TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From disappearing languages to selfie-taking tourists at sacred sites, preserving native cultural heritage has become a race against the clock, indigenous groups said.
The suicide of an indigenous rights activist protesting against Russia’s language policies has highlighted the cultural threats native communities face across the globe as they fight for their land and survival, campaigners and researchers warned.
According to local authorities, a man died last week after setting himself on fire outside the regional parliament in Izhevsk, the capital of the so-called Udmurt Republic in western Russia.
Indigenous groups said the man, whom local media identified as 79-year-old Albert Razin, carried out the act in protest over a recent law that they said favors the study of Russian over native tongues.
Images shared on social media showed Razin holding signs reading “If my language dies tomorrow, then I’m ready to die today” and “Do I have a Fatherland?” as he stood outside the parliament building.
More than 40% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken around the world are at risk of disappearing, and most of them are indigenous tongues, according to the United Nations.
Sophie Grig, a senior researcher with the British-based indigenous rights group Survival International, said when a language is lost, the entire community that spoke it also risks disappearing.
“(Language) holds the key to the wealth of knowledge a people has about their past, their land, their livelihoods and ways of understanding the world,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When it is lost, the tribe’s future is imperiled.”
Indigenous knowledge and land rights could be crucial in global efforts to curb global warming, according to a special report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The extinction of a community’s native languages can also lead to the loss of its claims over the land it occupies, indigenous rights experts say.
And indigenous communities already have a tenuous hold on the land they live and work on.
Up to 2.5 billion people depend on indigenous and community lands, which make up more than half of all land globally, but they legally own just 10%.
Along with fighting for their languages and land, indigenous groups also regularly find themselves defending their culture, language and knowledge against what they see as cultural appropriation by businesses.
Last week, Air New Zealand angered indigenous Maori when it sought to trademark a logo with the phrase “kia ora”, which means “good health” and is commonly used to say “hello”.
Similarly, Mexican indigenous communities have protested the use of their traditional designs by international fashion labels, while Indians have challenged attempts to patent traditional items such as turmeric and neem.
In Australia, Aboriginal groups are pushing back against public access to heritage sites like mountains and beaches, in an attempt to preserve areas of historical and spiritual importance.
For native communities in Russia, language is one of the main issues of concern, said Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the Russia-based Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN).
Udmurt, which is one of more than 100 tongues spoken across Russia, is spoken by about 400,000 people, according to UNESCO. And it is listed among the dozens of Russian languages that the U.N. cultural agency says are at risk of disappearing.
“Beyond larger populations, such as the Udmurts, (there) are also many small ethnic groups whose languages and cultures may well cease to exist within a generation,” said Neil Clarke, head of the Central Asia program for Minority Rights Group Europe.
That threat is heightened by legislation passed last year that relegated native languages from compulsory to elective school subjects in regions with more than one official tongue, he added.
“Current policies are encouraging language loss,” said Clarke.
A spokesman for Russia’s education ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Russian authorities had previously denied the law infringes on indigenous rights, saying it allows children the freedom to decide whether or not they want to learn local languages.
“The law is not aimed at destroying linguistic diversity, but to the contrary, allows people to study their native languages and protects their rights,” the government’s official newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, wrote last year.
Yet, Razin’s death has sparked calls for changes in the law.
“Legislative bodies should immediately review the issue of native languages,” said Kadi Khalkechev, head of the Karachay People’s Congress, which represents the ethnic-Turkic group mainly based in the North Caucasus, in a statement on the Russian social media platform VKontakte.
Sulyandziga of CSIPN said the whole world has a stake in preserving native languages.
“If we lose one language, we lose something fundamental for the whole of humankind,” he said.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org
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