Globalization versus Heterogeneity
Globalization Poses Threat to World’s Cultural, Linguistic And Biological Diversity
The United Nations Environment Program has released this warning.
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, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is warning.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said yesterday: “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 passed down from generation to generation orally, in art works or in the designs of handicrafts such as baskets, rather than being written down. So losing a language and its cultural context is like burning a unique reference book of the natural world.
“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”, Mr Toepfer said during the 21st session of UNEP’s Governing Council which is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, this week.
Research, carried out on behalf of UNEP and drawing on work by hundreds of academics, highlights the way native farmers in parts of West and East Africa, such as the Fulbe of Benin and tribes in Tanzania, find and encourage termite mounds to boost the fertility and moisture content of the soil.
Meanwhile the Turkana tribe of Kenya plan crop planting around an intimate knowledge of the behaviour of frogs and birds, such as the ground hornbill, green wood hoopoe, spotted eagle owl and nightjar, which are revered as “prophets of rain”.
The research, 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 Great Britain, claims many indigenous languages and cultures are already teetering on the brink of extinction in the face of globalization.
Studies estimate that there are 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.
Around a third, or 32 per cent of the world’s spoken languages, are found in Asia; 30 per cent in Africa; 19 per cent in the Pacific; 15 per cent in the Americas and three per cent in Europe.
The report also links a profusion of languages with a wealth of wildlife underscoring how native peoples have thrived on a rich natural environment and managed it for the benefit of animals and plants.
The most languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, where 847 different tongues are used. This 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 only up to 100 people.
Two hundred thirty-four have already died out. Some researchers estimate that over the next 100 years 90 per cent of the world’s languages will have become extinct or virtually extinct.
Many native people have a vested interest in maintaining a wide variety and animals and plants in their area so they are not reliant on just one source of food. But encroachment by Western-style civilization and its farming methods means that many of these varieties, encouraged by tribal and native people, are fast disappearing along with their genetic diversity. It is increasing the threat of crop failures across the globe as a result of genetic uniformity in the world’s major crops.
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. In 1903 there were 13 known varieties of asparagus. By 1983 there was just one, or a decline of 97.8 per cent.
There were 287 varieties of carrot in 1903 but this has fallen to just 21 or a fall of 92.7 per cent. Over 460 varieties of radish were known in 1903 but this has dropped to 27, or a decline of 94.2 per cent. Nearly 500 varieties of lettuce were catalogued at the turn of the century but this has fallen to 36.
New sources of medicines may also be being lost as a result of the decline of indigenous languages, cultures and traditions. Many indigenous peoples have intimate, local, knowledge of plants, such as herbs, trees and flowers and parts of animals, and their use as medicines which, in turn, could give clues to new drugs for the West. They also know the right part, such as the root, leaf, seed or flower, to pick and season in which to harvest these “natural medicines” so they contain the maximum amount of health-giving compounds.
This knowledge is often enshrined in ritual, ceremony and magic underlining how culture, language, religion, psychology and spiritual beliefs can often not be separated from their understanding of the natural world.
The Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic mix magic, ritual and ceremony with herbalism for curing the sick. “The Aka use plant species to cure the majority of the most common illnesses and diseases. Several plants are known and used to treat the same disease. Because they grow in different types of forest, they allow the pygmies to cure themselves when travelling”, says the study.
News of the academics’ study comes at the beginning of the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. Part of its aim is to highlight the plight of indigenous cultures.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, which is administered by UNEP and which was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, makes specific reference to the need to protect the world’s indigenous cultures and traditions. Article 8 of the Convention states: “subject to its national legislation, (to) respect, preserve, and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional life styles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity”.
Other initiatives include one by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which lists world cultural and heritage sites. UNESCO is developing its role to help local communities conserve and protect sacred sites such as groves. UNESCO also recognizes the “complex interrelationship between man and nature in the construction, formation and evolution of landscapes”.
The first cultural landscape World Heritage site was Tongariro National Park in New Zealand which is a sacred site for the Maori people.
The World Trade Organization has provisions that allow countries to develop Intellectual Property Rights, which may give indigenous peoples new avenues for protecting plant species they have nurtured from exploitation by “bio prospectors”.
The Biodiversity Convention has recently developed a mechanism called “an intersessional process” which allows signatory nations to address inadequacies in the area of Intellectual Property Rights and will help develop guidelines on how to create better laws to protect indigenous communities.
But UNEP believes that more urgent action is needed to safeguard indigenous cultures and their knowledge. Its report cites four key reasons why conserving native cultures should be urgently addressed.
“(They) have traditional economic systems that 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”, it argues.
“Indigenous peoples try to increase the biological diversity of the territories in which they live, as a strategy for increasing the variety of resources at their disposal and, in particular, reducing the risk associated with fluctuations in the abundance of individual species.”
“Indigenous people customarily leave a large ‘margin of error’ in their seasonal forecasts for the abundance of plants and animals. By underestimating the harvestable surplus of each target species, they minimize the risk of compromising their food supplies.”
“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 of empirical study. Maintaining the full empirical richness and detail of traditional knowledge depends on continued use of the land as a classroom and laboratory.”
For more information, visit the United Nations Environment Program web site at www.unep.org
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