sábado, 24 de diciembre de 2011

Talking the Walk: Language as the missing ingredient of biodiversity conservation?


(for more info: ask any else...)

An investigation of plant knowledge in the West

Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

Albizia flower, Grey Iron Bark Gum seed pod, coffee bean and black wattle seeds

Samantha Ross

April 2006

School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia

s.ross@uea.ac.uk

Supervisors: Dr Bryan Maddox and Dr Shawn McGuire

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Contents:

1. Introduction.............................................................................................................. 1

2. Biocultural Diversity: the current debate................................................................. 2

3. A Discussion of the Concepts Involved................................................................... 7

3.1 Language............................................................................................................ 9

3.1.2 Language diversity........................................................................................ 10

3.1.3 Language shift - Language death.................................................................. 13

3.1.5 Linguistic Universals .................................................................................... 19

3.2 Culture, Cognition and Language.................................................................... 19

3.3 Nomenclature, Classification and Language ................................................... 22

3.4 Biological Diversity ......................................................................................... 25

3.5 Indigenous Knowledge .................................................................................... 26

3.6 Conservation, Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge and Language................ 29

4. The Tanzanian Context .......................................................................................... 34

4.1 Language choice .............................................................................................. 34

4.2 The Environmental Perspective ....................................................................... 37

4.3 The contribution of indigenous knowledge ..................................................... 38

4.4 Education and Language.................................................................................. 39

5. Research Aims, Objectives, Questions and Outcomes .......................................... 41

5.1 Outcomes ......................................................................................................... 42

6. Research Approach ................................................................................................ 43

7. Ethical Considerations ........................................................................................... 49

8. Research plan ......................................................................................................... 49

References.............................................................................................................. 50

Appendix 1............................................................................................................. 62

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1. Introduction

“The first rule of intelligent thinking is to keep all the parts” (Aldo Leopold 1949)

There is a new body of theory named ‘Biocultural diversity’ (BCD). This is the total variety

exhibited by the world’s natural and cultural systems and refers to the fundamental linkages and

interdependence between the various manifestations of the diversity of life: biological, cultural,

and linguistic diversities (Terralingua 2006). The premise of this theory is that there exists

inextricable links between humans, their language, the landscapes they inhabit and cultures they

live by, and that a loss or change in any of these indices will negatively affect the other.

Terralingua, an NGO at the forefront of this field, and its supporters argue that,

“The breakdown of these [linguistic and biological diversity] connections underlies

many of the environmental and social problems humanity is facing today. Therefore,

any action to protect, maintain, and restore the ecological health of natural

environments should be intrinsically interrelated with action to protect, maintain, and

restore the social, cultural, spiritual, and biophysical health of human societies – and

vice versa” (Terralingua 2006).

Thus BCD is perceived as a useful general indicator of environmental and social well-being,

and a fundamental element of any conservation practice. The BCD theory supports the

maintenance and preservation of indigenous cultures and the associated embedded knowledge

of the local environment transmitted via local languages. This system is perceived as a ‘best

practice’ as it more effectively and efficiently conserves landscapes and biological resources,

and offers alternatives to development. Or as an organisation analysing participatory genetic

improvement of traditional crops and native tree species (MILPA 2006) state, “Biocultural

diversity is our last resource pool that we need to maintain. It is the non-fossil fuel that will

keep the world rich in many ways” through conserving the resources necessary for sustainable

development.

BCD is a relatively new field of research. Its advocates recognise the need for a rigorous

research effort to substantiate localised theoretical generalisations (currently research is centred

on the Americas) and for a deeper exploration into the interdependency and interconnectedness

between biological, cultural and linguistic diversity. The study aims to contribute to this effort

by unpacking these relationships, widening the knowledge base to provide a rudimentary model

for BCD theorems through holistic research examining the various socio-economic and

political factors associated with language and biodiversity use. This research intends to

examine and document ‘best practices’ within the fields of indigenous biological and cultural

conservation, highlighting practice realities and policy implications. In addition this study will

examine the national and local value of vernacular languages within the local and national

society, adding knowledge to the sphere of multicultural and bilingual education.

This paper will begin by outlining current BCD research, unfolding the principal concepts

involved and demonstrating how they may overlap. This will generate the research questions.

These will then be framed in the context of a situated study within an agricultural-based

language community in Northern Tanzania, focusing on local plant knowledge and practices.

Research objectives and the approach adopted to achieve these aims will be discussed, followed

by the research plan.

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2. Biocultural Diversity: the current debate

In 1988 the Declaration of Belem, a product of the First International Congress of

Ethnobiology, paved the way for recognising an ‘inextricable link’ between biodiversity and

cultural diversity (Posey and Dutfield 1996a). It stated that humans, by simply living on and

using the earth, have developed complex interrelationships with nature in the construction and

evolution of landscapes. Crumley (1994) and Balée (1998b) recognised “a dialectical

interaction (i.e. mutual causation) of human cultural systems and natural ecosystems over

time”. The theory was put forward of the existence of an “interpenetration of human culture and

non-human nature which in turn leads to the methodological principle of considering cultural

practices and natural organisms as belonging to a single unit of analysis; that is a ‘total

phenomenon’” (Balée 1998a:4).

Smith explains this interrelation and overlap:

“high biodiversity offers an increased number of niches, [which] may encourage

greater cultural diversification through niche partitioning; more stable resource

populations which permit smaller, more localised human societies to be relatively selfsufficient;

high biological productivity in turn allowing the coexistence of a variety of

production systems and associated socio-cultural patterns” (2001:106).

According to him, and others, this is a reciprocal arrangement spurning mutual causation: high

biodiversity strengthens a diverse cultural integrity; and a high number of cultural groups will

promote a diverse local ecology. This is supported by Nazarea (2004) who adds that humans

directly affect their immediate surroundings adapting, modifying and co-evolving the local

environment around them with knowledge generated contextually from their local perceptions

of their living world. Baker summarises,

“Linguistic diversity and biological diversity are inseparable. In the language of

ecology, the strongest ecosystems are those that are the most diverse1. That is, diversity

is directly related to stability; variety is important for long-term survival. Our success

on this planet has been due to an ability to adapt to different kinds of environment over

thousands of years (atmospheric as well as cultural). Such ability is born out of

diversity. Thus, language and cultural diversity maximize chances of human success

and adaptability” (2001:26).

The overlapping of cultural, linguistic and biological diversity which encompasses all the

earth’s species of plants and animals as well as human cultures and their languages (Romaine

and Nettle 2000) can be observed in Map 1 below. Red countries indicate high diversity in both

endemic vertebrates and languages (see Appendix 1 for additional listings).

1 It is a popular assumption amongst ecologists, linguists and the like, that diversity is always a good

thing and is necessary for conservation. This view is rather simplistic and is often debated.

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Map 1: Overlap of biological and cultural diversity. Green are countries in top 25 for endemic

languages. Yellow are countries in top 25 for endemic vertebrates. Red are countries in top 25

for both. (Harmon 1996)

A range of authors suggest the links between linguistic, cultural and biological diversity are

distinct but mutually supporting manifestations of the diversity of life on earth (Blythe et al

2003; Maffi 2001; Harmon 1996; Krauss 1996; Mülhäulser 1996) which makes “linguistic

development a key component of the diversity of life” (Maffi 2002:387). Other academics

suggests that ecosystems are life systems, and language world systems are systems of

experience, and the evolution of both use language as the missing link supporting the coevolution

and interdependency of language and the environment. Posey (2001) sees language as

the medium of communication and as the conduit of knowledge within which is held the

complex, place-specific livelihood systems that shape and maintain local biodiversity. If

language diversity is threatened then it follows that this knowledge, as the medium of

transmission, will change or disappear. Toledo continues, "The world's biodiversity will be

effectively preserved only with the protection of the diversity of human cultures and vice versa"

(2001:485). These links have led to the development of 'Biocultural Diversity' (UNESCO 2003,

Terralingua 1995). The theory implies an interconnectedness and correlation between these

diversities but is aware that this does not imply causation or definitive co-evolution.

Current research suggests there are also ‘parallel risks’ (Sutherland 2003) affecting the rapid

decline of linguistic and biological diversity and that the reality of language death puts the

problem of linguistic extinction on par with the worst case scenarios for species extinction

although the mechanisms of loss may differ. Terralingua purports that “people who lose their

linguistic and cultural identity may lose an essential element in a social process that commonly

teaches respect for nature and understanding of the natural environment and its processes”

(2006). External and internal pressures can force conversion from their natural state, violating

human rights and undermining “the health of the world’s ecosystems and the goals of nature

conservation” (ibid.). Supporters perceive the indubitable necessity of BCD in the normative

processes of environmental conservation.

The BCD paradigm is primarily concerned with small-scale communities who are perceived as

often acquiring a proportion of their livelihoods from the land, protecting natural resources

through their reliance on these for subsistence. As a by-product, they preserve a rich tradition of

indigenous environmental knowledge endemic to that specific area via a place-specific lexical

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terminology. Their life, culture and language are believed to be tightly bound to that small

piece of earth which cannot survive anywhere else (Härkönen et al 2003; Maffi 2001; Harmon

1996; Krauss 1996; Mülhäulser 1996). The mother tongue is the custodian and the

embodiment of that culture (Kisanji, pers. comm. 2006) and the knowledge that arises from

their understanding of nature can only be understood if one is embroiled within the culture.

Integral to this conservation is the preservation of indigenous languages (otherwise referred to

as mother tongues, vernaculars or local languages) due to the oral transference of this

knowledge.

If we concede that biological, cultural and linguistic diversities consist of and arise from an

interlinked knowledge base which co-evolves with the dynamic nature of these diversities, and

that language is the transmitter of this knowledge between generations within small-scale

communities, then the importance of language within this cycle becomes apparent – thus the

need for mother tongues (MT) and linguistic diversity to conserve local knowledge and

biological diversity as demonstrated in Figure 1 below. Culture, and all that this holds, is both

embedded within the social milieu and in turn formed from the dynamics between society and

the environment and the constructs they generate.

Fig 1: The functionality of the Mother Tongue: Its role in conserving biodiversity according to

BCD advocates

However, some issues present themselves from this body of theory which require further study.

Firstly, we can agree there is an interest between the language and biodiversity relationships,

Linguistic

Diversity

MT

Cultural

Diversity

Biological

Diversity

I

ndi

genous

Kno

wl

edge

I

ndi

genous Knowl

edge

Socially

Embedded Socially

Constructed

Co-Evolution

5

but also observe theoretical gaps within the ‘relativist’ BCD paradigm which necessitate

exploration, not to disprove BCD but to add robustness to its formation. Reflecting on this, it

can also be observed that the standard positivist conservation notions have very little to say on

the possible effects of language and culture within their field demonstrating that BCD may not

play a vital role in these common conservation practices.

Secondly, the historical colonisation of many present-day indigenous communities and the

subsequent elimination of local languages as the new ruling tongue became dominant, leads to

the question of how indigenous environmental knowledge fared in this language take-over.

These communities often remain subsistent and still exist in their small-scale land dependent

forms, suggesting that despite a shift in language from an endemic to an exotic one, biological

diversity, local culture and knowledge adapted and survived. This intimates that there are

instances where local knowledge and culture can be transferred in alternative languages or

hybridised (Bellon and Brush 1994; Dennis 1987) so that knowledge forms are combined and

co-exist, and that these alternative forms are adequate for conserving the local environment.

Similar concepts of hybridity also feature in the relationships between oral and literate cultures

(Street 1993) suggesting that linguistic preservation may not be wholly necessary in the

conservation domain.

Thirdly, the theory seems to advance a naïve and romantic view of indigenous peoples as

‘ecologically noble savages’ (Redford 1991) who have the conservation of their local ecology

at heart. In some instances this holds true, but there are numerous examples which demonstrate

the opposite, positing a query of the necessity of local indigenous knowledge in the framework

of biodiversity conservation.

Fourthly, some would argue that, as there is possibly an intrinsic value behind conserving

biodiversity, so too perhaps there is a similar value for conserving linguistic diversity. It could

be suggested that the BCD narrative enables justification of this notion.

Finally, dynamism is the natural state of things. Erosion of biological and cultural diversity is

not a new concept. It has occurred since Neolithic times and the world being an ever-adaptable

life force has evolved and survived with the changes. Languages are commonly believed to be

in a state of flux growing and changing with innovations and social development. Pressures

inflicted on the biological environment encourage survival tactics through constant

modification. If the world and everything within is in a perpetual state of dynamism with an

ability to successfully adapt to new conditions, the purpose behind the demand – often western

instigated and financed – to conserve and preserve every living, breathing and speaking element

begs examination. Perhaps loss or shifts in certain domains are the natural state of the world’s

process of adaptation.

The relative newness of this body of theory encourages research to be undertaken to widen the

field of knowledge. This study will attempt to test the varied linkages through the development

of a comparative framework. This is an ‘ideal model’ which will unpack the intricate

relationships between the numerous concepts involved in this multi–disciplinary study.

Language, indigenous knowledge and environmental conservation will be the overriding

criteria for inclusion. The main questions guiding this study are:

How do changes in language affect people’s knowledge and practice around

plants?

What are the implications for biodiversity conservation in maintaining cultural

and linguistic diversity?

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In order to address these, several more detailed questions arise:

What factors affect the transference of indigenous knowledge?

Are changes in mother tongue use linked to a loss in biodiversity-related conservation?

How do changes in biodiversity-related indigenous knowledge affect changes in

biodiversity management or use?

Through an ethnographic approach comparing local communities’ use of plants and the

language used to identify plant names and describe plant use, this research will:

Test assumptions of interdependence through a situated empirical study and examine the

dynamics of change and scope for transfer of local environmental botanical knowledge between

language groups and practices - specifically during processes of language shift from oral

traditions to alternative language groups and customs.

Consider factors affecting changing linguistic and biological diversity, and the scope for

transfer and retention of plant knowledge between language groups and practices.

Identify factors affecting this loss or maintenance of linguistic and biological diversity and

allow suggestions to be offered for their conservation.

Explore the relevance of indigenous languages in the retention and transference of

ethnobotanical knowledge for conservation.

Stimulate and assist a response to the international debate on the role of local languages and

knowledges in national education systems.

Language and cultural diversity have become popular currency over the last 10 to 15 years,

reflecting the biodiversity conservation movement. Organisations such as Ethnologue via The

Summer Language Institute (SIL) and UNESCO’s International Clearing House for

Endangered Languages are making efforts to document languages in a similar manner that flora

and fauna species are recorded via IUCN (The World Conservation Union) Red Lists. Large

international organisations and some surprising conglomerates have recognised this new field

and are making noises to include it in their conservation sectors (see UNESCO, WB, EU,

WWF, Nokia, BT). Support for local knowledge, conservation, management and sustainable

utilization of natural resources is now believed to be a significant element to achieving natural

resource, food security and health development goals and to halt the real socio-economic losses

which may prevail.

This paper does not advocate that the BCD theory be discounted. It may have a distinctive role

in the conservation of biodiversity and be an integral piece of the sustainable conservation

puzzle. However, empirical data within BCD is scarce. This study aims to widen the debate in

this field, add knowledge to the BCD sphere and within one community and language group in

Northern Tanzania, explore the nature of these tangled and indirect linkages and examine their

implications for conservation. As Smith so accurately states “the links are tangled and indirect,

involving social and political factors as much as environmental ones” (2001:111). To untangle

these links may provide more relevant and sustainable methods and practices for the sustainable

conservation of biological diversity through the preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity.

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3. A Discussion of the Concepts Involved

This study is multidisciplinary, spanning both natural science and social science. The concepts

explored cover the principles behind biological diversity, language diversity, culture, cognition,

conservation science, ethnobotany and anthropology. Following is a discussion of these

concepts demonstrating how they may link together and how linkages can be extracted for the

convenience of the theory of biocultural diversity. In order to make sense of the overlapping

concepts I have constructed a comparative framework, see Figure 2. This is an ideal model with

diametrically opposed poles consisting of broad, quite extreme, and possibly provoking,

generalisations. It needs to be stressed that whoever constructs the concept will determine

where on the continuum that concept is positioned, thus the same concept can have several

different positions depending on one’s epistemological background. However, for the purposes

of this study this framework of binary thinking has enabled the complexities to be clarified,

leading to a better understanding and exploration of how and where the concepts interlink, and

to identify commonalities and differences between them. I believe that this study will involve

much reflection on the various strands of the debate throughout the research, and movement

along and around the continuum will be apparent and expected.

8

ROMANTIC UNIVERSALIST

- Traditional

- Relativist

- Essentialist

- Inductive

- Embedded

- Participatory

- Preservationist

- Modern

- Universal

- Reductionist

- Deductive

- Dis-embodied

- Individual

- Conservationist

Linguistic

Relativity

Cosmology

BIOCULTURAL

Folk DIVERSITY

Classification

Linguistic

Universals

Berkes Indigenous Knowledge Levi-Strauss

Cognition

Boas Bloch

Language

Sapir-Whorf Chomsky

Biodiversity

Posey Terborgh

Linnaean

Hierarchy

Folk

classification

after Berlin

Fig 2: A comparative framework to convey the interlinking concepts and their alternative stances

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3.1 Language

3.1.1 What is language?

Language refers to the systems of sounds compounded into words, combined with rules to form

a mode of communication. It is the principal tool used to maintain, develop and transmit ideas

and embody knowledge within a linguistically constituted world. These notions can be

conveyed via oral, gesticular, pictorial or written means depending on the cultural expectations

and preference of those communicating. Language is thought to be “the primary symbolic

medium through which knowledge is communicated and instantiated, negotiated and contested,

reproduced and transformed” (Garrett and Lopez 2002:339). Language, and so knowledge

transference can occur formally, such as through schools, or informally, such as homes or

community groups. The domains and content transferred is dependent on the varying social,

economic and political circumstances and the participants involved. The perceived value of the

language chosen relates directly to the knowledge it holds and the relevance and functionality

of that knowledge to its user group. Or alternatively, artificial value can be placed on particular

knowledge to exert power, such as with the introduction of a lingua franca.

Language is flexible and dynamic, allowing modification and adaptation as it responds to new

conditions and environments (Hinton 2001) such as colonization or migration. Nationality,

citizenship, religion, tribe and culture are all markers of identity. Blommaert (1999) also sees

‘language [as] the essence of identity’ playing a vital role in maintaining or creating group unity

and harmony. It is possible for language to impinge on society by influencing or even

controlling the world-view of its speakers (Trudgill 2000:13) through political or mass media

means, perhaps affecting feelings of identity and unity. It is a powerful force, often described as

a cultural trait but one which is increasingly becoming more political (Khubchandani 2004;

Brass 2003).

Language groups, or speech communities, are groups with speakers who share the same verbal

repertoire and norms for linguistic practices. These similarities vary between language groups

but also within, as individuals make speech choices based on social situations. Acquiring these

language skills is more than learning how to communicate: it entails learning how to use

language in socially appropriate ways in everyday interactions as part of one’s practical and

functional consciousness (Giddens 1979; Hymes 1972b). Mutual intelligibility is one factor in

distinguishing between languages and dialects, though this is often contested. Linguists have

established there are 127 languages in Tanzania (Ethnologue 2006) though some practitioners

working in the country dispute this, declaring there are only dialects and every Tanzanian can

understand each other when speaking their individual mother tongue (Brock-Utna, pers. comm.

2005). This idea is based on the evidence that most Tanzanian languages derive from Bantu so

have a similar phylogenetic origin (see Map 3). First-hand experience also refutes this claim.

Language is structured according to the society and environment it operates within.

Explorations of this structure involve sociolinguistics and linguistic ecology. Sociolinguistics is

the “study of the relationship between language and society to achieve a better understanding of

the nature of human language by examining language in its social context and/or to achieve a

better understanding of the nature of the relationship and interaction between language and

society” (Trudgill 2003:123). Thus the specific culture attributed to the particular society has

considerable influence on language formation. The ‘ecology of language’ concept, after Haugen

(1972) can be defined as “the study of interactions between any given language and its

environment … the referential world to which language provides index” (Polome and Hill

1980) which understands language as a code of entry to a linguistic ‘ecology’ where language

interacts within the ‘environment’ of human society. An ‘ecology of language’ paradigm

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promotes multilingualism (where more than one language is used in a society) and the

preservation of linguistic diversity by examining societal divisions such as ethnicity, gender,

race and generation to produce insights into the evolution of a language within its environment.

These aspects can be emphasized or de-emphasized by the speech community themselves, or by

a more dominating power, according to their perceived or actual cultural importance within a

society or individual.

3.1.2 Language diversity

Krauss (1992) estimates there are between 6-7,000 global languages. Fewer than 300 of these

languages have speakers of over one million. These ‘mega-languages’ such as Mandarin, Hindi

and Spanish represent less than one percent of all languages but are spoken by more than half

the world’s population. On the other hand, over 60 percent of the world’s languages are spoken

by communities of 10,000 speakers or less. This creates an unevenness of distribution (Nettle

1998 amongst others has suggested a pattern for this distribution: language diversity tends to be

greatest near the equator) and implies that the largest share of the linguistic diversity2 is found

in small communities (UNESCO 2001). Language diversity and distribution is shown in Map 2.

Map 2: Map of the world showing the relative language diversity of the major countries. This

is calculated by regressing the logarithm of the number of languages spoken in the country

(Source: Grimes 1993) against the logarithm of the area of the country, and shading each

country according to the standardised residual. The shading scheme is as follows: White (least

diversity), zres , 20.5;Light dotting, 20.5 , zres , 0; Heavy hatching: 0 , zres , 0.75: Black (most

diversity): zres . 0.75.

Linguistic diversity can be seen as being driven by several factors. Smith (2001) and Nichols

(1992) define these as:

2 This diversity differentiates from phylogenetic diversity (the presence of language families e.g. Central

Africa has much linguistic diversity but little phylogenetic diversity as many belong to the Bantu group)

and structural diversity (word order).

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