Developmental Genocide

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Developmental Genocide

In many parts of the world, the view of indigenous peoples has been informed by the overarching European view of "others." This has resulted in expectations regarding tribal or native peoples that have less to do with the reality of these populations and more to do with the preconceived notions of Europeans. This phenomenon has had a powerful impact on the development of European political philosophy regarding emancipation and history of thought. It infused the project of colonial intervention and colonial ideology, and has persevered in postcolonial times to infuse the concepts of modernization, nation-building, and, particularly, the concept of development. The effect was something that came to be called developmental genocide. Developmental genocide can be defined as the destruction of the culture and way of life of a people, usually accompanied by massive dislocation, as a result of economic development in the name of progress and modernization.

Examples of developmental genocide can be found throughout the world. One striking example of the unbroken relation of colonial intervention, the project of development, and the resultant developmental genocide occurred in the Chittagong Hill Tracts after Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971. Europeans initially perceived the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts as noble savages who were masters of their life. They were considered rich by the very existence of their sense of freedom, independence, and reciprocity. However, they were considered poor in terms of the socalled higher values of Western civilization—for instance, in terms of their religious practice or material wealth. This perception of indigenous poverty legitimated certain other attitudes that were highly convenient for development planners. It became possible to rationalize development practices as a way to "uplift" the indigenous people, who were now viewed as ignorant, poor, and downtrodden primitives.

Colonial intervention had intended the substitution of indigenous concepts of economy by introducing capitalist notions of accumulation, production, and distribution. This process was only partially successful, and did not endanger the lives of the hill people. However, the nation-building approach adopted after Pakistan achieved independence (in 1947) had somewhat greater impact. It made the hill people's economies the target of a structural change: The Chittagong Hill Tracts region, hitherto a restricted area, was opened for settlement by Bengali peasants. Shifting cultivation, as practiced by the indigenous peoples, was to be suppressed and substituted by cash crop farming for the national market. Hydroelectric resources had to be developed.

In 1964 a dam and a hydroelectric power plant were completed in the hills. The lake destroyed the backbone of the hill people's economy. An estimated 100,000 persons lost their lands, fields, and homesteads. Resistance to the project was widespread, but political pressure on the indigenous peasants was severe; 40 000 felt forced to migrate to India.

After the war of independence against West Pakistan (1971), the Hill Tracts were once again made the target of authoritarian, top-down development planning. At this point, a number of issues emerged: Over-settlement and exploitation of land in the plains of Bengal created a demand for new areas for settlement. The hill peoples' region, which was largely covered in tropical rainforest, seemed an ideal solution, especially because the area was believed to shelter an abundance of natural resources.

The long-term repercussions of the hydroelectric project, the ongoing process of destruction of the indigenous economy, and rising poverty in the region led to an increasing awareness among the hill people of a shared ethnicity. As more and more Bengali farmers migrated into the hill peoples' lands, another step was taken in the process of the planned destruction of indigenous cultures by the state. For more than ten years, the government turned a blind eye to raids on hill peoples' villages, looting, arson, rape, large-scale killings, eviction, and the destruction of holy sites, and even authorized military participation in these actions. The violence drove a large part of the hill people from their lands and forced them to take refuge in India. Bengali peasants were then settled on the newly vacated lands. A guerrilla force consisting of members of different hill peoples tried, with varying success, to resist the advancement of the army and Bengali settlers. By the mid-1980s, however, Bengali settlers outnumbered the hill people.

The military occupation of the hills set a frame for the change of the indigenous structures of proprietorship. Indigenous peasants were evicted from their legally occupied lands and were driven into wage labor, in the name of development. Such projects were partly supported by international agencies. When, in 1997, the government of Bangladesh and the representatives of the hill peoples signed a peace accord, there was no change the parameters of state intervention. The government's political aim (to force "backward tribes" into the national mainstream) and economic aims (to settle landless Bengali peasants and to gain undisputed command over and monopolize the natural resources of the hills) are legitimated by the state's notion of progress and development. Projects launched after the peace accord have repeated earlier strategies: In the name of the development, new projects, often funded by international agencies, have continued to alienate hill peasants from their land, evict indigenous farmers, deprive them of their property, and transform private and communal land of the hill peoples into state or private property of immigrant settlers.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts example is but one instance of genocidal development policies. In other parts of the world, the damming of rivers has led to a similar wider-scale loss of land and peasant evictions, and the sale of rainforest territories to international logging companies in South- and Southeast Asia are equally profound examples of the destruction of minority peoples legitimated by the imposition of development policies.

SEE ALSO Bangladesh/East Pakistan; Chittagong Hill Tract, Peoples of the; Genocide; Indigenous Peoples; Sri Lanka


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Wolfgang Mey

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Developmental Genocide

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Developmental Genocide