Public Perception of Language Diversity


Diversity is the natural state of the world (Harmon 2001). It is the quintessence of the evolutionary process as found in the natural world in its multiplicity of flora and fauna called biological diversity and in the constructed world in its multiplicity of cultures called cultural diversity. Language diversity is part of the co-evolution of humans with ecological diversity and it is comparable with the evolution of diversification of species. Languages are the core component of the ecologically evolved cultural diversity, which enable representation and transmission of the core aspects of cultures for acquisition by succeeding generations of the community and for interaction with other contemporary communities. It is natural for cultural diversity to emerge and sustain itself through language diversity. It is established empirically (Harmon 2002) that the diversity in nature and culture are integrally related and they are connected with the development of ecosystems and with their sustainability. This has given rise to the concept of biocultural diversity as a unified phenomenon. Most of the specialists in the respective fields of study of nature and of culture and the common people seem not to be aware of the connection between diversity in nature and culture. The awareness of the common people about the connection between culture and language is more socio-political and psychological and less philosophical in nature. One piece of evidence is that an increasing number of minority linguistic communities transplanted in the midst of a dominant linguistic community ask seriously the question whether they can maintain their culture without their language.

The awareness of, and scientific enquiry into, biological diversity transformed into concern and activism for the preservation of that diversity, renamed in the 1980s as biodiversity (Wilson1988), when the people saw the loss of diversity to be coupled with environmental degradation instigated by human behavior. It is not that extinction of biological species did not occur before in paleo-historical times. It has occurred five times in a massive scale, each separated by millions of years, extinguishing together more than ninety per cent of species that ever lived (Heywood 1995). But the earth regenerates itself every time with new species. The impending sixth extinction feared by specialists will be the first one after modern humans (Homo sapiens) came into existence 250-200 thousand years ago and the human language emerged sometime after this evolutionary happening and before the modern humans migrated out of Africa 100-70 thousand years ago. The sixth extinction, if it happens, will be the one caused by humans and it may include the human species (Pimm and Brooks 2000). It will then be the one that includes extinction of languages. Even if there is no total extinction as feared, there is increasing loss of language diversity now directly attributable to human action.

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A Biocultural Approach to Development

Ganga Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh, India. photo: Jamie Beck

It is a natural assumption that international development programs lead to direct improvements in lives around the world. Decreasing rates of under-five mortality from malaria? Absolutely. Improving lives in the wake of unimaginable destruction from natural disasters? Without question. It was under these obvious assumptions that I worked for years on various development programs as part of a large government agency. However, I quickly realized that this dominant model of development – one that often takes a Western approach to what progress looks like and applies it to people in all parts of the world regardless of their own values – does not fare so well in empowering cultures, languages or local solutions. With time I saw clearly that in addition to building health clinics, schools, and green revolutions, I was in some cases unknowingly contributing to the creation of a Western monoculture and the destruction of beautifully diverse cultures and languages that hold immeasurable value.

What I learned and experienced through that work led me to believe that deep and fundamental change is needed to this Western led and strictly structured development paradigm. Along with many others, I now call for a new approach to international development that breaks with Western tradition to embrace local tradition: one that empowers local people to drive their own progress; one in which diverse approaches, practices and ideas are heard, embraced and celebrated.

These two models of development– the dominant Western approach and this new, sustainable one that values biological and cultural diversity – are reconcilable. The old model is rooted in indisputable good will, far reach, and well-researched methodology, but desperately needs to be reframed into one that allows the development conversation to be defined and led by those to whom it is most critically relevant.

The Dominant Development Paradigm

It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to the traditional development model that together create a three-legged stool upon which a healthy society rests: environment, society and economy[i]. Undeniably, this dominant approach has made great strides in creating opportunity and improving lives – indeed for the ‘recipients’ of the aid, but also for the development industry and those who work within it. Through working within that approach, I was given the invaluable opportunity to learn from some of the most brilliant, creative, and driven local and indigenous peoples from India to Tanzania. Deeply impressed by the vast storehouses of ideas, practice and knowledge that these communities held, I realized that more often than not, the solutions to their own development needs already existed within their respective communities.

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A Development Paradigm for Community Well-being

Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)

Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)

Interview with Felipe Montoya Greenheck by Ortixia Dilts

This article blossomed from my continuing delightful conversations with Felipe Montoya Greenheck.  Initiated as an inquiry over the MILPA seed project as presented in Terralinguna’s publication, Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), we soon diverged from our original subject and into the intent and thinking behind the MILPA projects, concluding with an inspiring model for community revitalization. 

…..tell me a little about Milpa.

I began MILPA as a project to revitalize the living connection between Costa Rican rural communities and the traditional seeds they cultivated.  Among the most memorable and enduring activities was a simple seed exchange among small farmers. Paying respects to the local seeds, traditional crops, and land races the participants brought to exchange was very important to tear down the ideology of the supremacy of “improved varieties” that had been introduced and officially promoted, displacing the traditional varieties.  Their worth was restored and from that time on (since 1997), traditional seed exchanges have continued to take place in Costa Rica, mostly linked to organic farmers markets.  MILPA also organized a conference on Cultivated Biodiversity which was declared of “national interest”.  So MILPA pushed the issue among peasant farmers, NGOs and the academia, as well. Only recently, MILPA was offered a project to “revitalize agricultural-food traditions” among rural communities (one project with the FAO), as well as among urban and semi-urban marginal communities (the other project with UNESCO).    We have to come up with a “revitalization strategy”.  So the idea is first to understand how these traditions satisfy a number of human fundamental needs (I borrow this concept from Manfred Max-Neef, an economist from Chile). Among these needs are: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Freedom, Understanding, Participation, Creativity, Identity, Leisure, and Transcendence. Recognizing how preparing or cultivating certain traditional foods contribute to satisfying some of these different needs, will help restore the value of these traditional practices. The science involved here is basic social science: interviews, questionnaires, with a representative sample of the population so that the results are statistically significant.  But in our field work inquiries we also ask about the more empirical science involved in the cultivation and preparation of these traditional foods. …and how does language fit in? Language is probably our most sophisticated instrument not only of communicating, but of actually creating our world.  Each language continue reading–>

Rights-Based Approaches to Endogenous Development

The authors of this article are Kabir Bavikatte and Harry Jonas (Natural Justice) and was originally published in Endogenous Development Magazine 6: ”Bio-cultural Community Protocols enforce Biodiversity Benefits”, pg 4-6. It can be found online at

Natural Justice (Lawyers for Communities and the Environment) is an NGO working with indigenous peoples and local communities to develop rights-based approaches to securing their continued management of their bio-cultural heritage. Bio-cultural community protocols are a novel type of rights based-approach that can support communities’ rights to self-determination and endogenous development and help communities to constructively engage with other stakeholders in accordance with locally defined priorities and procedures.

The Right to Endogenous Development

Endogenous development describes a community process of defining and working towards future plans according to local values. Endogenous development processes promote the use of existing resources, assets and values within communities to support the collective management of local traditions, cultures, spirituality, and natural resources. Endogenous development also stresses that external interventions and assistance must be undertaken only when the community grants free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Interventions aim to strengthen communities’ capacities for endogenous development by agreeing on a vision of success. The vision of success consists of community-endorsed changes in practices and behaviours that would occur after a certain time span within a locality as a result of strengthened endogenous development. These changes often relate to management of natural resources, diversity of livelihood strategies, local leadership and governance, intra- and inter-community dialogue, dignity, value attached to cultural and spiritual knowledge, and capacities to negotiate access to external knowledge and resources. Endogenous development is founded on the principle of self-determination, which is also reflected in international law. Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” The UNDRIP’s explicit recognition of the centrality of endogenous development to self-determination constitutes a political victory at the international level, but since compliance with UNDRIP is voluntary, its effective implementation often remains elusive at the local level.

Endogenous development is already present and active in all indigenous and local communities and reflected in their capacities for self-determination. However, many communities’ capacities are undermined by the complex series of social, cultural, spiritual, economic, political, and legal relationships in which they continue reading–>

The Biocultural Heritage of Mexico: an overview

Víctor M. Toledo, Eckart Boege and Narciso Barrera-Bassols


Studies from different disciplinary backgrounds are revealing the inextricable links between cultural, biological and agricultural diversity at global, national, regional and local scales (Maffi, 2005). These multidimensional and complex relations are named ‘biocultural diversity’. In some way, these links represent the (biocultural) memory of the human species, because they are the present-day expression of a long historical legacy of interrelations between humans and nature (Toledo and Barrera-Bassols, 2008). At the country level, the conjunction of these three dimensions represents the nation’s biocultural heritage, and it is revealed through the geographical analysis of wild plant and animal species, languages, domesticated organisms, and especially territories of indigenous and local peoples.

In this essay, we offer an overview of the biocultural heritage of Mexico, through the discussion of three main topics: (i) a brief description of biological, linguistic and agricultural diversities; (ii) the definition, identification and mapping of biocultural hotspots in the Mexican territory; and (iii) a rapid review of the main grassroots initiatives and projects engaged in the multiple defense of biotic resources, germplasm, language, cultural identity, local livelihoods and territory. Our national-scale review synthesizes decades of work carried out by Mexican researchers and foreign colleagues about the main components of biocultural richness of Mexico.

Mexico: The Third Biocultural Center of the World

The complex connections between dimensions of linguistic, biological, and agricultural diversity become evident when they are analyzed at a global scale. Such correlations reveal that, in general, the majority of languages and of plant and animal species are situated in countries that are located along the fringes of the tropics (Oviedo, Maffin and Larsen, 2000). The principal centers of domestic plant and animal dispersion are located in these countries, in addition to a majority of cultural centers and/or a majority of the birthplaces of civilizations (Toledo and Barrera-Bassols, 2008).

Mexico, a megadiverse (the country alone contains 10% of the biological diversity found on the planet) and megacultural country (11 linguistic families, 68 language groupings, and 364 language variants according to INALI, 2007) has provided a historical linkage of these two worlds through the generation of one of the most important and singular civilization poles of humanity: the Mesoamerican Civilization.

As a consequence, Mesoamerican peoples domesticated 15% of the plant species that make up the world’s food system (CONABIO, 2008). This feat of civilization was achieved through the manipulation of plant continue reading–>