There are about 54 indigenous communities in Bangladesh, covering about 2% of the total population, living in different pockets of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region and in the plain lands of the country. Today, the indigenous peoples know that they must carefully control the influences that could destroy their cultural identity, their future, and the vital resources upon which all life depends.
Indigenous knowledge is essential to our development.
The indigenous peoples have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge of modern civilisation in their long history with managing the environment -- knowledge that could be beneficial for nature and for the sustainable use of natural resources. They have contributed greatly to global knowledge, for instance, in medicine and veterinary sciences as a result of their intimate understanding of their environment. The indigenous knowledge system or practice exists principally in the form of songs, dance, proverbs, folklore, community laws, common or collective property and inventions, practices, and rituals. And this connection to their land is an important source of resilience in indigenous communities.
However, this knowledge has always been ignored and maligned by outsiders. Nowadays, a growing number of international development agencies recognise that local-level knowledge, but it might be too late. Despite that, indigenous knowledge has entered the sustainable development and bio-diversity conservation discourse today.
Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (in Rio, 1992) has contributed to this process by requiring signatories to “respect, preserve, and maintain knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” Over the years, indigenous people in Bangladesh have used their knowledge and practices to adjust to changing economic, ecological, and social dynamics in their locality.
But today, indigenous practices, and the environment, are under threat.
Indigenous communities are more vulnerable due to the impacts of climate change. Denial of their identity by the government is also another big factor. However, when we talk about indigenous practices, we don’t refer only to the traditions of indigenous peoples of today’s life, but also their ancestral heritage. The different indigenous groups and their colourful lifestyles have significantly enriched the entire cultural diversity of Bangladesh.
For centuries, Bangladesh has been the dwelling place of different indigenous groups. Preserving the land and natural resources is a sacred responsibility for the indigenous peoples. And the indigenous peoples have been carrying the responsibility of protecting natural resources, both animal and plant life, for millennia.
We know that the Santhal indigenous community is one of the biggest groups. They worship Marang Buru, or Bonga, as their supreme deity. Their religious concepts are intricately entwined with nature and involve interaction with local ecological systems. However, the Oraon, Munda, and some other indigenous communities celebrate Karam Puja (worshiping on the Karam tree) which is one of the biggest festivals among them. But due to deforestation and illegal logging, the Karam tree is becoming extinct.
The Khasi indigenous peoples are slowly being evicted and losing their lands day by day. The main crops produced by the Khasi indigenous people are pan jum (betel leaf), areca nut, and orange.
But the tea state garden authority is taking away their lands illegally. The indigenous communities of Rangamati, Bandarban, and Khagrachari celebrate Boi-sa-bi. The significance of the festival to the indigenous communities is same though each refer to it by different names. The Jumma people in the CHT, who have been living in the region since time immemorial, celebrate this festival to wipe out all the sorrows of the previous year and to welcome the new year with hope.
During the continuous three-day celebration of the festival, the indigenous women and children wear colourful traditional dresses and visit each others’ houses.
During festival time, the cultural function and traditional games, including an exhibition of clothes and ornaments and paintings, are the main attractions of the celebration. Beside this, the water festival in Bandarban, which is celebrated by the Marma community, is another unique expression of cultural diversity in CHT. But the question is, how long can they practice their cultural activities in this country?
As the forest cover gets eroded as a result of mass migration, destructive development projects, and widespread militarisation, the traditional rituals and practices of traditional medication have continued to decrease.
Women in indigenous communities have also played a vital role in nurturing their culture. But it is shameful that, nowadays, indigenous women and girls are the first group targeted for violence. They are oftentimes sexually violated in order to terrorise the community and unsettle them, thus creating opportunities to occupy their lands.
The indigenous peoples have staged protests, pressured the government, and fought to secure their rights for a long time. And I think there is no better way to show one’s belief in the value of these cultures than by recognising the fundamental right of indigenous peoples to govern themselves and their territories.
This is what the struggle for the human rights of indigenous peoples is all about in Bangladesh. Beside these, the states should have research projects to study indigenous folk tales, songs, dance, proverbs, stories, and folklore and medicine practices and veterinary medicine. Moreover, there should be a holistic approach to build peace and harmony and to protect and promote indigenous practices in the country.
If the government and society don’t do something about this collectively, and on a large scale, in today’s world of globalised and ruthless market capitalism, we will have to lose the indigenous peoples and their cultures forever.