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Biodiversity and linguistic diversity

Maintaining indigenous languages, conserving biodiversity

While it is widely acknowledged that the degradation of the natural environment, in particular traditional habitats, entails a loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, new studies suggest that language loss, in its turn, has a negative impact on biodiversity conservation.

There is a fundamental linkage between language and traditional knowledge (TK) related to biodiversity. Local and indigenous communities have elaborated complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting a deep understanding of their local environment. This environmental knowledge is embedded in indigenous names, oral traditions and taxonomies, and can be lost when a community shifts to another language.

Traditional fisherman in Guatemala.

Ethnobotanists and ethnobiologists recognize the importance of indigenous names, folk taxonomies and oral traditions to the success of initiatives related to endangered species recovery and restoration activities.

For example, a study carried out among the Amuesha tribe of the Peruvian Upper Amazon, whose language is severely endangered, concluded that the loss of speakers and knowledge- keepers among the Amuesha has  directly and negatively impacted the diversity of crops.

Another study on ancestral sayings of Maori revealed new pertinent information concerning plant growth, soils and nutrients, ecological niches and ecological communities, as well as landscape processes.

These and many other case studies will be presented in a forthcoming UNESCO working paper entitled ‘Indigenous languages as tools for understanding and preserving biodiversity’.

Such studies demonstrate that efforts to preserve biodiversity can greatly benefit from engaging with local communities on one hand and anthropologists and linguists on the other hand, The former can share their unique traditional ecological knowledge, while the latter  can serve as bridges between TK and ecoscience. UNESCO considers the safeguarding of TK and the indigenous languages used to transmit such knowledge as a yet underused but promising tools for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity.

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