Loss of ethnolinguistic groups could degrade environment further

The rapid loss of languages and ecological knowledge in the world’s most biologically diverse regions could lead to further environmental degradation, says a new WWF report.

According to Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation: An Integrated Approach to Conserving the World’s Biological and Cultural Diversity, and its accompanying map, Global 200, there is a very significant overlap of the areas of richest biodiversity of the world with high concentrations of distinct cultures. The languages spoken by these indigenous and traditional peoples are disappearing with increasing speed due to globalisation of markets and communications which promotes dominant languages, says WWF.

According to WWF, 90% of the world’s 6,000 remaining languages will be lost in the 21st century, with the majority of these being languages spoken by indigenous and traditional peoples. As these languages become extinct, ecological knowledge, which is passed on orally and is accumulated by generations of people surviving in and managing their ecosystems, is also dying out, says the report.

“As a conservation organisation, WWF is concerned about the loss of biodiversity,” said Gonzalo Oviedo, head of People and Conservation at WWF International. “But it is also increasingly worried about the disappearance of traditional ecological knowledge. Governments and the international community should decidedly support indigenous and traditional peoples to strengthen their cultures and societies while managing their resources sustainably.”

Tropical rainforests, known to be the areas of the world richest in biodiversity, currently now cover just 7% of the planet’s land surface, but at the same time are home to between 50% to 90% of the world’s species. These ecosystems are also the most culturally diverse regions, harbouring at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples. However, language loss is not exclusive for developing countries. Among nations facing the highest rates of extinction of indigenous languages are Australia, where there are 138 languages going extinct, and the USA, which is losing 67 languages.

The concept underpinning WWF’s approach in working with indigenous peoples is the need to establish lasting conservation partnerships with them, based on an appreciation for their contribution to biodiversity conservation, and the recognition of their legitimate rights and interests.

“WWF recognises the right of traditional peoples to development options that are culturally determined and not imposed from outside, and that incorporate customary, sustainable resource use,” said Oviedo. “Achieving this objective is a difficult and complex challenge in times of globalisation and expanding economic and market forces. It requires co-operation and alliances, both locally and globally. In terms of conservation and development, this implies the participation of indigenous and traditional peoples in projects affecting them.”

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