NAIROBI - Some 2,500 indigenous
languages are in danger of extinction in the short
term, while the diversity of common vegetable crops,
such as asparagus or carrots, has decline 90 percent
during the last century, warn studies published by
the United Nations Development Program (UNEP).
Of the nearly 7,000 languages
existing on the planet, 4,000 to 5,000 are classed
as indigenous, according to studies by Darrell Addison
Posey of the Oxford Center for the Environment, Ethics
and Society at Mansfield College, University of Oxford,
in Britain, and winner of the Global 500 environmental
prize awarded by the United Nations.
The most languages are
spoken in Papua New Guinea, where 847 different tongues
are used. That country is followed by Indonesia, 655;
Nigeria, 376; India, 309; Australia, 261; Mexico,
230; Cameroon, 201; Brazil, 185; Zaire, 158 and the
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 fewer than 100 people.
According to the study,
234 languages have already died out. Some researchers
estimate that over the next 100 years 90 percent of
the world's languages will have become extinct or
Losing a language and its
cultural context is like burning a unique reference
book of the natural world, says UNEP.
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, warns Klaus Toepfer, executive
director of the Kenya-based UNEP.
''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 their traditions,'' Toepfer pointed out
during the UNEP's Governing Council, which met in
Nairobi earlier this month.
The report by professor
Posey also underscores the loss of crop diversity
resulting from the invasion of "western civilization"
and its agricultural methods.
In 1903 there were 13
known varieties of asparagus. By 1983 there was just
one, or a decline of 97.8 per cent.
Also in 1903, there were
287 varieties of carrot, but the number has fallen
to just 21 or a decline of 92.7 percent. Over 460
varieties of radish were known, but this has dropped
to 27 or a decline of 94.2 percent. Nearly 500 varieties
of lettuce were catalogued at the turn of the century
but this has fallen to 36.
Genetic uniformity is an
increasing threat to crops around the world, and new
sources of medicines, for example, could also be lost
as the result of the extinction of indigenous languages,
cultures and traditions.
"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," asserts Toepfer.