A percentage of my time in Bangladesh will be spent working with the VSO Programme Office, and a couple of weeks ago the Country Director invited me to become involved formulating a project to engage with the corporate sector, as this was the background of my former career.
After establishing contact with HSBC Bank, both the Country Director and myself, accompanied by the Programme Manager in charge of Livelihoods, one of the three strategic programme areas operating withing VSO Bangladesh, visited to fact find and ascertain what relevant links we could establish. We left the meeting with the plan of producing a concept paper to submit at their July Board Meeting with the proposal of partnering with them. It was the production of the paper itself that first offered me a glimpse into the specific challenges of life in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a region in south-eastern Bangladesh close to the Burmese border.
In 1984 the CHT was divided into three separate districts: Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban, which constitutes 10% of the total land area of Bangladesh. The population is roughly 2 million, of which approximately half are tribal and the remainder from different communities. The indigenous peoples are mainly followers of Theravada Buddhism, and collectively known as the Jumma, which include the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tenchungya, Chak, Mru, Murung, Bawm, Lushai, Khyang and Khumi. Following years of unrest, an agreement was formed between the Government of Bangladesh and the tribal leaders which granted a limited level of autonomy to the elected council of the three hill districts, but there remains a heavy military presence to this day.
The modern conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts began when the political representatives of the native peoples protested against the government policy of recognising only the Bengali culture and language and designating all citizens of Bangladesh as Bengalis. In talks with a Hill Tracts delegation led by the Chakma politician Manabendra Narayan Larma, the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujubur Rahmnan insisted that the ethnic groups of the Hill Tracts adopt the Bengali identity, and is reported to have threatened to settle Bengalis in the Hill Tracts to reduce the native peoples into a minority.
In the CHT, the indigenous peoples are commonly known as Jummas for their common practice of swidden cultivation (crop rotation agriculture) locally known as jhum. An environmental study has recommended changing this practice, and as controversial as that sounds the pressure is on. Support is urgently required to skill some community leaders with the basic financial know how to enable funding to be managed to support and facilitate some complimentary agricultural practice and transitioning livelihoods. This we intend to facilitate through sharing the skills of the talented employees of HSBC through carefully selected short term volunteering interventions.
I have my fingers crossed that this proposal will be considered a worthy one when all applicants are reviewed at the HSBC Board meeting. From our side we don’t require money, simply the release of some of their human resource. So much talent is already contained within Bangladesh. Sharing skills and changing lives is the VSO strapline, but that doesn’t always have to constitute International exchange.