three municipalities. Some were settled in Nova Rodelas, a hamlet in the rural municipality of Rodelas, in the state of Bahia, where Dorinha Tuxá lives.
After a 19-year legal battle, the 442 relocated Tuxá families finally received compensation from the CHESF. But they are still waiting for the 4,000 hectares that were agreed upon when they were displaced, and which must be handed over to them by state agencies.
“What nostalgia for that blessed land where we were born and which did not let us lack for anything. The river where we used to fish. I have such nostalgia for that time, from my childhood to my marriage. We were indeed a suffering and stoic but optimistic people. We grew rice, onions, we harvested mangoes. All that is gone,” Tuxá chief Manoel Jurum Afé told IPS.
The new village is very different from the community where they used to live on their island.
“What nostalgia for that blessed land where we were born and which did not let us lack for anything. The river where we used to fish. I have such nostalgia for that time, from my childhood to my marriage. We were indeed a suffering and stoic but optimistic people. We grew rice, onions, we harvested mangoes. All that is gone.” — Manoel Jurum Afé
Only the soccer field, where children play, retains the shape of traditional indigenous Tuxá constructions.
But the elders strive to transmit their collective memory to the young, such as Luiza de Oliveira, who was baptized with the indigenous name of Aluna Flexia Tuxá.
She is studying law to continue her people’s struggle for land and rights. Her mother, like many other Tuxá women, also played an important role as chief, or community leader.
“It was as if they lived in a paradise. They had no need to beg the government like they have to do now. They used to plant everything, beans, cassava. They lived together in complete harmony. They talk about it with nostalgia. It was a paradise that came to an end when it was flooded,” she said.
(August 8, 2017) AlJazeera Three boats carrying ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar have capsized in Bangladesh, killing at least 26 people, according to officials.
The bodies of 15 women and 11 children were recovered in Cox’s Bazar after the vessels, which carried an unknown number of Rohingya, sank in the Naf River on Wednesday, Bangladesh border guard commander Lieutenant Colonel S.M. Ariful Islam said on Thursday.
Rakhine violence pushes more Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh.
He added that it was unclear whether anyone was still missing, according to The Associated Press news agency.
The top official in Cox’s Bazar, Mohammad Ali Hossain, said the bodies would be buried because no one had claimed them.
Officials in Bangladesh say growing numbers of Rohingya are trying to cross the Naf river that divides the two countries in rickety boats ill-equipped for the rough waters as they become increasingly desperate to escape the worst outbreak of violence in the restive Rakhine state in years.
Residents and activists have accused soldiers of shooting indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children and carrying out arson attacks.
However, authorities in Myanmar say close to 100 people have been killed since Friday when armed men, reportedly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched a pre-dawn raid on police outposts in the restive region.
Myanmar authorities say Rohingya “extremist terrorists” have been setting the fires during fighting with government troops, while Rohingya have blamed soldiers who have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Thousands flee into Bangladesh
Around 27,400 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Friday, three UN sources said, according to Reuters news agency.
The violence comes amid reports of Buddhist vigilantes burning Rohingya villages in Myanmar, Reuters said.
Hundreds of people have been stranded in a no man’s land at the countries’ border, the International Organization for Migration said.
Satellite imagery analysed by US-based Human Rights Watch indicated that many homes in northern Rakhine state were set ablaze.
Most of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya Muslims live in northern Rakhine state.
They face severe persecution in the Buddhist-majority country, which refuses to recognise them as a legitimate native ethnic minority, leaving them without citizenship and basic rights.
Longstanding tension between the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted in bloody rioting in 2012. That set off a surge of anti-Muslim feeling throughout the country.
Brazil’s government has abolished a vast national reserve in the Amazon to open up the area to mining.
The area, covering 46,000 sq km (17,800 sq miles), straddles the northern states of Amapa and Para, and is thought to be rich in gold, and other minerals.
The government said nine conservation and indigenous land areas within it would continue to be legally protected.
But activists have voiced concern that these areas could be badly compromised.
A decree from President Michel Temer abolished a protected area known as the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca).
Its size is larger than Denmark and about 30% of it will be open to mining.
The mining and energy ministry says protected forest areas and indigenous reserves will not be affected.
“The objective of the measure is to attract new investments, generating wealth for the country and employment and income for society, always based on the precepts of sustainability,” the ministry said in a statement.
But opposition Senator Randolfe Rodrigues denounced the move as “the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years,” O Globo newspaper reported (in Portuguese).
Maurício Voivodic, head of the conservation body WWF in Brazil, warned last month that mining in the area would lead to “demographic explosion, deforestation, the destruction of water resources, the loss of biodiversity and the creation of land conflict.”
According to the WWF report, the main area of interest for copper and gold exploration is in one of the protected areas, the Biological Reserve of Maicuru.
There is also said to be gold in the Para State forest, which lies within the area.
The WWF says there is potential for conflict too in two indigenous reserves that are home to various ethnic communities living in relative isolation.
WWF’s report said that a “gold rush in the region could create irreversible damage to these cultures.”
“If the government insisted on opening up these areas for mining without discussing environmental safeguards it will have to deal with an international outcry.”
August 17, 2017 | TORONTO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Land rights campaigners have hailed a decision by Brazil’s Supreme Court to rule against a state seeking compensation for land declared indigenous territory by the national government.
Mato Grosso, a central Brazilian state with a powerful agriculture industry and simmering land-related violence, said the national government had illegally given away state land to indigenous people.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled unanimously against Mato Grosso, ordering the western state to respect territory demarcation for indigenous people, in a case followed closely by land rights activists and Brazil’s farm lobby.
“The lands were not owned by the state of Mato Grosso because they were traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples,” Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello wrote in the ruling.
Mato Grosso sought about $2 billion reais ($635 million) in compensation from Brazil’s authorities.
Litigation over demarcation of the land, including territory around the Xingu National Park, had been ongoing for more than twenty years.
A decision in the state’s favor would have reverberated far beyond Mato Grosso, activists said, leading other state governments to try and weaken indigenous land rights.
“It is a very important victory for our people, our family that is there in Mato Grosso suffering and fighting for health and territory,” indigenous activist Adilio Benites told the Brazilian web portal G1 after the court’s decision.
Mato Grosso was ordered to pay the federal government’s legal bill of about 100,000 reais, local media reported.
About 13 percent of Brazil’s land has been set aside for the country’s 900,000 indigenous people based on the territories they historically occupied.
Brazil is the world’s top exporter of coffee, sugar and soy and deadly conflicts over land between farmers and indigenous groups are common.
Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Astrid Zweynert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org
MANAGUA, Jun 19 2014 (IPS) – More than 30,000 members of the Mayagna indigenous community are in danger of disappearing, along with the rainforest which is their home in Nicaragua, if the state fails to take immediate action to curb the destruction of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the largest forest reserve in Central America and the third-largest in the world.
Arisio Genaro, president of the Mayagna nation, travelled over 300 km from his community on the outskirts of the reserve in May to protest in Managua that the area where his people have lived for centuries is being invaded and destroyed by settlers from the country’s Pacific coastal and central regions.
In early June, Genaro returned to the capital to participate in several academic activities aimed at raising awareness on the environment among university students in Managua and to protest to whoever would listen that their ancestral territory is being destroyed by farmers determined to expand the agricultural frontier by invading the protected area, which covers 21,000 sq km.
The Mayagna chief told Tierramérica that in 1987 the nucleus of what is now the biosphere reserve had a total area of 1,170,210 hectares of virgin forest and an estimated population of fewer than 7,000 indigenous people.
In 1997, when it was declared a Word Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the reserve covered more than two million hectares of tropical rainforest, including the buffer zone.
By 2010, when the indigenous people living in the reserve numbered around 25,000, the jungle area had been reduced to 832,237 hectares, according to figures cited by Genaro. The presence of non-indigenous settlers within the borders of the reserve had climbed from an estimated 5,000 in 1990 to over 40,000 in 2013.
“The y are burning everything, to plant crops. They cut down forests to raise cattle, they log the big trees to sell the wood, they shoot the animals and dry up riverbeds to put in roads,” Genaro told Tierramérica.
Antonia Gámez, a 66-year-old Mayagna chief, also made the trek from her community to speak out in towns and cities along the Pacific coast about the situation faced by her people in Bosawas, whose name comes from the first syllables of the main geographical features that delimit the reserve: the Bocay river, the Salaya mountain, and the Waspuk river.
“All of our families used to live on what nature provides; the forest is our home and our father, it has given us food, water and shelter,” she told Tierramérica in her native tongue, with the help of an interpreter. “Now the youngest ones are looking for work on the new farms created where there was once forest, and the oldest of us don’t have anywhere to go, because everything is disappearing.”
Gámez said that in the forest, her people planted grains and grew and harvested fruit, and hunted what they needed for food with bows and arrows. She added that there were abundant crabs and fish in the rivers and wild boars, tapirs and deer in the forests.
“Now the animals have gone. With each bang from a gun or mountain that is cleared, they either die or move deeper into the jungle. There aren’t many left to hunt,” she complained on her visit to Managua.
Part of the reserve is also inhabited by Miskitos, the largest indigenous group in this Central American country, where by law native people have the right to collectively own and use the lands where they live.
The complaints by the indigenous people were corroborated by Tierramérica in conversations with independent academics and activists as well as government officials.
Anthropologist Esther Melba McLean with the Atlantic Coast Centre for Research and Development at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University has led studies that warn that if the invasion by outsiders and destruction of the forest are not brought to a halt, both the Mayagna people and the native flora and fauna of Bosawas could disappear in two decades.
“The destruction of the forest would mean more than the end of an ethnic group; it would mean the end of the site where 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found,” she told Tierramérica.
The reserve is home to endemic species like the Nototriton saslaya salamander and the crested eagle, which are listed as endangered by local environmental organisations that point out that there are still many species that have not even been documented.
According to environmentalist Jaime Incer, an adviser on environmental affairs to the office of the president, if the destruction of the indigenous territory continues, “in less than 25 years the jungle will have completely disappeared.”
A study published in 2012 by the German development cooperation agency, GIZ, Nicaragua’s National Union of Agricultural and Livestock Producers (UNAG), the European Union and the international development organisation Oxfam warned that it would take 24 years to lose the forest in Bosawas and 13 years to lose the buffer zone around the reserve, at the current rate of deforestation.
Incer told Tierramérica that in response to the indigenous community’s complaints and the backing they have received from environmentalists, the administration of President Daniel Ortega, who has governed since 2007, has begun to take measures against the destruction of the forest. “But they have been insufficient,” he acknowledged.
Ortega ordered the creation of a military battalion of more than 700 troops to guard the country’s forests and nature reserves. The government also organised a committee of national authorities aimed at coordinating actions and applying a zero tolerance approach towards people and organisations accused of destroying the environment.
Alberto Mercado, the technical coordinator of Bosawas in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, said at the Central American University in Managua on Jun. 10 that the government has been carrying out actions to curb the destruction of the reserve.
He said the authorities had removed dozens of non-indigenous families from the nucleus of the reserve, and that they had brought people to trial who were dedicated to illegally selling land in Bosawas.
Mercado said dozens of lawyers have been investigated and suspended for allowing sales transactions involving indigenous property. In addition, he said, the authorities have been combating trafficking in local fauna and flora.
“But the struggle is huge…traffickers identify the ‘blind spots’ and that’s where they make their incursions into indigenous territory, fence it in, claim it is theirs, and that’s how the trafficking of land starts,” the official said, sounding discouraged.
The complaints of the indigenous community have gone beyond national borders, and have reached international human rights organisations. The non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre also filed a complaint with the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Vilma Núñez, director of the Human Rights Centre, told Tierramérica that she had denounced the situation faced by the Mayagna people during the 44th OAS General Assembly, whose main theme was “development with social inclusion”, held Jun. 3-5 in Asunción, Paraguay.
“The state and the government should guarantee the right of the Mayagna and all indigenous people in this country to live on their own land, and defend them from extermination,” Núñez said.