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Scholars hear diverse perspectives on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Posted: 15 August 2023

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Experience, In Australia, Scholar,

To mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 9 August, 45 Australia Awards scholars from South Asia and Mongolia gathered online to hear the reflections of an expert panel.  The speakers were Shohel Chandra Hajang, an Australia Awards alumnus and indigenous rights activist from Bangladesh, Alice Tamang, a proud Dharug woman and Indigenous Engagement Advisor for Australia Awards – South Asia & Mongolia, and Harine Somasundaram, a 2022 New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship recipient and a participant in the inaugural NCP First Nations Cultures and Environment Study Tour in 2022.  Australia Awards alumni and staff and NCP team members joined scholars in the event.

Shohel, who is a member of the Hajong indigenous community, is currently working with the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), one of the region’s largest indigenous peoples’ organisations, as a Human Rights Programme Officer. He spoke about how he commenced his activism as a student and engaged with his community, the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum and other national bodies.

Australia Awards alumnus Shohel Chandra Hajang

Shohel notes that his period studying in Australia in 2015-16 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship, was a significant milestone for him.

‘It was a great opportunity from Australia Awards. I studied at James Cook University in Cairns to obtain a Master of Development Practice.  It was very important for me to learn about development issues, including indigenous people’s issues, and how to advocate at national and international level.’

Noting that several countries in Asia did not collect disaggregated data for indigenous peoples, Shohel is currently working on Indigenous Navigator, a set of tools that generate data and documentation to empower indigenous peoples to assert and protect their rights more effectively. ‘Using the Indigenous Navigator, our communities can conduct their surveys and collect their community data in 12 domains, including education, self-determination, physical status and others,’ he said. ‘After collecting their data and documentation, the indigenous communities can monitor their human rights situations and whether their governments are meeting their international commitments.’

In his current role with AIPP, Shohel also works to strengthen the Indigenous Human Rights Defenders (IPHRD) network in Asia. He provided an overview of his advocacy at the community, national and international levels, including his involvement in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). In 2023, Shohel travelled to New York for UNPFII, where he delivered a statement, participated in a side event, and met with Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations Peoples, Mr Justin Mohamed.

Shohel Chandra Hajang (left) and fellow Australia Awards alumnus Pallab Chakma (right) stand with Mr Justin Mohamed (centre), Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People

Alice provided an overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, drawing upon the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Map to highlight the diversity of different Nations and clan groups across Australia.   She then introduced the concept of Country.

‘When Indigenous Australians talk about Country, we mean our land and the connections we have to it. Country doesn’t just mean the physical land, but it also encompasses our ancestors, stories, animals, cultural practices and families that are all connected to that land.’

Using her own connection to Dharug Country, Alice highlighted that wherever they lived, Indigenous Australians continued to feel strong ties to their land and their Country.

Alice Tamang, a proud Dharug woman

Alice then spoke about how Indigenous communities in Australia were addressing challenges through strength-based approaches in different locations, including:

  • addressing climate change by caring for Country in the Torres Strait
  • the Yolngu people keeping culture strong through the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, and
  • providing culturally safe maternity care for mothers and babies in Melbourne.

Speaking from Nepal, where she is currently studying at the Kathmandu University School of Law as part of her NCP scholarship, Harine spoke about how her time engaging with Bininj people on Mirarr Country and at Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory on the NCP First Nations Cultures and Environment Study Tour in 2022.  Harine reflected on how Bininj community leaders and Njanjma Rangers at Kakadu had partnered with environmental scientists to manage land, resources and care for Country.

Harine stands on the side of a road in the bush with other participants in the NCP First Nations Study Tour

Harine (centre) on the First Nations First Nations Cultures and Environment Study Tour in the Northern Territory

‘Often Western science tends to dominate environmental management and the decision making due to the fact that there’s tangible evidence and data which naturally overpowers generations’ worth of rich, ancient knowledge and practices of caring for the environment, especially in a sustainable way which promotes and preserves indigenous cultures and allows identity to thrive,’ noted Harine.

‘The current work being done to integrate Indigenous knowledge and the practice of caring for Country into modern day environmental management, especially in Kakadu Country, is an attempt to overcome such colonising practices and mindsets and to better promote intercultural collaboration.’

Harine Somasundaram, pictured here in Nepal.

Harine was applying these lessons in her study in Nepal, including by seeking to collaborate with multiple stakeholders in environmental management. ‘Not only has this experience of knowledge sharing help me better engage with indigenous people in my research in Nepal, but I was also shaped my mindset to be more open minded to the different perceptions and world views of other people.’