Yi Yi Prue
advocate, legal consultant and indigenous activist
📍 indigenous people rights, environmental law & climate justice
Giving a Voice to Climate Change Victims
“When I was a young woman living in Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh I had an experience that influences me until today. One day in front of my eyes three houses in our neighbourhood were taken away by the river. Our house was the last in the row and stood, but had cracks. For a few days we stayed at our relatives’ place. After that we went back to our home.
It was damaged; one bamboo wall was already half lying and threatened to collapse at any time. We did not have any other option than to stay there. We three sisters always wished that if anything happened to our house, it would be in day time, at least we could run away to save our lives. Actually since that incident my parents started to believe in God.
Later I studied and became a lawyer and began practicing in Dhaka Judge Court. I wrote my LLB thesis on international law relating to the rights of indigenous people. I belong to a small indigenous community by the name of Marma. We are one of a number of indigenous peoples in the south-east of Bangladesh along the border to India and Myanmar. Still 70 years ago, indigenous people were the main population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. During my childhood in my home region a civil war went on. Indigenous peoples today are still demanding their cultural, social and economic rights. Especially cultivable land is an issue of conflict with settlers from the plains moving into indigenous areas.
Landslides in the Chittagong Hill Tracts
When in the rainy season of 2017 strong rainfalls led to landslides in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, more than one hundred people died within a few days and about 4000 inhabitants were displaced. I was reminded of my trauma from my youth. I went to Bandarban and to the neighbour District of Rangamati and talked to victims of this disaster. They were displaced from their homes and they told me that they do not know where their destination would be. Only few people there had the capacity of listening to survivors of disasters, in spite of the long years of civil war in the region. Until today, the only approaches to such situations are relief and rehabilitation. Mental Health First Aid is a concept that is new in my home region as well as in Bangladesh as a whole.
I also asked myself what is my role as a lawyer in such situations. My report of that trip brings up issues about marginalisation of indigenous peoples, their vulnerability to disasters and about the connection to problems around climate change. I sent the report to colleagues in Bangladesh and abroad, but got only little response, and this mainly from Europe.
Since then I work on climate justice because the affected persons do not have any idea that global warming is responsible for their situation. The last three years I went to visit and talk to those communities who are affected by extreme weather phenomena, by floods, storms or cyclones. I talked to urban poor in Dhaka who live in bostis (slum areas) and who are now called climate refugees.
Constitutional Complaint against Germany
In 2019 I met a German lawyer colleague and we decided to work together on a constitutional complaint for Germany’s failure to legislate on sufficient climate protection measures. This case was submitted to Germany’s Constitutional Court on 10 January 2020, just a few days after new, but insufficient laws to limit global warming were passed by German parliament. It was accompanied by a press conference in Berlin on 15 January 2020 which I could attend. This was an important experience for me.
A few months before, I had visited a Munda village in Koira in the south-west of Bangladesh. Munda are an extremely marginalised indigenous people who live in the plains in India and in Bangladesh. I had asked the villagers for a glass of water. They first hesitated to give me. The water quality was very bad. It was not clean and tasted bitter. They said that in their village they are not able to get suitable ground water. The water they use every day for living and as drinking water for animals does not have sufficient quality and is dangerous for humans and animals. Without water no life.
The sea level rises and the vegetable does not grow on the land anymore because the ground gets salty. The villagers do not earn enough. Therefore they cannot afford to buy vegetable on the market. They only can get daily labour for about six months, then it is the rainy season and they just sit at home. When they can catch some fish then they have food. In addition, tropical cyclones become stronger and more frequent and each time their houses are broken. One man told me that they always had lived in crisis, but soon they will have to go away from their land. Where will they go?
Dhaka will become unliveable
In Dhaka we see many people arriving in the city because of being affected by climate change: climate refugees. In some regions of Bangladesh – for example on the sea coast in the south, on river banks in the north of the country or in drought and cyclone affected areas – people are displaced every year by the effects of climate change. This is happening slowly already now.
Some researchers expect 20 million more people to come in the next decades. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even declared according to a news report on 15 January 2020 that she expects that 40 million people of 70 sub-districts (upazila) in the country’s 19 districts to be displaced by climate change. The Indian journal Business Insider (12/02/2019) counts Dhaka among the cities that will become unliveable soon.
Most people come to Dhaka and live in the informal sector, like rickshaw drivers or house maids. Already now the city is very crowded and the city administration is forcing poor people out of certain quarters, rickshaw drivers away from major roads. The struggle for acceptable living conditions is getting harder: drinking water is polluted, diseases spread, quality food is getting scarce, constant traffic jams, flooded canalisation and roads, people suffer from heat strokes, etc.
We have the impression that repression by government in order to deal with these issues has increasingly impacts on the quality of democracy. As a citizen and a lawyer I believe that the development policies in my country should not breach the human rights of the people. Especially the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable people have to be respected because even small changes could push them into more misery. They have only few options in their hands to adapt to changes, much less than those sections of society who are wealthy and have influence.
Climate change is a social question
The climate issue is the big problem determining our future and it will show which path my country wants to follow. In order to get support for the Constitutional Complaint, I went to Nepal and visited indigenous communities there. When I talked with the local people, I understood how different disasters combine to impact their lives. They explained that they experience floods, earthquakes and landslides frequently. Poverty is a big problem. When there was much snow in winter they could not heat their houses.
A young boy said that he is working as a tourist guide and in a hotel. He cannot study because his parents have no work. They even cannot afford enough food for the family. When the landslide took away their house they were not able to rebuild a new house. They only could set up a shelter with one room where they are staying now.
Affectedness by climate change is a social question because it hits the weaker sections of society much more than those who are able to choose their life style. However, nobody listens to their voices and their pain, but also their day-to-day experiences of survival are not heard. Even in my own country the wealthier sections of society do not seem to be concerned by these developments and continue to live as if there was no urgent problem.
Already today the number of climate victims is increasing and people are suffering. Even if global warming can be limited to 1,5 degrees, they and their children are losing their options to cover their basic human needs.
Climate justice needs public support
The current policies in Europe, but also in most other countries in the world will not be sufficient to achieve this objective and risk a much larger global warming with many more people being affected by the consequences of these policies. Climate justice needs public support, if legal action is supposed to be successful. Differently affected persons are not in contact with one another, because their problems differ. Landslide victims in the hill areas do not join with those living along rivers or in coastal regions who are displaced by river bank erosion or salinity of their land.
It does not matter which community climate victims belong to; if they want to be heard, they have to overcome ethnic divisions.
For this reason we are beginning to bring them together so that affected people can make their own voice heard and listened to. They are suffering from the consequences of global warming and they can be united to speak out on it on the national and international levels so that decision makers know that they are not doing right.
The Constitutional Complaint for Germany was only the first step."
Yi Yi Prue is a lawyer at Dhaka Judge court in Bangladesh. She is the first woman from her Marma indigenous community who practices as a lawyer. She is coordinating the plaintiffs from Bangladesh and Nepal in a Constitutional Complaint. Also Greenpeace, the Deutsche Umwelthilfe, Germanwatch and 10 children and young people from Germany claim that civil rights are attacted by Germany’s failure to legislate on sufficient climate protection.
Excerpt from: https://taz.de/Erderwaermung-als-Soziale-Frage/!170464/ (27/10/2021 18:16)