The impacts of human-induced climate change are exacerbating social and economic inequalities of indigenous peoples – A case study from Bangladesh
The impacts of climate change are evident on the social, economic and political spheres of the least developed and developing nations, and Bangladesh is no exception. Over the last few decades, multiple studies claim that the intensity and frequency of rapid and slow onset events such as cyclones, storm surges, sea level rise, salinity intrusion, floods, flash floods, erratic rainfall, drought like conditions have amplified in the country. The recently published IPCC AR6 includes similar projections, stating that Bangladesh is at high risk of facing climate induced extreme events, which would hamper the food security, livelihood, health, and overall well-being of individuals.
To tackle such challenges, the government of Bangladesh has already adopted and is still implementing a number of policies and action plans since 2005. However, most of these policies fail to promote the rights and adaptation practices of the most vulnerable communities, such as the indigenous peoples (IP), to climate change.
In Bangladesh, there are around 54 different indigenous communities living across the country. These communities make up 1.8% of the total population of the country, with higher concentration in the remote areas of Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT). It is reported that indigenous communities are more vulnerable to extreme weather events when compared to non-indigenous groups, as many of them live in climate sensitive areas and greatly depend on natural resources for their survival. In addition, indigenous communities often face social exclusion, and their limited access to basic rights makes them more susceptible to climate induced disasters. Such adverse conditions exacerbate the socio-economic challenges they face, impacting their livelihoods and health, and most importantly threatening their traditional practices and cultural activities. For millennia, indigenous communities have coped with such extreme and challenging situations through development of various nature-based adaptation measures. These are effective but often considered not to be scientifically rigorous when viewed through the lens of established practices in the Global North.
Considering such a scenario, Cambridge Global Challenges (CGC), a strategic research initiative for global development at Cambridge University, collaborated with the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), a world-leading authority on climate adaptation practices based in Bangladesh. The collaboration aimed to develop an initiative to understand the scientific alignment of the traditional and cultural practices of the indigenous communities in Bangladesh in terms of climate change resilience and safeguarding livelihoods.
A pilot study was conducted involving the Garo’s and the Hajong’s during the first phase of the partnership, which ended in March 2022. This study focused on collating the actions taken by the Garo and Hajong communities toward climate change adaptation, and raising the visibility of IP-led nature-based solutions to inform climate adaptation policy across the Global South and beyond.
The Garo and the Hajong’s are the two major indigenous communities of Bangladesh, residing in the Central North, and North Eastern territories of Mymensingh, Sherpur, Tangail, and Netrokona region. Agriculture is their main livelihood, with the Garo community primarily involved in pineapple and banana cultivation, whilst the Hajong cultivate paddy and work as day labourers.
Our study found that both regions in which the communities reside are experiencing severe heat and erratic rainfall, leading to arid drought-like conditions and groundwater depletion. The scarcity of groundwater impacts agriculture and crop production; undermines animal and livestock productivity; disrupts water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities and women and girls’ menstrual hygiene management; and reduces fishery yields. Additionally, the drought-like conditions promote sand extraction as the river water table depletes, and the extreme heat increases the spread of various infectious diseases.
For decades, the Garo and Hajong communities’ have been victims of systematic discrimination, social, political, and economic exclusion. As a result, it is difficult for the communities to benefit from public investment, access justice, and participate in formulation of business and national policy. This legacy of inequality and overall exclusion makes the communities especially vulnerable to the natural disasters and impacts of climate change.
The formal ownership of land by the indigenous communities in Bangladesh is yet to be recognised (IWGIA, 2022). Hence, many Garos and Hajongs are unable to claim the ownership of the land in which they have been living for centuries. Moreover, land acquisition in the name of development and promoting tourism further jeopardises their position. All these factors limit their agricultural practice, with the result that they must often resort to working as low-paid day labourers; in order to ensure their livelihood.
However, during the study it was found that the indigenous agricultural practices tend to be more sustainable and beneficial for the ecosystem. One of the Garo leaders opines, "For centuries, our ancestors maintained a bond with nature. As she takes care of us, we take care of her too. But everything is changing now…"
The study also highlighted how the unsustainable consumption and production habits of humans is leading to climate change, biodiversity loss and loss of habitats.
The Shal Forest of Madhupur, which is a vital carbon sink for the area and once the survival toolkit for the Garo communities, has been exploited over the years. According to our study respondents, invasive tree species such as Acacia are being introduced to replace the Shal (Shorea robusta) trees. This is due to its faster growth rate and thus higher profit potential from timber sales. Such activities destabilise the whole natural ecosystem, as the Acacia trees are unsuitable for the local topography and are poisonous to insects, birds and other mammals. impacting the overall ecosystem and leading to human health issues, such as skin irritation.
Despite these adverse climatic and social conditions, the Garo and Hajong communities’ indigenous and traditional knowledge helps them to safeguard nature and benefit their own wellbeing. Including practicing ethnomedicine; developing early warning techniques; utilising crop rotation and, to some extent, homestead gardening. Their wisdom maintains balance, promoting respect and harmony between humans and the natural world, especially regarding resource utilisation. Our study finds that these traditional techniques strive to have minimise environmental impact and promote self-sustaining ecosystems and biodiversity, as all their adaptive measures include nature-based solutions.
- Ensuring Participation and Rights: The majority of the Garo and Hajong communities reside in remote areas, lacking access to reliable internet services, well-built roads, efficient transportation services and modern educational institutions. As such, they are at higher risk to be eliminated from labour force participation and have minimal contribution to the country’s GDP. Hence, their basic rights and participation in decision making activities should be ensured, through proper investment and capacity building.
- Archive Traditional Knowledge and Practices: As the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are anticipated to rise in the future, it is also crucial to establish a repository that will capture the cultural and indigenous values of Garo and Hajong communities. This will enable their future generations to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Their traditional knowledge relies on nature-based solutions (NBS) which are passed down through generations, and can effectively contribute to local, national, and global adaptation methods. Their time-tested techniques should drive policy decisions and be incorporated into adaptation frameworks alongside indigenous peoples’ rights mandates.
- Scientific Alignment and Mainstreaming: In this regard, the eight criteria of nature-based solutions could be used to enhance the rights and participation of Garo and Hajong communities. For instance, criteria five, six, and eight specifically mention the upholding of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC); respecting their rights and access to resources, and ensuring their full participation in governance processes. The eight principles of Locally-led Adaptation can be utilised to give indigenous communities agency in decision making through: Investing in the local institutions of indigenous peoples to increase their ownership; disseminating information of climate risks in local languages; and collaboratively working with donors, INGOs, NGOs, the private sector, academics, schools and colleges. Recognition of the urgency of incorporating traditional and indigenous knowledge alongside scientific tools and technologies is an important step to increase the participation of indigenous communities, enabling them to become future climate champions.
These measures could help indigenous communities make their voices heard, create exposure, and ensure access to rights, justice, and equity, whilst simultaneously taking a holistic approach to tackling climate change.