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The International Day of the World's Indigenous People 9 August 1999

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Speech 1999/14

Nairobi, 5 August 1999 - The commemoration of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People every year is a day to focus our attention on the unique circumstances of indigenous societies throughout the world and the importance of indigenous cultures to the global community. It is a day to foster greater appreciation, understanding and respect for the cultural, political, social, religious and economic rights of the world's indigenous people.

An estimated 300 million indigenous people inhabit more than 70 countries worldwide. They live in a wide range of ecosystems -from polar regions and deserts to the savannahs and tropical forests. There is a remarkable overlap between the global mappings of world's areas of biological megadiversity and areas of high cultural and linguistic diversity.

Unfortunately, these areas of biological megadiversity are the ones in which biodiversity loss has been the most dramatic. These areas host the world's highest concentrations of linguistically and culturally diverse human groups - the indigenous people, who have traditionally lived in close contact with their ecological habitats. Poverty also tends to have a disproportionately severe effect on indigenous people. They tend to be among the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and the most deprived groups of society.

There is basic consensus that indigenous peoples possess detailed and accurate knowledge of their environments and that this knowledge represents an essential resource for efforts aimed at preserving biodiversity and promoting sustainability, both locally and globally.

As global socio-economic factors disrupt traditional ways of life, such knowledge is being rapidly lost, causing poverty and over exploitation of the environment by both local groups and outside forces. External pressures also promote tensions and conflicts over indigenous peoples' land rights and impinge on their human rights - including linguistic, cultural and resource rights.

These global forces also foster change in perceptions and attitudes of the indigenous people often leading to the abandonment of traditional knowledge and behaviours and of the languages that are the repositories and means of transmission of such knowledge.

UNEP's forthcoming publication "Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity" points out that out of 6,000 languages that are spoken today, 2,500 are in danger of extinction. The threat to linguistic resources is now recognized as a worldwide crisis.

Clearly, the pace of extinction is accelerating both for cultures of the indigenous people and for biological species. In the past the process had proceeded discretely and locally. Today, it is proceeding generically and globally.

The loss of linguistic diversity means a loss of intellectual diversity. Each culture and language is a unique tool for analysing and synthesizing the world, incorporating the knowledge and values of a speech community. To lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality, to blot out the perspective evolved over many generations.

There is another argument as well for preserving the linguistic diversity - the broader interest in social justice. We should care about preventing the extinction of culture and languages because of the human costs to those most directly affected. Along with the accompanying loss of culture, language loss can destroy a sense of self worth, limiting human potential and complicating efforts to solve other problems such as poverty, family background, school failure and substance abuse.

It must also be remembered that the depletion of cultural and linguistic diversity does not happen in privileged communities. It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered who most need their cultural resources to survive.

As we complete the fifth year of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, we must assess indigenous people's needs and accelerate the correction of situations in which indigenous people are at a disadvantage. The completion of five years of the Decade also offers a framework for the launching of activities and the promotion of progress for indigenous people. It is an opportunity to bring about tangible improvements in the daily lives of indigenous communities. Every nation has the responsibility of promoting the knowledge and understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity within and work to sustain that diversity in the growing global information society.


UNEP News Release 1999/84

Friday 06 Aug 1999
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