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Claudia Gafner-Rojas

Derecho ambiental - Derechos humanos

Preserving indigenous languages ​​is protecting the environment:

An acknowledgment to the transmitters of traditional knowledge

May 28, 2019

2019 was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the importance, incidence and need to fight against the extinction of these languages. There are many reasons for this. Broadly speaking, on the one hand, indigenous languages ​​are, in themselves, goods of enormous cultural, social and environmental value that enrich the heritage of humanity and, on the other hand, it is essential to guarantee the linguistic rights of their speakers for the purposes of ensure their rights to express themselves and to communicate in their own language, as well as to strengthen their cultures and contribute both to their self-identification and to the social cohesion of their peoples.

Specifically regarding the interconnection between linguistic and environmental preservation, the thesis that affirms the intrinsic link between biological, linguistic and cultural diversity should not surprise(1). To begin with, traditional knowledge has benefited the proper use of natural resources and the protection of the environment, apart from other fields such as medicine or industry. This knowledge, transmitted from generation to generation through the language, contains extensive information about ecological systems and processes, as well as methods for protection and use of many natural spaces of great diversity, many of which for different reasons are currently threatened.


Human survival has been possible for millennia thanks to its adaptability to different environments, to which linguistic diversity has largely contributed: the more languages, the more knowledge transmission and with it, more possibilities for development and adaptation. From a linguistic and cultural point of view, diversity increases the chances of success for humanity: “The larger the <library> of humanity's knowledge to which all humans can have access, the greater the likelihood that, where some approaches fail, others may provide vital insights. And access to the <library> is only gained through the world's languages”(2).

Thus, because the various languages ​​are conditioned in part by the biological and social environment, they have developed their vocabulary and linguistic structures to express what is meaningful in the corresponding context. That is why languages ​​receive the qualification of “DNA of cultures”, since they have codified the cultural knowledge that peoples have inherited from their ancestors, each generation contributing to the enrichment of this heritage(3).

In the indigenous worldview this takes on a special significance, due to the particular connection with the land that indigenous peoples usually possess. In general, the individual is considered as another element of the natural environment, occupying like all other living beings the same hierarchical position, since all descend from the same source: the “Mother Earth”. This is reflected in the language in a consistent manner. Just to mention an example, the word cloud, that in !Xoon(4), the language of a small Namibian people, corresponds literally to "house of rain"(5). Children in this town automatically receive additional information about the clouds as they learn this word, realizing that a cloud is a source of rain, which does not occur when a child uses the word in a “western” language, for example “nube” in Spanish, cloud in English, “Wolke” in German or “nuage” in French.

In ungraphed cultures or of oral tradition, as is the case of the vast majority of indigenous cultures, the relationship between people and the world is not explained through scientific knowledge but through myth. The world is appreciated fundamentally animated, speaks for itself and, therefore, can be interpreted in light of what the environment itself expresses, taking into account that the messages are sent by gods, dead, spirits, etc. The shaman, priest, sage or the same community members perform the function of translators of such messages, which may be permanent, such as the material disposition of a territory, the shape of a tree, etc. or transient messages such as riddles from the provoked material configuration(6). All these messages or, as Professor Landaburu calls them, “huellas mensaje” (message-prints) are “other forms of writing”(7). Perhaps this type of communication is the one that allows these societies that deep approach to nature and the ability to “translate” the messages that are found in it is, in turn, that explains the close link between language and the respectful and sustainable management of the natural environment.

Staging: Isabella Gafner (11 y/o), Photographie: Eric Gafner (13 y/o)

The interaction between language and the environment is also appreciated by noting that linguistic diversity in areas of high biodiversity is particularly high. The spaces with the highest concentrations of biodiversity are mostly coincidentally inhabited by indigenous and local communities whose members continue to speak ancestral languages. A comparison of countries with biological mega diversity (Table I) with those countries that present linguistic mega diversity (Table II) shows a positive correlation: 8 of the 10 countries with linguistic mega diversity belong to the same group of 17 countries with biological mega biodiversity. In addition, in the group of 25 countries with the highest number of endemic languages, 13 (marked with the symbol *) are found in the 17 countries with biological mega biodiversity (Table III) (8).

Table I. Countries with mega biodiversity

Continent                            Country

Africa                                   Democratic Republic of Congo,

                                             Madagascar, South Africa                      

Americas                             Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico,

                                             Peru, USA, Venezuela                                    

Asia                                     Indonesia, Malasia, Philippines,     

                                             India, China

Pacifico                               Australia, Papua New Guinea

Table II. Countries with linguistic mega diversity

Continent                           Country

Africa                                  Cameroon, Democratic Republic of

                                            Congo, Nigeria                                      

Américas                            Brazil, Mexico, USA

Asia                                     Indonesia, India

Pacífico                               Papua New Guinea, Australia                                 

Table III. Countries with the highest number of endemic languages with respect to countries with biological megabiodiversity

Country                    Number of        In the list of countries

                                   endemic                 with mega

                                  languages             biodiversity


Papua New Guinea *       847                         Yes

Indonesia *                      655                          Yes

Nigeria                             376                          -

India *                              309                         Yes

Australia *                        261                         Yes

Mexico *                          230                          Yes

Cameroon                       201                          -

Brazil *                            185                          Yes

Dem. Rep. Congo*         158                          Yes

Philippines*                     153                          Yes

USA *                              143                          Yes

Vanuatu                          105                            -

Tanzania                         101                            -

Sudán                               97                           -

Malasia *                          92                          Yes

Ethiopia                            90                           -

China *                             77                           Yes

Peru *                              75                            Yes

Chad                                73                            -

Russia                              71                            -

Solomon Islands              69                            -

Nepal                               68                            -

Colombia*                        55                           Yes

Cote d'Ivoire                     51                            -

Canada                            47                            -

In spite of the foregoing, the intimate link between indigenous languages ​​and environmental preservation finds neither a precise nor adequate reflection in environmental law. The protection of indigenous languages ​​constitutes not only a moral and cultural imperative, but also an important resource that can contribute to confronting global environmental problems. While Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992 and art. 8 (j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity refers to the need to preserve traditional knowledge, neither these instruments nor any other explicitly consider the importance of promoting and protecting indigenous languages, so it is worth considering the convenience of integrating the issue in environmental standards, in addition to the adoption of an international instrument that covers all aspects (not only the environmental one) related to the protection of these languages ​​and the rights of their speakers.

Staging: Isabella Gafner (11 y/o), Photographie: Eric Gafner (13 y/o)

(1) See among others: McNeely, Interaction Between Biological Diversity and Cultural Diversity, in: Büchi/Erni/Jurt/Rüegg, Indigenous Peoples, Environment and Development, IWGIA, Copenhague, 1997, p. 173–196; Maffi, On Biocultural Diversity, 2001; Fill, Sprachökologie und Ökolinguistik, 1996; Hermann, Man sieht was man (er)kennt, en: Altner/Leitschuh-Fecht/Michelsen/Simonis/von Weizsäcker, Jahrbuch Ökologie 2007, München, 2006, p. 11–20.

(2)Skutnabb-Kangas/Maffi/Harmon, Sharing a World of Difference, 2003, p. 28.

(3) Ibid, p. 20.

(4) The exclamation mark is part of the name of the language, as it represents the click sound used by speakers and is considered part of the vocabulary of this language.

  1. (5)Harrison, When Languages die, 2007, p. 16.

  2. (6)Aguirre Licht, Destilación del conocimiento indígena, in: Reyes Sánchez, Giovanna Liset (Ed.), Diálogo de Saberes: Plantas Medicinales, Salud y Cosmovisiones, 2009, p. 49–65.

(7) Landaburu, Oralidad y escritura en las sociedades indígenas, 1996, p. 13 ss.

(8) The information in the tables has been obtained and adapted from Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove/Maffi, Luisa/Harmon, David, Sharing a World of Difference: The Earth's Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Diversity, UNESCO/Terralingua/WWF, Paris, 2003 and from the base de database of “Ethnologue, languages of the world” (www.ethnologue.com).

* Instagram: eric.gafner2018


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