BANGKOK, Thailand – After seeing a family member get into a fight over a sack of rice, Jal Mustari knew he had to do something to help his community. In 2017, he was only 20 when his hometown Marawi City was besieged by local terroists linked to the Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
As a Maranao, Mustari had already experienced various forms of discrimination. The Marawi siege, which displaced tens of thousands of people, worsened the problem.
“It created a negative connotation of people from Marawi among the Philippine community,” Mustari said. “When the siege broke out in Marawi City and people were forced to evacuate to nearby cities…. People in those cities rejected us because they have their negative connotations that we’re terrorists.”
Mustari’s story of discrimination, even within the context of an armed conflict, is not different from the experience of indigenous people in his country and beyond.
Of the estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, about two-thirds live in the Asia-Pacific region. In some countries, indigenous communities enjoy legal recognition, but in others they are invisible to the law.
Lacking proper representation in government, indigenous youth living in the region, such as Mustari, have stepped up to tackle these challenges themselves by connecting with local and national indigenous youth networks and organizations like the Ton-kla Youth Network in Thailand, the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, and others. At the regional level, UNESCO and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) support the Asia Indigenous Youth Platform to provide opportunities for young activists to work with each other.
Aside from traditional activism, there is a growing movement of young indigenous leaders who are seeking more business-minded solutions to support people they work with, while also preserving traditional practices and cultures.
In late January, nearly 30 young people from across the Asia-Pacific region gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, to attend the Regional Dialogue on Young Indigenous Social Entrepreneurs, a 3-day event co-organized by UNDP’s Youth Co:Lab initiative, UNESCO, and AIPP. They were able to strengthen and upscale their social enterprises, which range from the production and sale of fashion accessories to farming and agricultural innovations.
Mustari, who attended the dialogue, is part of this movement of young indigenous social entrepreneurs. Through his social enterprise, Aretes Style, Mustari works with internally displaced persons to produce fashion accessories using langkit, a woven material traditionally used by the Maranao.
The project provides economic opportunities to the community, while also helping to preserve an endangered culture. Additionally, Aretes Style’s staff provide counseling and mental health services to people they work with, many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s been 3 years [since the Marawi siege] and victims still have a hard time coping,” Mustari said. “I’ve initiated Aretes Style to give them a chance to live, and give them economic opportunity so they can put food on their table…. And I believe a peaceful person needs a peaceful stomach.”
The Indonesia experience
Joining Mustari at the Regional Dialogue was Randi Julian Miranda, a 27-year-old indigenous Dayak from Indonesian Borneo, whose community faces limited employment opportunities. This is partly because the education system in their communities isn’t in line with the formal school system run by the Indonesian government.
“We are educated in our own way, just not formally educated in accordance with our state standards,” Miranda said. “Companies have requirements for employment, and because the majority haven’t even finished primary school, they can’t apply.”
The challenges facing the Dayak people reflect broader regional trends that have led to the marginalization of indigenous persons arising from educational barriers and the overdevelopment of traditional lands. The vast majority of indigenous peoples in the Asia Pacific depend on access to land and natural resources for their livelihood.
The loss of land underscores another major trend. Growing up in households that often do not speak the national language fluently and practice different traditions than those prevailing in the culture of “the nation,” indigenous children are often forced to forget their native tongue and culture, or they drop out of school altogether.
Miranda has responded to these challenges through his social enterprise Handep, which means “the spirit of working together as a community or family” in the Dayak language. The project empowers Dayak workers who produce eco-fashion made from rattan, as well as local agricultural products such as jungle honey and organic rice.
“Even the young people don’t get opportunities to work for the big corporations, except a privileged few.” Miranda said. “I thought, why can’t we do something local? Why can’t we develop an economic model for villages based on the traditional cultures?”
Miranda, Mustari, and other similar-minded young indigenous leaders recognized the importance of starting small and building the trust of initially skeptical indigenous communities.
“We need to spend lots of time to build trust with each other, because this issue is very sensitive and people take advantage of this as well,” said Sirasar Boonma, the founder of Hear and Found, an organization which promotes the preservation of indigenous music in Thailand.
It is time that Sirasar and others in the region are willing to dedicate. Rather than leave their homes and their cultures behind, they have decided to use their innovativeness to preserve what they know and love.
This sentiment is perhaps best captured by the advice that Mustari gives to other young indigenous social entrepreneurs: “It’s your community that gave you identity. It should be a self-obligatory response to give back to them.” – Rappler.com
David Young is a consultant for UNESCO in Bangkok