COVID-19: Youth brings hope for the indigenous in Bangladesh

The indigenous youth are taking the initiative to raise funds and awareness for their community during the pandemic.

by Pallab Chakma

Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic with food shortage, loss of livelihoods, unemployment, and limited access to healthcare services. The indigenous community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in south-east Bangladesh, where 13 indigenous groups live is one such example. There is hope, however, brought by the area’s youth who are determined to create solutions to mitigate the impact of the crisis.

When the first COVID-19 case in Bangladesh was identified in early March, the Government started disseminating information briefs about the pandemic. But most of the indigenous people do not understand the Bangla language. Youth organisations in CHT like the Tripura Student Forum (TSF), the Bangladesh Marma Students Council (BMSC) and Unmesh have conducted awareness-raising programs in local languages to help people living in remote villages understand the pandemic better and learn about precautionary measures.

Some of these young volunteers also dedicated themselves to help out with protective measures, such as spraying disinfectants on vehicles entering the district.

In CHT, many indigenous communities still practice jhum or the traditional slash and burn cultivation. April to July is usually the period when farmers work in the field. However, it has now become difficult due to the pandemic. After a few weeks of the government declaring countrywide shutdown, it was reported that poor families in remote villages in CHT were experiencing food scarcity. Normally they would resort to foraging for food such as wild potatoes and bananas, but the pandemic has made it difficult to move around.

Following the countrywide shutdown and business closures, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people from the CHT, who had been working in urban areas in the garment industry, have returned to their villages. These factory workers, who are mostly young, have now become unemployed. In order to help them isolate on their arrival, youth volunteers have constructed makeshift quarantine houses deep in the forests.

The local indigenous youth immediately took the initiative to raise funds through creative means. A group of youth called the ‘Bonophooler Jonno Jummo Tarunnyer Valobasa’ (Love for the hill flowers) created a Facebook page where they would share updates about the changing COVID-19 situation and about their relief efforts. Every week, the group would organise and stream live music sessions to attract donations. Many indigenous young artists and photographers would also sell their work to raise money for those affected. Within a short period, about BDT 500,000 was successfully raised through this youth-led endeavour.

Young people were the ones who helped community elders to maintain the traditional practices of isolation by barricading village entrances using a traditional fence. By doing so, the youth adapted their indigenous traditions to mitigate the crisis, which will be passed on to future generations.

Despite these encouraging endeavours by the youth, the situation of the indigenous people in the hills remains critical. 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 services, 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 special 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.