‘Attacks against land rights activists rising in India, Asia’

Special legislation and quick response systems needed to provide protection and support to these defenders, experts said at a meeting in Udaipur

By Jitendra
Published: Tuesday 01 October 2019
The recent protest by tribals on Chhattisgarh's Bailadila mountain forced the Chhattisgarh government to stop mining there. Photo: Purushottam Thakur

Land rights activists are facing an increase in attacks across India and other parts of Asia, experts said at a conference in Rajasthan’s Udaipur.

Land and forest rights experts from 13 Asian countries including India, are attending the annual Asia Land Forum, organised by the International Land Coalition Asia. The conference, which started on September 30, 2019, will end on October 4.

Land-related conflicts in India are on the rise despite the country having some of the most progressive legislation to protect people’s rights over land and forest, experts noted.

The primary reason behind this is India’s insatiable hunger for increasing its gross domestic product, which undermines these laws and foments land conflicts as well as the targeting of activists who resist.

Such conflicts are mostly arising in the hinterland, in areas like forests, mines and agricultural land, where private corporations backed by the government apparatus are engaged in land grabbing.

India’s legislations like the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, grant communities control over their natural resources. But their poor implementation means that they fail to protect their rights.

“There is a rising trend of persecution of land rights activists in India,” Sharmistha Bose of Oxfam India, who follows land conflict issues in India, claimed. “The trend shows that persecution and harassment crossed more than a thousand cases in 2018,” she added.

Rest of Asia

The situation is more or less the same in Asia’s other developing economies such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia. More than a thousand land rights activists have either been killed, persecuted, harassed or detained here in the last few years.

At least 79 land rights activists were killed, 294 were assaulted, 1,449 people arrested or detained and over 137,000 displaced from 2012 to 2018  in six countries, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia

These figures are according to a land conflict monitoring study conducted by Asian non-profit consortium The Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ANGOC).

More than 2,100 land conflicts happened in these countries, which affected more than 11.2 million people dependent on more than 4 million hectares (ha) of land, the study added.

“Land is a political issue and many forces are competing for land with the help of governments,” Nathaniel D Marquez of ANGOC, Philippines, said.

He added: “Government complicity with these forces is quite visible. On many occasions, governments too have engaged in violent acquisition of land in the name of development, causing large scale displacement, especially of indigenous people.

Between 1960 and 2004, some 60 million Indians have been displaced due to large government projects, according to the ANGOC study.

Among the six Asian countries other than India, the situation is most alarming in Indonesia. More than one-fifth of land conflict cases mentioned in the study are from Indonesia. Around 60 per cent of the land conflicts in Indonesia are related to the planation of oil palms, followed by forest and mining areas.

“In 2018, 410 land conflict cases were registered in Indonesia, in which, 10 activists were killed,” Devi Kartika of Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria Indonesia, who works on land and agrarian reform, said.

“These conflicts affected 810,000 ha of land out of which, palm oil plantations constituted more than 500,000 ha, followed by 65,000 ha of forests and 54,000 hectares of marine areas,” she added.

The experts called for special legislation and quick response systems to provide protection and support to these defenders.

“In the Philipines, we have such legislation, but their implementation is poor,” Denise Musni of ANGOC, Philippines, said.

“We need to set up quick response systems to provide safety, legal and financial support to the families of defenders in case of arrests, murder or harassment,” Marquez said.

Experts also urged solidarity between different countries which are facing this situation.

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