18 de febrero del 2001
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Indigenous Languages in Distress

By Tierramérica Editor's Desk

More than 2,500 native languages, many of which hold vital information about the natural environment, could disappear in the immediate future, warns UNEP

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 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 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 virtually extinct.

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.


Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


Mexican indigenous girls./ Credit: Claudio Contreras
  Mexican indigenous girls./ Credit: Claudio Contreras

External Links

United Nations Environment Program

Report on Native Languages

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