UN ’s international day of the world’s indigenous peoples was observed on August 9; 2019 was declared as the Year of Indigenous Languages to protect the contributors of the world’s rich diversity.
Indigenous peoples are basically ethnic groups who are the original inhabitants of a given region, in contrast to groups that settle or occupy or colonize the area. The estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, who live across 90 countries, are one of the most vulnerable and poor sections of our society. However, they speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.
Over a period of time, these indigenous people around the world began losing their lands and resources to colonialism and modern development. Despite the widespread assumption that indigenous peoples live overwhelmingly in rural territories, urban areas are now home to a significant proportion of indigenous populations. In Latin America, around 40% of all indigenous peoples live in urban areas — even 80% in some countries of the region. In most cases, indigenous peoples who migrate find better employment opportunities and improve their economic situation, but alienate themselves from their traditional lands and customs. Additionally, indigenous migrants face a myriad of challenges, including lack of access to public services and additional layers of discrimination. Thus, in recent times the international community has recognized the need to take special measures to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures.
According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, with one dying every two weeks. If trends continue, up to 90% of the world’s languages could be lost before 2100, with indigenous varieties deemed most vulnerable. The social, economic and environmental impacts of language loss among some of the world’s estimated 370 indigenous people could be catastrophic.
A major part of the language loss is attributed to the massacre of tribal people. We are witnessing the mass extinction of these people and their languages in our times. One other reason is the forced integration of these people into the mainstream community. For instance, people like the Bushmen in Southern Africa have been forced to live in resettlement camps in Botswana. An increasing percentage of the indigenous people face racism and ignorance, leading to lack of recognition of their culture and languages. In response to these threats, the UNGA adopted a Resolution on ‘Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in a statement said, “On this annual observance, let us commit to fully realizing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the rights to self-determination and to traditional lands, territories and resources.”
Language is a vital part of the Right to self-determination. It is an aspect of one’s identity. Thus, when these languages are being lost at an alarming rate, we are also losing the historical and geographical context of these languages. Tribal and indigenous groups are a rich source of knowledge, in particular, their knowledge of the natural world is vast. Thus, losing them and their languages would hinder the human race from accessing valuable information in terms of our future, the planet and science.
Language, an integral part of diversity plays a crucial role in people’s day to day life. Just like how biodiversity in an ecological sense is considered important to the planet, human diversity to is essential to hold the fabric of the society together. In an era of globalization where human interactions have multiplied, losing languages hinders the process. Thus, the international community is furthering its efforts to also make the non-indigenous people aware of these problems as a lack of human diversity is a problem one can not brush under the carpet. However, education materials in these languages, aimed at sensitizing people towards this cause could be one way to conserve the languages.
The Prairies to Woodlands Indigenous Language Revitalization Circle, based in Canada, is launching an Indigenous language program in Dauphin next month in hope of connecting elders with people eager to keep their ancestral languages alive. The group was recently given a $94,000 grant from the Canadian Heritage’s Aboriginal Language Initiative.
Our assessment is that indigenous languages are an invaluable heritage that must be protected alongside the rights of native peoples. We feel that with the ongoing global migration crisis, it is important that we consider the socio-cultural implications of displacement of indigenous peoples.