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A Rapid Assessment Report The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Bangladesh

A Rapid Assessment Report The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Bangladesh

Author: Trimita Chakma
Editor: Pallab Chakma

From the Introduction:

Bangladesh is home to over 501 indigenous and tribal peoples (ITPs) living in different parts of the country, which constitute approximately 1- 2%2 of the total population. The ITPs have their district languages, cultures and heritage and primarily live in the delta region of the country or “the plains”, as well as in the South-Eastern part of the country known as the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

ITPs from both the plains and the hills have been deprived from socio-economic development for a long time. A recent study3 revealed that several socio-economic indicators such as health, education, household level income, food consumption, participation and women’s empowerment remain below the national average for ITPs. For instance, poverty rate among ITPs in Bangladesh is above 80 per cent4 in the plains and 65 per cent in the CHT, which is higher than the national average of 20.5 per cent. Compared to the national average, the average income of ITPs is 26 per cent less in CHT and 41 per cent less in the plains.5

Traditionally, the livelihoods of rural indigenous communities mostly depended on subsistence farming. Due to the increasing dispossession of land and resources caused by conflict, land grabbing and climate change, their livelihoods have become highly vulnerable.6 The worsening economic conditions drove many of them to out-migrate in urban areas and take up seasonal or contractual work in precarious working conditions thus forcing them to live in perpetual marginalization and poverty.7 In addition, they are regularly subjected to identity-based discrimination and human rights violations. For instance, many Garo women migrate to the cities in search of employment and end up working as domestic help or in beauty parlours. Even though they perform the same work, they receive a lower wage than their Bengali counterparts. A large number of indigenous women are also hired in the garment factories in the EPZs near Dhaka and Chittagong because they are not unionized and do not demand better wages or other benefits.8

The above described challenging situation of the ITPs has been exacerbated by the recent global crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after the government declared a country wide shutdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 on 26 March 2020, the ITPs living in rural areas started facing a crisis of food shortage. On 8 April 2020, the media reported some 30 families in Kapru Para area in Lama Upazila of Bandarban district in CHT had nothing but to eat wild potatoes from nearby jungle as they were forced to undergo self-isolation.9 This was followed by an unprecedented crisis of food insecurity spreading across other remote villages all over the country, impacting millions of vulnerable indigenous communities.

In response to the crisis of food shortage, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, Jatiya Adivasi Parishad and Kapaeeng Foundation — three organizations working for the rights of Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh — issued a joint press release10 on 12 April 2020 urging the government and other welfare organisations to provide food assistance to the starving indigenous population. The press statement reported many indigenous communities across the country were facing severe food crisis due to the loss of livelihoods as a result of the shutdown, most of whom are daily wage earners; only a small proportion of the ITP population received any form of relief. These communities were: the Hajong and Banai community in Nalitabari, Dhobaura, Durgapur, Kolmakanda, Maddyanagar and Taherpur, nearly 1.5 million peoples from 38 indigenous communities living in 13 districts in Rajshahi and Rangpur, tea garden workers in Sylhet, indigenous communities in Cox's Bazar as well as in the three districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

It is crucial for the government of Bangladesh to explicitly address the needs of the ITPs who remain particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 due to their historical socio-economic marginalization in the country. Between April and June 2020, Kapaeeng Foundation conducted a rapid assessment survey to document the ground realities of ITPs as a result of the policies and measures put in place by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The assessment carried out with the funding support from the European Commission through ILO.  The major impact that stood out from this study are the loss of livelihoods and income sources of the indigenous people, and as a result, a severe crisis of food insecurity, as well as inadequate access to health services and exacerbation of poverty due to growing debt. 


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Tags: Covid-19



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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