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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 81
August 16 , 2008

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Protect Indigenous People from extinction threat

Mohammad Shahidul Islam


UNESCO states that Indigenous populations number some 350 million individuals in more than 70 countries in the world, and that this represents more than 5000 languages and cultures. Today, many Indigenous peoples live on the fringes of society and are deprived of basic human rights, particularly cultural rights, due to dispossession and displacement from their land.

An Indigenous person is, by definition, a person belonging to the land or soil and being native to, or belonging naturally to a particular region.

Indigenous identity and cultural expression is closely linked to their relationship with land areas.

It is essential to know and understand the deeply spiritual special relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land as basic to their existence as such and to all their beliefs, customs, traditions and culture... Their land is not a commodity which can be acquired, but a material element to be enjoyed freely.

The World Indigenous People day, observed on August 9, is a day to celebrate the richness of cultural diversity in our world.

It is also a day to be reminded of the insecure situation in which many indigenous peoples still have to survive day by day.

It is about recognizing the inextricable link between environmental and cultural diversity. In fact, people are integral parts of ecosystems. Indigenous peoples often inhabit many of our planet's areas of highest biological diversity.

Not only animal and plant species, but also many indigenous peoples' groups around the world are now faced with extinction. The unsustainable exploitation of our earth's natural resources and marginalization and dispossession of the lands and territories of indigenous peoples and minority groups are both cause and consequence of this loss.

Respect for human diversity implies respect for diversity in nature. Indeed, both elements are fundamental to stability and durable peace on earth. The key to creating forms of development that are sustainable and in harmony with the needs and aspirations of each culture implies breaking out of patterns that render invisible the lives and perspectives of indigenous cultures.

The rights of indigenous peoples are also noteworthy in the context of The Convention on Biological Diversity which recognizes some rights in principle but leaves much unresolved as to the extent of those rights in practice.

Today, Indigenous communities keep their cultural heritage alive by passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another, speaking and teaching languages, and protecting cultural property and sacred and significant sites and objects.

Indigenous communities may be looked as a group of people who have not realized fully their potential at the societal level, as they did not have opportunities. And today the main difference between Indigenous communities and non- Indigenous communities lies in differential access to technology. Here, the word technology is used broadly as a tool which is an extension of the human being that helps to maximize the human potential. The written language is one such technology and this has not been available to most of the Indigenous communities. Indigenous communities' development minimally requires giving this technology to the Indigenous communities.

In order to facilitate development for the Indigenous communities, the government relies mainly on some development models. But, in general, government supported programs, in contrast to community-controlled programs; treat Indigenous communities as objects of development - as machines that need upgrading. The Indigenous communities should rather be treated as subjects with volition to do things and ability to make choices beneficial to them. Education should be to make them conscious of the consequences of the choice they make. The new knowledge and skills provided to them through education must be to augment their naturally endowed and culturally acquired knowledge and skills. The issue of language and script is being debated in this context.

In the process of determining the content and goals of education for the Indigenous communities, there should be participation from Indigenous communities in setting up goals and acknowledgment of the potential they already have. Education should be built on what they have and not by rejecting it as deficient. Goals of education or development for that matter are not necessarily restricted to assimilation into the so called “mainstream society”. It may be one of the goals. Blind assimilation with the rest of the society often results in sweeping the Indigenous communities to the bottom of the economic as well as social ladder.

Most of the Indigenous languages have their own grammar. So they can all be given a written form. They belong historically to four different language families and are structurally very different. Regarding the cost, first of all it is not expensive when compared with the public money spent on college education for the 6% of the population, who go to college in Bangladesh. But, when we consider the social cost of their non-development resulting in loss of language and cultural identity and economic suffering of Indigenous communities without proper education in which their language must play an important role, it is no expense at all.

When we consider human evolution, the development of writing skills came much later. Development of earliest script is only 5000 years old whereas the spoken language has been in existence for millions of years. Writing is a technology. Not all societies get their new technology through the evolutionary process. Technology spreads through diffusion very commonly. Indigenous communities will get writing through diffusion and with human intervention in planned development, diffusion will be fast. Indigenous communities though may be preliterate, are aware of the value of writing from the developed society and therefore are ready, in fact willing, to adopt this technology to their language.

Development of scripts for Indigenous languages would help to document the rich Indigenous folklore using their script. Most of the available documentation is by people who study folklore and it is transcribed using the Roman script. This is only for the academic purposes of scholars and not for the purposes of Indigenous language development. But, it is really important to write their folk literature in their languages themselves. Firstly, it provides written resources for tribal education. Secondly, it adds value to the language. It is also important to document the knowledge the Indigenous cultures have especially about medicinal plants, wildlife, forest resources and mythology.

Along with government, we all need to be careful and sincere to protect the Indigenous communities from all extinction threats, the unity: the power and pride.

The writer is a Tourism Worker.


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