Bangladesh: Biodiversity, language and logical participation of the state

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 24 13:47:31 UTC 2007

Vol. 5 Num 1058 Thu. May 24, 2007


Biodiversity, language and logical participation of the state
Pavel Partha

Language is no unilateral, linear medium. Because of the ways of
expression, production of meaning and the discursive space it creates,
language is represented as a global phenomenon. Whether it is
mainstream or subaltern, it is always related to the power structure.
When Bengali middleclass people go to Shaheed Minar bare footed on the
morning of Ekushey February, or when the United Nations declares it
International Mother Language Day, its historical multiplicity becomes
more evident. How a language spreads, or how it is constructed, or how
it exists, attracts our attention.

It is often said that many languages are on the verge of
extinction/are lost forever. But can any language be lost forever?
What does this suppression of language indicate? Does any
institutional aggression or hegemony become the language suppressing
the many faces of language?

Raising these questions within the language discourse, and searching
for a solution, is very important for political decision-making
regarding language. As we have seen, a language does not become
extinct for nothing, without any external intervention. A language
faces such a fate when the elements and conditions in which it is
constructed, and functions, are altered. In this process, a language
loses its own distinctive features and becomes a concept of a dominant
linguistic scheme/hegemony.

In that altered reality, the altered/new language structure is also
presented as a "new" formation of that language. We are told that it
is an inevitable process of linguistic change. "Why should a language
survive when it does not deserve to be so worthy?" (Survival of the
fittest!). In this article we want to consider the relationship
between language, biodiversity and the participation of the state. It
is an important issue as it is directly related to the sovereignty of
the state and the continued existence of the people and institutional
framework of the state.

Language grows around the surrounding ecology and ecosystem --
language is a part of ecological systems and is diffused around local
biodiversity. It is the philosophical statement of this delta
landscape. We do not want this discourse to be ethnocentric. But we
present a platform of relationship between the languages people use
and the biodiversity of this landscape.

Once Mandis used to live in big trees of ha.chek(hill/mountain). Then
rurupa kokothokopa (procupine) one day asked them: "Can't you build
houses?" Balfong nokma chipong rachcha (crab of mountain streams)
first showed the way. Then came me.npa chekshenpa (sal forest insect)
and taught them the technique of making bamboo sheds. Saramma dusinem
(sal forest bird) showed the way of living in that house.

Then Mandis built their own houses and started to live in them, in
Mandi kususk (language) it is called nokmandi. These ideas no longer
exist in Mandi kusuk of Madhupur sal forest. As there is no sal
forest, no nokmandi now, ideas like rurupa kokothkopa, me.npa
chekshenpa, saramma dusinem have also disappeared.

ADB and other donor agencies have imported "development" agendas, and
corporate companies have expanded their business in Madhupur. The Sal
forest has undergone a total transformation under National Park/eco
park projects and colonial forest laws(1927). In this changing
situation, the condition of the Mandi language and of oppressed Mandi
life under this transformation is never taken into consideration in
any institutional framework or policy reform processes related to
forest biodiversity conservation, indigenous people's rights, and

In today's Mandi linguistic usage, many terms related to local
biodiversity are no longer used, as the lives the terms denote are no
longer there -- they have disappeared or become extinct. Many words
like sarengma rongthamben and dembra jagedong are used no longer in
Mandi kusuk (language). Instead, new words and ideas like BR-29,
BR-11, Paijam, IRRI have replaced them. The reason is that sarengma
rongthamben and dembra jagedong(local jhum rice), all rice varieties,
have disappeared from Mandi lands.

Since 1995, I have conducted a number of surveys in Lawachhara and
Magurchhara rainforests of Srimongol-Komolganj. Lawyachhara and
Magurchhora are Khasi villages, and Dolubari is a Tripuri village. In
1996, I made a list of trees used by these indigenous peoples in all
three villages. In the meantime, on June 14, 1997, Occidental was
responsible for a blowout in the area.

A large part of the forestland was burnt in the flames, destroying the
ecological balance of the forest. In 2004, I went there to make a list
of trees again. This time I found that the new generation adolescents
were no longer using the terms that describe or name the trees that
disappeared from the area after the blowout. When I name a few which I
could not find the second time but were there during my first survey,
they said that they had not heard most of these names.

Then I discussed with the elders the linguistic changes within the
Khashi (Mankhomer language family) and Kokborok (Tibetan-Berman
family) languages of the locality. They told me that nobody remembers
the names of trees that are no longer there. Libang, paichi boduk,
kaichi boduk, masua phai, sokshuma, abithi were burned to ashes by the
fire, and have become extinct in these villages. These names have
gradually disappeared from the language commonly used by new
generation adolescent Tripuries. Likewise, kraperda, kraseya, tiarman,
kraking, chiral are not commonly used in Khashi language of the new

Changes in local biodiversity directly influence the patterns of
language structure. So far we have always overlooked this relationship
in development initiatives and institutional policy processes
regarding language. Destroying biodiversity is also destroying one's
own language. Language is built around local biodiversity. When a
language loses its matrilineal elements, it is bound to change in its
matrilineal formation.

Once, in the rivers like Jadukata, Rokti, Kimao Maimadi (Nitai),
Simsang (Someshwari) that flow from mountain streams of north-eastern
Sunamganj-Netrokona near the borders of Meghalaya, mahashol fish (Tor
tor) was found in abundance.

In haor areas, nanid fish (Labeo nandina) was also available, among
many other fish varieties. We no longer have mahashol or nanid in our
wetlands. In our language, concepts related to mahashol or nanid are
altogether replaced by the ideas/names like silver-carp, grass-carp,
miner-carp, African magur (exotic commercial fish species) etc.

It is difficult now to say how many rice varieties we had in our
country. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) documented names of
more than twelve thousand rice varieties in a book titled "Deshi
Dhaner Jat" (Local Rice Varieties), published in 1982. All these rice
varieties had an ethno-ecological relation with the languages
developed from this land. Netpasha, somudrophena, kobrok, bajal,
sadamota, beerpala, jamaiaduri, boaler dat, lokkhidigha, gallong,
nuniya, gourokajol, gondhokosturi, lakhai, moynasail, chengri, digha,
mi-khocchu, jotaibalam, guamouri, and a whole lot of other rice
varieties, formed our concepts, indigenous knowledge and wisdom. The
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), CGIAR, so called "Green
Revolution," and corporate controlled world food system has changed
the linguistic structure of our farmers by capturing or/and destroying
inherited rice varieties. When we talk about agriculture or right to
mother language, we tend to ignore this.

In the language space that sprung from the agro-biodiversity of plain
land or jum cultivation, we witness now the intervention of chemical
fertilizer-insecticide-pesticide-IRRI-HYV-hybrid-GMO food. In these
circumstances, we want to attract everyone's attention to the deep-
rooted relationship of our language with our ecology and biodiversity.
Bhapa pitha, khir puli, malaikari, shondesh, sorshe ilish, godaiya,
jau, khichuri, chedoh, khari, sorbot etc constitute our food culture.

But when McDonald's potato French fry, beef burger, Coca Cola, Pepsi
or Pizza Hut's pizza occupy our language, it proposes new dimensions
to our language. Then these pizzas become our language, and a violent
corporate system enforces every means to inflict new elements, new
items, new dimension into our language, suppressing the language that
sprung from bhapa pitha.

And in this process of construction and transformation of a language,
a woman is the most likely to be a linguistic refugee. Irrespective of
whether she is from a dominant or marginalised section of people, the
language of her livelihood springs from the historical relationship
between local biodiversity and her society.

A woman is the first victim in the process of destruction of
biodiversity by male-chauvinist corporate aggression. It's
anti-ecological "commodity language" suppresses the language of woman,
and makes an advertisement of it. We are told that this is also a form
of language. But we believe that any exercise of force/violence, any
process of alienation and destruction, cannot be a form of language.
At best, it can be a communication tactics to promote global
consumerism. It is not a language.

Language is ceaselessly constructed; it exists, and is also
transformed, depending on the relationship of biodiversity, and by
protecting that relationship. So far, the initiatives and
participation of the state regarding the issues of language and
biodiversity were not distinctively different from the corporate
controlled male chauvinist attitudes.

On the one hand, right to mother language is recognised, while on the
other, not enough initiatives are taken to protect the matrilineal
elements and resources that construct that mother language. When a
language loses its matrilineal elements, it can no longer be called a
mother language. So, state initiative is an imperative, as the
linguistic space and structure is dependent on the conservation of

An integrated mother language rights policy has to be formed,
incorporating language, ecology, biodiversity and people's rights. It
is not a unilateral or linear matter. Bangladesh has already adopted
the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD 1992).
Article 8(j) of the convention says, subject to national legislation,
respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of
indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles
relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and
promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of
the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices, and
encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the
utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices.

In line with this convention, Bangladesh prepared a draft act in 1998
and updated in 2005. This draft act affirms that if any breeder,
governmental or non-governmental, misappropriates the name of any
plant variety traditionally used by farmers, the farmers will secure
the right to demand cancellation or/and appropriate punishment. [Plant
Variety Protection and Farmer's Right Act (draft) 2005/ Update
Version]. We are yet to formulate a participatory integrated policy
regarding language in our country.

Though we have a draft of a biodiversity policy, it is not yet
finalised. Biodiversity, language, ecology are closely linked to one
another. If the existence of one is threatened, the other two are
equally affected. The state should include the subaltern dimension
while considering the issues of language, biodiversity. The state has
to create provision within its institutional framework for these
marginalised people to express their pain of losing language or

Translation : Ahsan Habib

Pavel Partha is a Researcher, Ethnobotany and Biodiversity Conservation.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
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