NAIROBI, Kenya, February 8, 2001 (ENS) – Native farmers high in the Andean mountains grow abundant yields of potatoes and quinoa despite floods, frosts, and droughts. They use a system of terraces, canals and raised fields that evolved over 3,000 years ago. The Turkana tribe of Kenya plans crop planting around knowledge of the behavior of frogs and birds, such as the ground hornbill, spotted eagle owl and nightjar, which are revered as “prophets of rain.” The BaAka pygmies of the Central African Republic use plants to cure many of their most common illnesses. Several plants are known and used to treat the same disease. Because they grow in different types of forest, the pygmies can cure themselves when travelling.A new report carried out on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that such indigenous systems for environmentally harmonious living may soon be lost forever as a result of growing globalization.The study, based on work by hundreds of academics, claims many indigenous languages and cultures are already teetering on the brink of extinction in the face of globalization.Entitled, “Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity: A Complementary Contribution to the Global Biodiversity Assessment,” it was edited by Professor Darrell Addison Posey of the Federal University of Maranhao, Sao Luis, Brazil, and the Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, in Britain. The study was presented Wednesday at the UNEP Governing Council meeting in Nairobi.
UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said, “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.”
“Indigenous peoples not only have a right to preserve their way of life. But they also hold vital knowledge on the animals and plants with which they live. Enshrined in their cultures and customs are also secrets of how to manage habitats and the land in environmentally friendly, sustainable, ways,” he said.
Much of this knowledge is not written down but is passed from generation to generation orally, in art works or in the designs of handicrafts such as baskets. Losing a language and its cultural context is like burning a unique reference book of the natural world.
New sources of medicines are being lost as a result of the decline of indigenous languages, cultures and traditions. Many indigenous peoples have intimate, local, knowledge of herbs, trees and flowers and parts of animals, and their use as medicines which could give clues to new drugs for humanity. They know the right part of the plant to pick and the season in which to harvest these natural medicines to obtain the maximum amount of benefit.
This knowledge is expressed in ritual, ceremony and magic. Culture, language, religion, psychology and spiritual beliefs are inseparable from their understanding of the natural world.
But as indigenous languages disappear, the environmental wisdom they were used to articulate also disappears. There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages in the world with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous. More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction and many more are losing their link with the natural world.
Over 1,000 languages are spoken by between 101 and 1,000 individuals. A further 553 are spoken by fewer than 100 people.
Some researchers estimate that over the next 100 years 90 percent of the world’s languages will have become extinct or virtually extinct – 234 have already died out.
Toepfer believes that more urgent action is needed to safeguard indigenous cultures and their knowledge. There are some international mechanisms in place that could be those safeguards. The World Trade Organization has provisions that allow countries to develop intellectual property rights which may give indigenous peoples new ways to protect plant species they have nurtured from exploitation by bioprospectors.
The Convention on Biological Diversity has recently developed a mechanism which allows signatory nations to address inadequacies in the area of intellectual property rights. It will help develop guidelines on how to create better laws to protect indigenous communities.
Professor Posey’s report offers key reasons why the environment will benefit by conserving native cultures, a task he says should be “urgently addressed.”
Indigenous peoples’ traditional economic systems have a relatively low impact on biological diversity because they tend to utilize a great diversity of species, harvesting small numbers of each of them. “By comparison settlers and commercial harvesters target far fewer species and collect or breed them in vast numbers, changing the structure of ecosystems,” the report finds.
This pattern is increasing the threat of crop failures across the globe as the world’s major crops become more genetically uniform.
The report cites work by UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, England, and other researchers on the disappearance of diversity in common crops. For instance, there were 287 varieties of carrot in 1903, but just 21 varieties today – a fall of 92.7 per cent. Nearly 500 varieties of lettuce were catalogued in 1900, but only 36 remain today.
Indigenous peoples try to increase the biological diversity of the territories in which they live, the report documents. They leave a large margin of error in their seasonal forecasts for the abundance of plants and animals, deliberately underestim ating the harvestable surplus of each target species.
“Since indigenous knowledge of ecosystems is learned and updated through direct observations on the land, removing the people from the land breaks the generation to generation cycle,” the report says.
Publication of the study coincides with the beginning of the United Nations International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations which aims to highlight the difficulties facing indigenous cultures.
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