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The BBC's Tim Hirsch
"Language holds vital secrets about the environment"
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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 23:02 GMT
UN warns over indigenous tongues
Aborigines' culture is among those under threat
The United Nations is warning that the disappearance of thousands of indigenous languages worldwide could represent a threat to the environment as well as a loss to culture and tradition.

In a report, the UN estimates that up to 90% of the world's languages could die out over the next century, and with them much valuable knowledge about nature.

More than 2,500 languages are in danger of immediate extinction and many more are losing their link with the natural world

UNEP report
This traditional knowledge, it says, includes secrets of how to manage habitats and the land in environmentally-sustainable ways passed down by word of mouth over generations.

The report likens this to the loss of a unique reference book, and warns of a reciprocal loss of natural medicines and an increasing risk of crop failures.

"Nature's secrets, locked away in the songs, stories, art and handicrafts of indigenous people, may be lost forever as a result of growing globalisation," says the report.

Language loss

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.

Turkana people, Kenya
The Turkana risk losing generations worth of knowledge
More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction and many more are losing their link with the natural world, says the report.

At least 234 indigenous tongues are already known to have suffered that fate.

BBC Environment correspondent Tim Hirsch says a clear example of the importance of this link can be found in the case of the indigenous Turkana people in north-west Kenya.

Their language holds vital secrets about the environment in which they live - the Turkana plan their crop planting around the behaviour of birds such as the ground hornbill and green wood hoopoe, which they revere as prophets of rain.

Primary source

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka: "Culture is the primary source of knowledge"
The report was prepared by hundreds of academics on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme, and delivered to a major international conference in the Kenya capital, Nairobi.

Attending the conference, Nigerian Nobel laureate author Wole Soyinka gave the report his backing.

"Culture is the primary source of knowledge, science... the understanding of nature begins with local culture," he said.

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