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 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 and 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 mean 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 International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. Part of its aim is to highlight the plight of indigenous cultures. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which is managed by UNEP and which grew out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, makes specific reference to the need to protect the world's indigenous cultures and traditions. Article eight 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 UNESCO, a sister UN body 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 CBD 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".
NOTES TO EDITORS.
For more information please contact
Nick Nuttall tel, 254 2 623381, mobile 254 0733 632755,
UNEP spokesman tel,
254 2 623292 or
Robert Bisset on 254 2 623084,
Contact: Graham Dutfield,
Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society on
home tel 44 118 9871722 or work 44 1865 282904.
Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity:
A Complementary Contribution to the Global Biodiversity Assessment.
Edited by Darrell Addison Posey.
UNEP and Intermediate Technology.
Klaus Toepfer and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Noble-prize winning writer and thinker on cultural diversity, will be holding a press conference on Thursday 8 February at 10.30 GMT (1.30pm local Kenyan time) at the press centre at the 21st session of the Governing Council.
Documentation and press information about the 21st session of the Governing Council can be seen on UNEP's web site at:
Case Studies Of Indigenous Peoples.
Native farmers of the Andean mountains.
The terraces, canals and raised fields, known as waru-waru, developed at nearly 4,000 metres up in the Andes evolved over 3,000 years ago. The system, while appearing primitive to western eyes, has allowed the native peoples there to produce crops like potatoes and quinoa in the face of floods, droughts and severe frosts. The canals, filled with water, allow moisture to percolate through to the fields. During floods they help drain off the excess water. This farming system also helps the farmers cope with temperature extremes. Water in the canals absorb sunlight during the day, radiating it back into the raised fields at night to protect the crops from frost. The fields can be several degrees warmer at night than the surrounding area. Meanwhile the system maintains soil fertility. Organic matter, silt and algae build up in the canals which is dug out as a fertilizer. The waru waru system is not only sustainable and environmentally friendly but also leads to higher yields.Studies indicate that potatoes yields, grown in this traditional farming system, are about 10 tonnes a hectare versus the regional average of one to four tonnes.
The Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic.
The Aka use a variety of plants to treat illnesses and ailments. They prepare paste from the wood of the tree Pterocarpus soyauxii mixed with the fragments of animal bone, ash and greasy cabbage palm butter as a skin ointment. Incisions made on the patient's body are filled with a mixture of palm butter and the charred, powdered, scales of the pangolin and Gabonese grey parrot. This is used for a variety of illnesses. The incisions boost the uptake of the medicine into the blood stream.
The Dai of south west China and Holy Hills.
The Dai are indigenous group living the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan Province. They have a long tradition of conserving wildlife as part of their religious beliefs in gods residing in forested areas known as Holy Hills or Nong. It is estimated that 400 of these virgin forests or Holy Hill sites, representing 50,000 hecatres or up to 2.5 per cent of the land area where they live, are conserved by these people and have become islands of biodiversity. Near the village of Man-yuang-kwang the Holy Hill, in which it is forbidden to cut down trees or build houses, covers 53 hectares. Studies have found the site holds 311 different plant species. "The Holy Hill concept has made a significant contribution to the conservation of biological diversity in Xishuangbanna.
There are hundreds of well-preserved seasonal rainforest areas characterized by species of Antiaris, Canarium and others. A large number of endemic or relic species of the local flora have been protected including about 100 species of medicinal plants and more than 150 species of economically useful plants," says the UNEP report.
The Tlingit People of North West North America.
The collective memory of the Tlingit is embedded in basket weaving. Their religion is full of reference to baskets including the story of how the Sun lowered a mother and her children to their home on Earth in a giant basket. The basket and its symbolism permeates these indigenous peoples' lives and the baskets, beautifully made, are woven so tightly they can hold water. The harvesting of the materials to make the baskets not only requires intimate and ancient knowledge of the natural world. But also requires sustainable methods to remove the bark and conserve the cedar trees which are used. "Traditional harvesting practices ensured the sustainability of the resources on which the basket-makers relied. Scars on old but still vital trees are reminders that a tree has given -for clothing, utensils or shelter. The inner bark of cedar was used for fishing lines, twine and rope, netting and even hand towels for use of eating. Mats, and of course baskets, were woven from it," says the UNEP report. Strips, usually just one per tree, are taken from a tree on the steep side of the mountain where, because the tree is growing towards the light, there are no branches. "This way a long, tapering, strip of bark can be peeled up to the length of the tree, leaving the tree to heal and continue to grow," says the report.
UNEP News Release 01/18