We must do a better job of protecting our indigenous communities
Recently, we celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Since 1995, this day has been observed worldwide to give protection and respect, and to promote the rights of indigenous peoples.
Bangladesh consists of almost 54 groups of indigenous people, approximately 1,587,000 people. This is around 1.8% of the whole population. Though most of these communities have been living on this land from the pre-colonial era, they are still struggling for survival.
This crisis has led them to a very vulnerable situation, where proper enjoyment of the right to life has become a burning question. Article 32 of our constitution guarantees the right to life. The right to life doesn’t only mean the right to live or the mere existence, but also covers all the human rights -- an adequate standard of life and human worth.
The right to life includes all the necessary measures to live a dignified life by ensuring proper enjoyment of all the fundamentals rights.
But being the most marginalized class of our country, the indigenous people aren’t even getting any of those rights. In the name of different development plans like eco-park projects, infrastructure developments, various holiday destinations, tourist spots, business projects, and so on, indigenous people are being evicted from their own homesteads.
Land-grabbing has become a very normal incident there. According to Kapaeeng Foundation’s recent report, between March and June this year, at least 650 acres of land belonging to indigenous peoples were either occupied or undergoing a process of occupation.
Last year, almost 170 families in Bandarban faced land-grabbing over 250 acres of land by a resort owner with the intention of building a five-star hotel in that area. As these people are solely dependent on their land, without land they have no living.
This is creating a large effect on their livelihood. Their traditional Jhum cultivation is being hampered. They have to leave traditional professions and switch to other professions. As their own houses and places are becoming the places of tourist spots, they are not getting a healthy environment to live.
Their freedom of movement, freedom of personal liberty, their privacy -- all are being constantly hampered by outsiders. Therefore, sexual assault, violence, killing-murder, abductions, etc have been occurring frequently.
The 54 indigenous communities speak around 37 languages. But now there are communities who no longer speak their language. Many other communities speak in their own language but don’t have their scripts. So their languages are on the verge of extinction.
Due to this language barrier, indigenous children have to deal with disadvantages in education. Though the government initially managed to distribute the pre-primary level book in five indigenous languages, children are dropping out from subsequent stages of education.
Even, in schools and colleges, they are facing difficulties in communicating with their teachers because of the language barrier. As a result, most of them can’t complete their education and whole communities are lagging behind.
These situations are creating a great threat to their culture. Cultural oppression has been a regular form of injustice in these communities. Heritage and traditions are not protected nationally. Even at the local level, no initiative has been taken to preserve their unique way of life.
Their traditional way of living and livelihood, their languages, their heritage are facing gradual extinction.
Bangladesh is a signatory to international conventions like UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, and ILO Convention 107. All these international human rights instruments ensure the proper rights of indigenous groups.
But our country lacks any proper step to mitigate the losses of our indigenous groups. It has been many years that the indigenous people have been fighting for existence.
Now, the government should come forward to address these serious issues and make separate laws, development plans, and policy mechanisms to integrate indigenous people into our mainstream development. Otherwise cultural diversity and a big part of our heritage will be lost in time.
Ibnat Fairuz is a graduate of law and a freelance contributor.