Photo: Girls from the Arhuacos indigenous community of Colombia. UNODC/Laura Rodriguez Navarro - Photo: 2022

Alarm Bells Ringing for Endangered Indigenous Languages

UN Launches 10-year Survival Plan

By J Nastranis

NEW YORK (IDN) — Indigenous Peoples are guardians to almost 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, said Csaba Kőrösi, the incumbent President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), while launching on December 16 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.

He had just returned from the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP) in Montreal, Canada. “The aim of this event is to help protect and promote indigenous languages. And to reflect upon how the next decade will shape their preservation,” he said.

However, to successfully protect nature, “we must listen to indigenous peoples, and we must do so in their own languages”. Yet every two weeks, an indigenous language dies.

With each indigenous language that goes extinct, so too goes the thought: the culture, tradition and knowledge it bears, the UNGA President noted.

From Arctic communities desiring to receive public services in their own languages, to the Arhuaco people in Colombia who still speak Ika, indigenous people across the world are determined to keep their mother tongues alive. 

Against this backdrop, in 2007, the UNGA adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizing the right “to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures”.

The proclamation of an International Decade is a key outcome of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, for which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lead global efforts.

The Organization will continue to serve as lead UN Agency for the implementation of the International Decade, in cooperation with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and other relevant UN Agencies.

Indigenous people make up less than six per cent of the global population but speak more than 4,000 of the world’s roughly 6,700 languages, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

However, conservative estimates indicate that more than half of all languages will become extinct by the end of this century. 

The General Assembly President urged countries to work with indigenous communities to safeguard their rights, such as access to education and resources in their native languages, and to ensure that they and their knowledge are not exploited.

“And perhaps most importantly, meaningfully consult indigenous peoples, engaging with them in every stage of decision-making processes,” he advised. 

Cultural identity and wisdom

During the launch, indigenous persons and UN Ambassadors—sometimes one and the same—made the case for protection and preservation, reported UN News.

Language is more than just words, said Mexican Ambassador Juan Ramón de la Fuente, speaking on behalf of the 22-member Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples.

“It is at the essence of the identity of its speakers and the collective soul of its peoples. Languages embody the history, culture and traditions of people, and they are dying at an alarming rate,” he warned.

Leonor Zalabata Torres, an Arhuaco woman and Colombia’s UN Ambassador, drew applause for her address, delivered partly in Ika, one of 65 indigenous languages spoken in her homeland. 

“Language is the expression of wisdom and cultural identity, and the instrument that gives meaning to our daily reality that we inherited from our ancestors,” she said, switching to Spanish.

“Unfortunately, linguistic diversity is at risk, and this has been caused by the dramatic reduction of the use and the accelerated replacement of indigenous languages by the languages of the majority societies.”

Ms Zalabata Torres reported that the Colombian government has underlined its commitment to implementing the 10-year plan on indigenous languages, which is centred around pillars that include strengthening, recognition, documentation and revitalization. 

Language and self-determination 

For Arctic indigenous communities, language is critical to political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual rights, said representative Aluki Kotierk. 

“In fact, every time an indigenous person utters a word in an indigenous language, it is an act of self-determination,” she added.

However, Ms. Kotierk said native tongues and dialects “are in various levels of vitality”.

She envisions a time where Arctic indigenous peoples “can stand taller in their own homelands with dignity, knowing that they can function in all aspects of their lives, in their own language, receiving essential public services in the areas of health, justice, and education”.

Towards linguistic justice

Ms Mariam Wallet Med Aboubakrine, Indigenous peoples’ representative of the Socio-Cultural Region of Africa, also addresses the UN General Assembly at the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

Ms Aboubakrine, a doctor from Mali, advocates for indigenous peoples in Africa, particularly the Tuareg. She urged countries “to deliver linguistic cultural justice to indigenous peoples”, which will only contribute to reconciliation and lasting peace.

She expressed hope that the International Decade will culminate with the adoption of a UN Convention “so that every indigenous woman can cradle and comfort her baby in her language; every indigenous child can play in their language; every young person and adult can express themselves and work in security in their language, including in digital spaces, and to ensure that every elder can transmit their experience in their language”. [IDN-InDepthNews — 17 December 2022]

Photo: Girls from the Arhuacos indigenous community of Colombia. UNODC/Laura Rodriguez Navarro

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