Meaningful engagement with indigenous peoples in all the government's COVID-19 response programmes is important to accommodate their particular needs.
High up in the hills in southeast Bangladesh, a group of young indigenous peoples strum their guitars and sing traditional songs to entertain those impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. They maintain social distancing measures during the sessions which are live-streamed every week on the group’s Facebook page.
These young people, who call themselves the “Bonophooler Jonno Jummo Tarunnyer Valobasa” (Love for the Hill Flowers), also use the page to share updates on the pandemic and collect donations for Covid-19 victims. Many indigenous young artists and photographers have also sold their artworks and photographs to raise money for those affected.
About BDT 500,000 (US$ 5,900) has already been collected through this initiative. I learned that one of these young talented artists had family members that were infected by Covid-19 and was struggling to put food on the table. I was so touched by her commitment to her community. It shows how young people from Bangladesh’s indigenous communities are using innovative means to mitigate the crisis while maintaining their traditions.
The group comes from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a hilly region that covers one-tenth of the land area of Bangladesh and home to 13 indigenous ethnic groups, who have been living there for centuries. It shares borders with Myanmar to the south and with India to the north. These indigenous hill people differ from the majority Bengali population in their physical features, language, culture, tradition, and religion.
There are 50 government-recognised indigenous groups in the country. There is no official data, but indigenous peoples believe their total population is around 3 million.
Indigenous groups in Bangladesh are becoming even more vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thousands, most of them young and working in urban areas as garment workers, have lost their jobs, forcing them to return to their villages without any income. Those working in farming have failed to sell their crops due to the closure of local markets. They are faced with severe food shortages and normally would resort to foraging for food, but the pandemic has now made it difficult to move around. They have limited access to healthcare and many report that they receive little to no government relief.
When the Bangladeshi government identified the first Covid-19 case in March, they soon started disseminating information leaflets about the pandemic.
But many people do not understand the Bangla language so some youth organisations in the CHT, like the Tripura Student Forum (TSF), the Bangladesh Marma Students Council (BMSC), and Unmesh, have conducted awareness-raising programmes in local languages to help people living in remote villages understand the pandemic better and learn about precautionary measures.
Some of these young volunteers have also helped with protective measures such as spraying disinfectants on vehicles entering the district or barricading village entrances with a traditional fence.
Following the countrywide shutdown and business closures, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people from the CHT have now migrated back into their villages. In order to help them isolate upon their arrival, youth volunteers have constructed makeshift quarantine houses deep in the forests.
Despite these encouraging acts done by the youth, the situation of indigenous peoples in the hills remains critical today. Already their livelihoods are threatened due to the increasing losses of land caused by land grabbing and extractive industries, leaving them in a state of perpetual marginalisation and poverty.
For the time being, the youth are serving the community, but the government also needs to do far more to help them survive COVID-19. In the long run, the government must acknowledge and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to food security, healthcare, entrepreneurship development, and agriculture support.
Meaningful engagement with indigenous peoples in all the government's COVID-19 response programmes is also important to accommodate their particular needs. At the same time, young people should be given equal opportunities for employment for they are the future of our society. Given the role that indigenous youth play in community conservation, food security, and local economies, the government must ensure that their voices are heard.