ELL: UNEP and biocultural diversity

Luisa Maffi maffi at NWU.EDU
Sun Nov 28 21:46:04 UTC 1999

Dear Listers:

I'm enclosing below a news item I received from Nick Ostler (President of
the Foundation for Endangered Languages, FEL) titled "Environmental
destruction a threat to languages: UN Environment Programme", in which UNEP
officials are reported to be making the case for integrated protection of
biocultural (and specifically linguistic) diversity. (This piece appeared
in the FEL newsletter Ogmios # 12, 1999.) I was doubly pleased to read the
piece "Environmental destruction a threat to languages: UN Environment
Programme"--doubly because:

1) It's obviously great to find out that the foremost international
environmental organization is taking the view that protection of the
environment should go hand in hand with protection of cultural and
linguistic diversity--a view which, as you may know, I have been working hard
to promote for the past several years, in my own writings and through the
the activities of my NGO, Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and
Biological Diversity;

2) I have pretty good reasons to believe I'm the ultimate source of the
UNEP statement (reported in the mentioned news piece) that "There is
remarkable overlap between the mappings of the world's areas of biological
megadiversity and areas of high cultural and linguistic diversity". Here's
how. UNEP has just published the book _Cultural and Spiritual Values of
Biodiversity_ ed. by Darrell Posey (see below). In that book, I am
coordinator and coauthor of the chapter "Linguistic Diversity" (the other
authors being Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Jonah Andrianarivo), which
extensively propounds that very argument. Furthermore, in one of my
sections in that chapter, referring to Dave Harmon's cross-mappings of
biological and linguistic diversity, I say: "Harmon (1996a)* has shown
remarkable overlaps between the world's biological and linguistic

*Harmon, David 1996. Losing species, losing languages: Connections between
biological and linguistic diversity. _Southwest Journal of Linguistics_ 15:

I noted with total amazement that Klaus Toepfer, executive director of
UNEP, makes special mention of this chapter in his foreword to the book,
stressing the importance of cultural diversity and the consequences of
language loss. So the likelihood that the UNEP statements below were
prompted by this book and by the linguistic diversity chapter in particular
seems rather high... The book's foreword is extremely supportive
overall--which, along with the news piece below, does suggest that the case
for biocultural diversity may indeed begin to be heard in high places...
The true test, of course, is mobilization of money and other resources,
pressure on member states to conform, etc. etc.... A long way still, but
this is an incredible step forward. It is both rewarding and humbling to
see this happen, after several years that my Terralingua colleagues and
myself have been making this argument extensively, both in writing and in
all possible public fora we could get ourselves to--and above all, I hope
this may spell greater action aimed at the joint conservation of
biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity.

Following the news item, you'll find the info on Darrell's book.

All the best,

Luisa Maffi

>>From Ogmios # 12, 1999:

Environmental  destruction a threat to languages: UN Environment Programme
7 Sep 1999
((c) 1999 The Nation.) Distributed via Africa News Online by  Africa News

Nairobi - The diversity of languages is being eroded by the unabating
destruction of the environment, the United Nations Environment Programme
has  said. UNEP says the loss of linguistic diversity represents a huge
loss in  intellectual resources, necessary for solving the world's
abounding problems  such as poverty.

"Each culture and language is a unique tool for analysing and synthesising
the world," Dr. Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of Unep says.

"To lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality, to blot
out  the perspective evolved over many generations," he said.

According to UNEP's biodiversity programme manager, Mr. Bai-Mass Taal,
there  are close to 7,000 documented languages worldwide.

Of these, up to 5,000 belong to indigenous people who represent the most
culturally and linguistically diverse peoples of the world.

And of all the languages presently spoken, 2,500 are in danger of
extinction,  a threat now recognised as a worldwide crisis, Mr. Taal said
in commemoration of  the fifth International Day of the World's Indigenous
Peoples on August 9.

The International Day for the World's Indigenous Day was launched in 1994
by  the United Nations to raise awareness on the plight of this
marginalised group  of people, and their untapped traditional wisdom. The
UN also inaugurated the  international decade for indigenous peoples which
runs to 2004.

According to Mr. Taal, these two initiatives were intended to give
indigenous  peoples, such as the Ogiek, a voice in national socio-economic
and political  affairs, and therefore give them choices and greater
opportunities in life.

Mr. Taal told journalists there were 300 million indigenous peoples
scattered  in more than 70 countries worldwide who live in the
environmental hotspots of  the world.

These areas, their homes, are threatened by over-exploitation of their
great  biological diversity, and habitat destruction.

"There is remarkable overlap between the mappings of the world's areas of
biological megadiversity and areas of high cultural and linguistic
diversity,"  Unep says.

"Unfortunately, these are the areas where biodiversity loss has been the
most  dramatic," he said.

He says the destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems has ejected
indigenous peoples from their homes, forcing them to migrate to urban areas
and  other places where they could eke a living. Their dispersal this way
breaks down  community structures and cultures which promote the use of
indigenous languages.

The decimation of indigenous languages breaks down a vital channel for
passing on indigenous knowledge and wisdom, an under-developed repository
for  traditional, herbal remedies, for example.

As global socio-economic factors disrupt traditional ways of life,
indigenous  peoples are abandoning traditional behaviours, indigenous
knowledge and their  languages which are the repositories and means of
transmission of knowledge on  preserving biodiversity and promoting
sustainability," Unep says.

The loss of language and culture destroys self-worth limiting the potential
of the affected peoples and complicating efforts aimed at addressing vices
such  as the breakdown of family structures, substance abuse and school
failures and  dropouts.


Darrell Posey's edited book, Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity,
is finally out. The book is published for the United Nations Environment
Programme, as a complement to UNEP's 1995 Global Biodiversity Assessment.
It is almost as massive, and certainly no less impressive! Over 730
large-size pp., some 300 [yes!] contributors if I counted right--beside
everything else that it represents, the book is most certainly a monument
to Darrell's commitment and perseverance!

The full reference is:

Posey, Darrell (ed.) 1999. Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity.
London/Nairobi: Intermediate Technology Publications/UNEP.

The table of contents is as follows (note that for each chapter only the
chapter coordinator is mentioned, but each chapter has a number of

Ch.  1 - Introduction: Culture and nature-The inextricable link (Darrell Posey)
Ch.  2 - Linguistic diversity (Luisa Maffi)
Ch.  3 - Indigenous peoples, their environments and territories (Andrew Gray)
Ch.  4 - Voices of the Earth (Ranil Senenayake)
Ch.  5 - Ethnoscience, TEK, and its applications to conservation (L. Jan
Ch.  6 - Valuing biodiversity for human health and well-being: Traditional
         health systems (Gerard Bodeker)
Ch.  7 - Traditional agriculture and soil management (Kristina Plenderleith)
Ch.  8 - Mountains: The heights of biodiversity (Edwin Bernbaum)
Ch.  9 - Forests, culture, and conservation (Sarah Laird)
Ch. 10 - Aquatic and marine biodiversity (Paul Chambers)
Ch. 11 - Ethical, moral, and religious concerns (Jeff Golliher)
Ch. 12 - Rights, resources, and responses (Graham Dutfield)
Conclusion - Maintaining the mosaic (Darrell Posey)

This is preceded by various perfatory matters and followed by several
appendices, including indigenous declarations and faith statements on
religion and ecology.

To order the book, contact ITP at 103/105 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, UK.

Luisa Maffi (Dr.) - Northwestern University - Program in Cognitive
Studies of the Environment - Dept. of Psychology - 102 Swift Hall -
2029 Sheridan Road - Evanston, IL 60208-2710 - USA
Phone: +1.847.4676513 - Fax: +1.847.4917859 - Email: maffi at nwu.edu

Luisa Maffi (Dr.) - Northwestern University - Program in Cognitive
Studies of the Environment - Dept. of Psychology - 102 Swift Hall -
2029 Sheridan Road - Evanston, IL 60208-2710 - USA
Phone: +1.847.4676513 - Fax: +1.847.4917859 - Email: maffi at nwu.edu

Luisa Maffi (Dr.) - Northwestern University - Program in Cognitive
Studies of the Environment - Dept. of Psychology - 102 Swift Hall -
2029 Sheridan Road - Evanston, IL 60208-2710 - USA
Phone: +1.847.4676513 - Fax: +1.847.4917859 - Email: maffi at nwu.edu

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