A special report from the Yuqui territory delves deep into the dreams, challenges, joys and sadness of one of Bolivia’s most vulnerable indigenous groups.
2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. In defence of those fighting for their identity
Indigenous languages are an invaluable heritage that must be protected alongside the rights of native peoples. For this reason, the UN has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
A language can become “extinct” just like animal and plants species. This occurs when the last person who can speak it dies. For example, when Marie Smith Jones passed away in January 2008, with her the indigenous language of southern Alaska’s Eyak tribe also disappeared. The death of a person such as Udach’ Kuqax’a’a’ch’ (Jones’ indigenous name) isn’t only a great loss in human terms, but in cultural ones too. To avoid such cases from repeating themselves, the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, with the objective of preserving the latter, as well as safeguarding the rights and well-being of those who can keep them alive.
What “indigenous” means and why it matters
Indigenous peoples are the native inhabitants of a particular area, country or region; they perpetuate ancient traditions and lifestyles whilst adapting to modernity, all the while maintaining social, cultural, economic and political characteristics distinct from those of the dominant societies they live in. These are 570 million people in 90 countries.
2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages
There are important tools that support indigenous battles not only in defence of the environment but also their rights. Every 9 August the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is held, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 with the objective of celebrating these communities’ diversity whilst shedding light on the violations and injustices they continue to suffer after centuries of colonial subjugation and genocide. In fact, indigenous people make up 5 per cent of the world population but 15 per cent of the global poor: they’re among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.
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- Brazil, uncontacted indigenous people murdered by gold miners
- Mexico, environmental activist and Goldman Prize winner killed for fighting deforestation
- Guatemala, Maya women fight to defend indigenous textiles from the fashion industry
Another important step was taken in 2007 with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which enshrines their right to self-determination and freedom from discrimination of any kind, in particular in exercising their customs and expressing their identity. Finally, in 2016 the UN General Assembly decided to proclaim 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. An action plan was established, with Unesco responsible for coordinating other actors involved in raising awareness and taking action.
Indigenous languages, why they must be preserved
Of the 6,700 languages spoken around the world the vast majority are indigenous. A language becomes extinct every two weeks and whilst the number of people who speak dominant, or “metropolitan” idioms – such as English, Chinese and Spanish – increases, encroaching on the spread of more peripheral ones, between 50 and 90 per cent of languages could disappear by the end of this century. We’re facing the inexorable loss of native peoples’ cultural heritage and there’s little left to do but act to try and save it.
Indigenous languages mean:
To boost their protection and promotion, in 2019 we’ll be celebrating the year of the Indigenous Languages.
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) 9 agosto 2018
Indigenous languages play a fundamental role in people’s daily lives, in defending human rights, peace and sustainable development. Losing them would mean erasing alternative visions to mainstream cultural values, philosophies and lifestyles. Perhaps we don’t realise it, but the languages we speak define who we are, our way of understanding and interacting with our surroundings. And in an increasingly inter-connected world, where differences are suppressed to make way for globalisation, defending the uniqueness of indigenous peoples and their languages is key to preserving our wealth as human beings.
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