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O P E N  F O R U M

D I S AP E A R I N G   W O D S

In the Gulf of Munnar, in southern India, there was a conservation effort a few years back to save the Dugong (sea-cow). Not knowing the local word for dugong, environmentalists translated sea-cow literally into the local language and handed out pamphlets that read “save the kadal pashu”. The locals thought this was an attempt to keep cows from falling into the sea. 70-1.jpg (6265 bytes)

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“Where indigenous
peoples live is where the greatest biological diversity, the diversity of nature, exists. Our complex systems are founded on the values which indigenous peoples have built.”

his is just one of many examples of how important language is. It is not only culturally
important, but ecologically too. The word the locals use for the dugong, not only names the animal but may also instill a feeling of familarity and assocaition. If the environmentalists had known and used the local word, they would have had more support and the understanding of the local people and the programme might have been more successful.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world and it has been said that half of these languages will be gone in the next generation or two. The loss of these languages not only means a loss of culture, but a loss of important knowledge in the scientific field of biodiversity. The biodiversity on our planet has been declining faster over the last 500 years than it has since the last mass extinction--which was possibly
caused by a meteorite. Scientists believe that the next mass extinction will be caused by polluting fuels, over-fishing, extensive farming, and chemical pollutants.

Nature talk Alarmed by the rapidly declining biodiversity, the UN has set a target to decrease this rate of species decline by 2010. At present scientists have discovered and are aware of only a fraction of the earth’s plant and animal species. You can read about these discoveries in all kinds of scientific journals and magazines, unfortunately most are in English. That’s ok, “science is a universal way of understanding the world.” Answers to the questions of the universe can be expressed similarly in any language, English, French or Hindi. But, what if there is something missing?

We know biodiversity is important, not only for the aesthetics of the world. A large diversity of plants and animals keeps the earth functioning. Everything is connected and interdependent. Together they maintain the balance in the ecosystem.

So, in order to reach the target set by the UN agreement not only do fossil fuels, chemical farming and over-fishing have to be cut down, it also means we need to learn as much about biodiversity as possible.

Interestingly, places in the world where biodiversity is rich, language diversity is also very rich. The tropical belt of the world is full of biodiversity.

It also contains 60 per cent of the world’s languages. Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are both on the list of “megadiverse” countries, one quarter of the world’s languages are also spoken there. India is also considered to be “megadiverse” containing two diversity hotspots and about 380 different languages spoken here.

Most of these languages are spoken by tribal people who live very closely with their environment. One example of the extensive knowledge of biodiversity is in therukoothu, a traditional theatre form. In this theatre a clown often challenges the hero to a verbal feat—to name all of the birds or flowers in his area. The performers have an incredible understanding of their local environment, but cannot always express their knowledge in English

In many cases there are very few people left in these tribes who can speak their native language, most are elders. Once they die, their knowledge of biodiversity dies with them. And we will be left to repeat studies and data sets of the environment that had taken hundreds of years to develop. By keeping these languages alive, we keep their knowledge and have a greater chance to add their understanding of biodiversity to our global understanding, increasing our chances of meeting the UN target.

These languages will only survive if we allow them their place to thrive. Many native languages are lost to governments forcing people out of their native lands and into a society in which they must assimilate and speak a common language. Younger generations no longer feel the need to speak their parents’ language and it is forgotten. When people are allowed to thrive off their local environment, so will their language and biodiversity. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said, “Where indigenous peoples live is where the greatest biological diversity, the diversity of nature, exists. Our complex systems are founded on the values which indigenous peoples have built.”


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