ELL: linguistic and biological diversity
maffi at TERRALINGUA.ORG
Sun Feb 11 07:48:04 UTC 2001
People on these lists may not have seen this press release that has been
circulating mostly on environmental ones. The UN Environment Programme is
calling for supporting indigenous languages and cultures as an integral
part of protecting the environment. The UNEP executive director's words on
the world's languages reflect closely the content of the chapter on
linguistic diversity written by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and myself for Darrell
Posey's edited book Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity,
published by UNEP in 1999. It is an amazing turn of events for us in
Terralingua who started promoting that very idea six years ago when it
still looked odd and quaint. In fact, it's an idea that makes perfect sense
because it corresponds to something real, but as with most common sense
ideas, it takes time before it becomes apparent. But recognition of an idea
is only the first step, an indication of a lot more work to come. What we
can hope now, though, is that there will be more and more people coming
along for the ride.
From: David.Duthie at unep.org
To: bioplan at undp.org
Date: Thu, 8 Feb 2001
Subject: Cultural, linguistic and biodiversity
UNEP News Release For information only Not an official record
Globalization Threat to World's Cultural, Linguistic and Biological
Nairobi, 8 February 2001- Nature's secrets, locked away in the
songs, stories, art and handicrafts of indigenous people, may be
lost forever as a result of growing globalization, the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) is warning.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said yesterday: "The
freeing up of markets around the world may well be the key to
economic growth in rich and poor countries alike. But this must not
happen at the expense of the thousands of indigenous cultures and
"Indigenous peoples not only have a right to preserve their way of
life. But they also hold vital knowledge on the animals and plants
with which they live. Enshrined in their cultures and customs are
also secrets of how to manage habitats and the land in
environmentally friendly, sustainable, ways," he said.
Much of this knowledge is passed down from generation to
generation orally, in art works or in the designs of handicrafts such
as baskets, rather than being written down.
So losing a language and its cultural context is like burning a
unique reference book of the natural world.
"If these cultures disappear they and their intimate relationship with
nature will be lost forever. We must do all we can to protect these
people. If they disappear the world will be a poorer place," Mr
Toepfer said during the 21st session of UNEP's Governing Council
which is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, this week.
Research, carried out on behalf of UNEP and drawing on work by
hundreds of academics, highlights the way native farmers in parts
of West and East Africa , such as the Fulbe of Benin and tribes in
Tanzania, find and encourage termite mounds to boost the fertility
and moisture content of the soil.
Meanwhile the Turkana tribe of Kenya plan crop planting around an
intimate knowledge of the behaviour of frogs and birds, such as the
ground hornbill, green wood hoopoe, spotted eagle owl and nightjar,
which are revered as "prophets of rain".
The research , edited by Professor Darrell Addison Posey of the
Federal University of Maranhao, Sao Luis, Brazil, and the Oxford
Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society at Mansfield
College, University of Oxford, in Britain, claims many indigenous
languages and cultures are already teetering on the brink of
extinction in the face of globalization.
Studies estimate that there are 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages
in the world with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous.
More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction and many
more are losing their link with the natural world.
Around a third, or 32 per cent of the world's spoken languages, are
found in Asia; 30 per cent in Africa; 19 per cent in the Pacific; 15
per cent in the Americas and three per cent in Europe.
The report also links a profusion of languages with a wealth of
wildlife underscoring how native peoples have thrived on a rich
natural environment and managed it for the benefit of animals and
The most languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, where 847
different tongues are used.
This is followed by Indonesia, 655; Nigeria, 376; India, 309;
Australia, 261; Mexico, 230; Cameroon, 201; Brazil, 185; Zaire,
158 and the Philippines, 153.
The main ones under threat are those with 1,000 speakers or less
with the mother tongue only spoken by older members of the tribe
and increasingly shunned by the young.
Over 1,000 languages are spoken by between 101 and 1,000
individuals. A further 553 are spoken by only up to 100 people.
Two hundred and thirty four have already died out. Some
researchers estimate that over the next 100 years 90 per cent of
the world's languages will have become extinct or virtually extinct.
Many native people have a vested interest in maintaining a wide
variety and animals and plants in their area so they are not reliant
on just one source of food.
But encroachment by western-style civilization and its farming
methods mean that many of these varieties, encouraged by tribal
and native people, are fast disappearing along with their genetic
It is increasing the threat of crop failures across the globe as a
result of genetic uniformity in the world's major crops.
The report cites work by UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring
Centre in Cambridge, England, and other researchers on the
disappearance of diversity in common crops.
In 1903 there were 13 known varieties of asparagus. By 1983 there
was just one, or a decline of 97.8 per cent.
There were 287 varieties of carrot in 1903 but this has fallen to just
21 or a fall of 92.7 per cent.
Over 460 varieties of radish were known in 1903 but this has
dropped to 27 or a decline of 94.2 per cent.
Nearly 500 varieties of lettuce were catalogued at the turn of the
century but this has fallen to 36.
New sources of medicines may also be being lost as a result of the
decline of indigenous languages, cultures and traditions.
Many indigenous peoples have intimate, local, knowledge of plants,
such as herbs, trees and flowers and parts of animals, and their
use as medicines which in turn could give clues to new drugs for
They also know the right part, such as the root, leaf, seed or
flower, to pick and season in which to harvest these "natural
medicines" so they contain the maximum amount of health-giving
This knowledge is often enshrined in ritual, ceremony and magic
underlining how culture, language, religion, psychology and
spiritual beliefs can often not be separated from their understanding
of the natural world.
The Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic mix magic, ritual
and ceremony with herbalism for curing the sick.
"The Aka use plant species to cure the majority of the most
common illnesses and diseases. Several plants are known and
used to treat the same disease. Because they grow in different
types of forest, they allow the pygmies to cure themselves when
travelling," says the study.
News of the academics' study comes at the beginning of the
United Nations International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.
Part of its aim is to highlight the plight of indigenous cultures.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, which is managed by
UNEP and which grew out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, makes
specific reference to the need to protect the world's indigenous
cultures and traditions.
Article eight of the convention states:"subject to its national
legislation, (to) respect, preserve, and maintain knowledge,
innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities
embodying traditional life styles relevant for the conservation and
sustainable use of biological diversity.".
Other initiatives include one by UNESCO, a sister UN body which
lists world cultural and heritage sites. UNESCO is developing its
role to help local communities conserve and protect sacred sites
such as groves.
UNESCO also recognizes the "complex interrelationship between
man and nature in the construction, formation and evolution of
The first cultural landscape World Heritage site was Tongariro
National Park in New Zealand which is a sacred site for the Maori
The World Trade Organization has provisions that allow countries
to develop Intellectual Property Rights which may give indigenous
peoples new avenues for protecting plant species they have
nurtured from exploitation by "bio prospectors".
The CBD has recently developed a mechanism called "an
intersessional process" which allows signatory nations to address
inadequacies in the area of Intellectual Property Rights and will
help develop guidelines on how to create better laws to protect
But UNEP believes that more urgent action is needed to safeguard
indigenous cultures and their knowledge.
Its report cites four key reasons why conserving native cultures
should be urgently addressed.
"(They) have traditional economic systems that have a relatively
low impact on biological diversity because they tend to utilize a
great diversity of species, harvesting small numbers of each of
them. By comparison settlers and commercial harvesters target far
fewer species and collect or breed them in vast numbers, changing
the structure of ecosystems," it argues.
"Indigenous peoples try to increase the biological diversity of the
territories in which they live, as a strategy for increasing the variety
of resources at their disposal and, in particular, reducing the risk
associated with fluctuations in the abundance of individual
"Indigenous people customarily leave a large 'margin of error' in
their seasonal forecasts for the abundance of plants and animals.
By underestimating the harvestable surplus of each target species,
they minimize the risk of compromising their food supplies".
"Since indigenous knowledge of ecosystems is learned and
updated through direct observations on the land, removing the
people from the land breaks the generation to generation cycle of
empirical study. Maintaining the full empirical richness and detail of
traditional knowledge depends on continued use of the land as a
classroom and laboratory".
Contact: Graham Dutfield, Oxford Centre for the Environment,
Ethics and Society on home tel 44 118 9871722 or work 44 1865
Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity:A Complementary
Contribution to the Global Biodiversity Assessment. Edited by
Darrell Addison Posey. UNEP and Intermediate Technology.
Available from SMI books E-mail: anthony @smibooks.com
Klaus Toepfer and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Noble-prize winning
writer and thinker on cultural diversity, will be holding a press
conference on Thursday 8 February at 10.30 GMT (1.30pm local
Kenyan time) at the press centre at the 21st session of the
Documentation and press information about the 21st session of the
Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at:
Case Studies Of Indigenous Peoples.
Native farmers of the Andean mountains.
The terraces, canals and raised fields, known as waru-waru,
developed at nearly 4,000 metres up in the Andes evolved over
3,000 years ago.
The system, while appearing primitive to western eyes, has allowed
the native peoples there to produce crops like potatoes and quinoa
in the face of floods, droughts and severe frosts.
The canals, filled with water, allow moisture to percolate through to
the fields. During floods they help drain off the excess water.
This farming system also helps the farmers cope with temperature
Water in the canals absorb sunlight during the day, radiating it
back into the raised fields at night to protect the crops from frost.
The fields can be several degrees warmer at night than the
Meanwhile the system maintains soil fertility.
Organic matter, silt and algae build up in the canals which is dug
out as a fertilizer.
The waru waru system is not only sustainable and environmentally
friendly but also leads to higher yields.
Studies indicate that potatoes yields, grown in this traditional
farming system, are about 10 tonnes a hectare versus the regional
average of one to four tonnes.
The Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic.
The Aka use a variety of plants to treat illnesses and ailments.
They prepare paste from the wood of the tree Pterocarpus soyauxii
mixed with the fragments of animal bone, ash and greasy cabbage
palm butter as a skin ointment.
Incisions made on the patient's body are filled with a mixture of
palm butter and the charred, powdered, scales of the pangolin and
Gabonese grey parrot. This is used for a variety of illnesses.
The incisions boost the uptake of the medicine into the blood
The Dai of south west China and Holy Hills.
The Dai are indigenous group living the Xishuangbanna region of
Yunnan Province. They have a long tradition of conserving wildlife
as part of their religious beliefs in gods residing in forested areas
known as Holy Hills or Nong.
It is estimated that 400 of these virgin forests or Holy Hill sites,
representing 50,000 hecatres or up to 2.5 per cent of the land area
where they live, are conserved by these people and have become
islands of biodiversity.
Near the village of Man-yuang-kwang the Holy Hill, in which it is
forbidden to cut down trees or build houses, covers 53 hectares.
Studies have found the site holds 311 different plant species.
"The Holy Hill concept has made a significant contribution to the
conservation of biological diversity in Xishuangbanna. There are
hundreds of well-preserved seasonal rainforest areas characterized
by species of Antiaris, Canarium and others. A large number of
endemic or relic species of the local flora have been protected
including about 100 species of medicinal plants and more than 150
species of economically useful plants," says the UNEP report.
The Tlingit People of North West North America. The collective
memory of the Tlingit is embedded in basket weaving. Their religion
is full of reference to baskets including the story of how the Sun
lowered a mother and her children to their home on Earth in a giant
The basket and its symbolism permeates these indigenous
peoples' lives and the baskets, beautifully made, are woven so
tightly they can hold water.
The harvesting of the materials to make the baskets not only
requires intimate and ancient knowledge of the natural world. But
also requires sustainable methods to remove the bark and
conserve the cedar trees which are used.
"Traditional harvesting practices ensured the sustainability of the
resources on which the basket-makers relied. Scars on old but still
vital trees are reminders that a tree has given ?for clothing, utensils
or shelter. The inner bark of cedar was used for fishing lines, twine
and rope, netting and even hand towels for use of eating. Mats, and
of course baskets, were woven from it," says the UNEP report.
Strips, usually just one per tree, are taken from a tree on the steep
side of the mountain where, because the tree is growing towards
the light, there are no branches.
"This way a long, tapering, strip of bark can be peeled up to the
length of the tree, leaving the tree to heal and continue to grow,"
says the report.
UNEP News Release 01/18
Dr David Duthie (Programme Co-ordinator)
UNEP/GEF Biodiversity Planning Support Programme
PO Box 30552
E-mail: david.duthie at unep.org
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Luisa Maffi (Ph.D.)
President, Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological
Diversity - Secretary, International Society of Ethnobiology -
Research Collaborator, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of
Natural History, Dept. of Anthropology, Washington, D.C.
Terralingua, 1766 Lanier Place NW - Washington, D.C. 20009, U.S.A.
Phone/Fax: +1.202.986 6139
Email: maffi at terralingua.org
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