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11 April 2013

River Erosion, Landlessness and Religious Militancy in Northern Bangladesh

Bangladeshi climate refugees
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Bangladeshi climate refugees

Today, Ishak Mia outlines how climate change, landlessness and religious extremism have combined to destabilize the northern parts of Bangladesh. In particular, Islamist militants are exploiting environmental degradation to attract the support of the landless poor.

By Ishak Mia

Due to its close proximity to the Himalayas, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change-induced river erosion. Climate change-related risk factors such as river erosion pose new challenges for Bangladesh not only in terms of adapting to shrinking resources but also in terms of facing different types of social effects. During the past several years, a number of religiously-based militant groups have emerged in Bangladesh, most notably the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in the north. The outfit aims to establisha Shari'a-based Islamic state in Bangladesh by violent means. This article, through a review of existing research findings, examines the link between river erosion caused by climate change, landlessness and religious militancy in the case of northern Bangladesh.

Climate Change and Landlessness

River erosion is the one of the most serious environmental problems in northern Bangladesh. The major river systems influencing the region include the mighty Ganges (locally known as Padma), the Jamuna, Dharala, Brahmaputra, Teesta and their tributaries. The sources of all of these rivers lie outside the country’s borders, in the slopes of the Himalayas, where they are fed by glacial meltwater. Multiple studies show that glacial melting in the Himalayas has been sharply accelerating since the mid-1970s due to the effects of climate change. As a result, northern Bangladesh (which is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas) has been experiencing severe river erosion over the last 30 years. According to the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) and the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), “At least 153,566 hectares of cultivable land along with 50,339 hectares of settlement were eroded …by the Jamuna, Ganges and Padma rivers during the period from 1973 to 2011” (Daily Star, 2011). It is believed that global warming is responsible for the accelerated melting of the Himalayan glaciers, and in turn the erosion of river banks and uneven flooding patterns in the districts of northern Bangladesh in the last decade (Azam, 2011).

River erosion not only changes geography and the distribution of land, but can make people homeless and landless as well, with serious social and economic effects. In the case of Bangladesh, it has been shown to lead to disputes and even trigger violent conflicts when newly formed land becomes accessible on the opposite side of a river. This phenomenon has had an impact on the growth of religious militancy in northern Bangladesh, a densely populated and poverty-stricken area where agriculture is the sole means of livelihood for the population.

Every year large numbers of people in the northern districts lose their land due to massive river bank erosion. When rivers erode their banks on one side, sediments are slowly deposited onto the other causing new land to build up. Land is not only the major economic asset in rural households, but also the principal basis of power and status in rural society. Pervasive competition over newly accreted land (commonly known as char) can make ownership rights difficult to establish and often puts the local community at risk of violent conflict. There is ample evidence that such conflicts over land lead to land grabs by politically influential elites or large famers, often with the connivance of local land officials, forcing people either into under-employment or to migrate elsewhere.

Further exacerbating extremely difficult conditions, erosion victims are rarely rehabilitated or compensated in the court system. Instead, victims have long waits, as the courts have a decades-long backlog of land-related cases. One analysis shows that approximately 800,000 land-related cases – triggered by land erosion and the subsequent seizure of newly-formed alluvial lands by those with wealth or political influence – are still pending. (Iqbal, 2006) Moreover, the judicial system in Bangladesh doesn’t give equal treatment to rich and poor. The wealthy and powerful have the resources to aggressively pursue cases and win favorable outcomes. The poor, excluded from these opportunities grow ever weaker, becoming victimized by both the environment and the political and judicial systems. Upon losing access to land, erosion victims lose a vital source of their economic power and social status as well, which ultimately leads to their marginalization.

Climate Change and Extremism

Militant groups such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) have taken advantage of the conditions of marginalized people to gain support. It is commonly observed that disadvantaged or marginalized groups are easy targets for extremists, as people who are frustrated, angry and resentful are likely to rise up against injustice, corruption and bad governance. As Muhammad Yunus argues:

Poverty leads to hopelessness, which provokes people to desperate acts. Those with practically nothing have no good reason to refrain from violence, since even acts with only a small chance of improving their conditions seem better than doing nothing and accepting their fate with passivity (Yunus, 2007:105).

JMB militants have mobilized thousands by promising that Islamic rule can ensure equal rights and eliminate all kinds of human suffering. They have systematically sought to "brainwash" frustrated people into believing that violating the judiciary could possibly lead to replacing man’s law with God’s law. On 17 August 2005, the JMB simultaneously detonated 459 bombs in 63 out of 64 district capitals in Bangladesh. They also left leaflets written in Bengali and Arabic claiming responsibility which said, “It is time to implement Islamic law in Bangladesh and there is no future with man-made law.” In an interview with The Daily Star, ‘Bangla bhai’ (Bengali Brother), the leader of the JMB, said that he wants to build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith (Daily Star, 2005).

Bangla bhaioriginally hailed from Bagmara in the Rajshahi district of northern Bangladesh – once a stronghold of JMB militants. The area is low-lying and surrounds the rivers Barnai and Fakirni where land is constantly being eroded and re-formed as the rivers shift course. As a report on ‘extremism and poverty’ reveals, “Bagmara, which is mainly a wetland, was home to a population of which 90 percent were landless. It was an ideal place for the extremists who could exploit the poor in one hand and on the other extort the landlords” (Sufian, 2005). During the two years of his rule in Rajshahi, the JMB extorted a huge amount of money from local landlords and large plot farmers to meet the financial needs of the party’s poor members. The Daily Star on 12 March 2006 reported that a good number of Bangla Bhai’s followers became rich after they joined the JMB.

It has been observed in the media and elsewhere that a large number of JMB activists are landless rural peasants who joined the militant group because it was the only way to change the system of class domination and to improve their socio-economic conditions. While there can be little doubt that the rise of JMB militants can be attributed primarily to religious, economic and political dynamics, resource degradation has contributed to creating the conditions that sustain this militant movement. In the context of northern Bangladesh, the connection between river erosion induced by climate change and the rise of religious militancy is becoming clear. Although the government has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards militancy and has achieved major successes in its anti-militancy drive, the JMB's roots in these communities still remain. The acts of religious militancy cannot be uprooted from the country unless environmental problems caused by climate change and their effects are properly handled by legislative, judicial and administrative authorities.


Iqbal, Iftekhar (2006), “Radicalism in Bangladesh: An environmental perspective”, Strategic Issues, June 23, 2006.

Montero, David (2006), “Islamic Extremism Strikes Bangladesh, Frontline”, January 31.

Safiul Azam, Fardous Mohammad (2011), “An idea for adaptation to climate changes in villages adjoining the Teesta River at Lalmonirhat district, Bangladesh”, Platform for Agrobiodiversity and Research.

Sufian, Abu (2006), “Rise of militancy: Poverty, western interest, govt's denial help strengthen militancy”,, Jan 6th, 2006. Jan 6th, 2006.

The Daily Star (2011), “Erosion to devour 3,000 hectares of land on 3 riverbanks this year”, July 19.

The Daily Star Web Edition (2006), “Vendor assaulted for playing folk songs; youth beaten up for falling in love”, Vol. 5 Num 635, 12 March.

The Daily Star Web Edition (2005), “Patrons still defend Jama'atul”, Vol. 5 Num 437, 18 August.

Yunus Muhammad & Weber Karl (2007), “Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and Future of Capitalism”, Public Affairs, New York.

Ishak Mia is an Independent Analyst of International Affairs and resides in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He previously worked at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI), Finland. Ishak Mia holds an International MA Degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the Universitat Jaume-I, Spain.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
Social Safety Nets in Bangladesh
Evidence from the Frontlines of Climate Change
Climate Change: Drivers of Insecurity and the Global South

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Ishak Mia is an Independent Analyst of International Affairs and resides in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He previously worked at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI), Finland. Ishak Mia holds an International MA Degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the Universitat Jaume-I, Spain.