Thursday, August 26, 1999

Environmental destruction a threat to languages

By NATION Reporter

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."

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 peoples 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 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.

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