Plan A and Plan B Partnerships for Cultural Survival


"There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that con be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies, six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth."

This passage from anthropologist Earl Shorris's commentary in Harpers Magazine (August 2000) on saving small languages could easily be a mantra for an exciting new development being undertaken by two NGOs, Terralingua and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Shorris uses as an example the unparalleled blues of butterflies he observed on field trips to Mexico, arguing that, of all arts and sciences, none equals language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world.

In a dramatic transformation and with new publications and programs, WWF is declaring itself a supporter of indigenous peoples' rights.(1) Its latest collaboration is with Terralingua; together have mapped the world's biodiversity and cultural diversity, demonstrating an extraordinary correspondence between the two. Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation utilizes the analytical categories "ecoregion" (over 200 zones of great biodiversity have been classified) and "ethnolinguistic group" (over 4,000 indigenous languages have been identified within the bio-rich ecoregions). The correlation confirms Bernard Nietschmann's "Rule of Indigenous Environments" (that "where there are indigenous peoples with a homeland, there are still biologically rich environments"), and provides irrefutable evidence for the necessity of having indigenous peoples -- who make up the vast proportion of cultural diversity -- direct the global conservation initiative.

The WWF/Terralingua model acknowledges that the future of the planet is reliant on perpetuating small-scale, spiritually oriented, and sustainable indigenous lifestyles. It admits that support for a coordinated effort may only be forthcoming if first peoples have rights to their own lands and cultures and opportunities to preserve their languages.

The model gives vital hints about how to build long-term relationships with indigenous peoples for the maintenance of their bio-rich homelands. It provides a blueprint for collaboration for all 177 countries worldwide that have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. Article 8 stipulates, for instance, that national legislation should respect, preserve, and maintain knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.(2)

University of Arizona anthropologist and Cultural Survival Advisory Board member Ted Downing recently introduced a two-stage process for indigenous survival struggles against environmentally destructive outside intrusions: Plan A, resistance; and Plan B, coping with the impact. (Downing, 1999) Successful cultural survival, he argues, comes from both. WWF and Terralingua are suggesting a vision for Plan B; the goal of collaboration is the preservation of the world's biodiversiy, and of indigenous homelands, lifestyles, and languages.

The WWF/Terralingua proposal suggests that, unlike a partnership with miners and loggers, partnering with conservationists will help to ensure that the bio-diverse environments of indigenous peoples are protected. There is danger, however, that this support for indigenous rights and autonomy is contingent upon indigenous peoples living in a particular manner in relation to the land. This underlying concept reflects a certain essentialism in approach: a particular type of behavior from indigenous people is mandated purely because they are indigenous. The separation of knowledge into "indigenous" and "non-indigenous" categories is a case in point. It hints at a return to faulty early 20(th) century thinking, when the world was divided by social scientists into hot and cold societies (modern and traditional). The former, considered to be democratic and subject to change, not rooted in any one ecosystem; the latter, rooted in nature, ruled by tyrants, and changeless, (Anthropology News, March 2001) Peters (2000) argues that the reification of indigenous knowledge systems in this fashion tends to privilege stasis, coherence, and conservatism over adaptation, experimentation, and opportunism.(3)

Will partnerships with environmental conservationists meet the short-term and sometimes desperate needs of indigenous peoples for sustenance, for living wages, for shelter and potable water, and for the hope of a better life? Or will indigenous people become the puppets of environmentalists and the environmental agenda? Indigenous people desire an equitable share of the wealth being generated from their lands, and they demand the power of veto over unwelcome intrusion. They watch as the resources stripped from their lands make others wealthy and powerful, while they remain poor and powerless. What alternative vision or path will deflect understandable indigenous interests from fast pay-off deals with loggers or miners?

And what is the role of language in the promotion of sustainable lifestyles? Krauss (1996) speculates that the welfare and physical survival of the human species depends not only on the biosphere, but on the existence of an intellectual web of life, an ecosystem formed by the whole of humankind's linguistic diversity. This "logosphere," or what Cultural Survival refers to as "ethnosphere," is in deep crisis. Age-old traditional systems of sustainable resource use are now becoming obsolete. They have been replaced by systems of over-exploitation, with no appreciable long-term benefits. The WWF/ Terralingua report emphasizes the need to preserve the world's linguistic diversity, because in this sphere are to be found the rituals, beliefs, and practices, etc. that guide traditional environmental stewardship -- the words and concepts that have protected the world's biodiversity (and even enhanced it) over the millennia. By focusing on language, Terralingua and the WWF are alert to a growing concern, what Shiva (1993) refers to as the emerging "monoculture of the mind." With each stage of globalization's advance, such as the convergence towards majority cultural models and the emergence of English as an international lingua franca, the human species increases its vulnerability to annihilation. When faced with novel societal problems, the monoculture will likely encounter what Shiva refers to as "cultural blind spots." In other words, without access to the great body of human learning inherent in the ethnosphere's diversity, prevailing cultural models will fail. Without an appreciation of the philosophies and solutions learned or developed over the vastness of time and still being uncovered and discovered in the rich tapestry of indigenous lives, civilization as we know it will have a constricted future.

Supporters of the indigenous cause often overlook the importance of language preservation, especially when representatives of first nations are being dispossessed of their lands, involuntarily resettled, or subjected to ethnocide. As indigenous peoples face large-scale infrastructure developments on their territories, advocates must insist that consultations regarding potential social and environmental impacts be discussed with targeted communities in their local languages, so that those groups are fully informed, and so that they will be heard. Surprisingly, the WWF/Terralingua methodology, which centers on educating non-indigenous peoples for advocacy work, does not consider the importance of outsiders' learning of local languages, or the significance of consultations being conducted in indigenous languages, even though these methods appear to be essential empowerment tools.

In addition, as a development proposal, the WWF/Terralingua report does not address the fundamental issue, raised by scholars such as Escobar (1994), that the development encounter is a single hegemonic paradigm that silences other cultural worlds. As Peters says, it is crucial not only to understand indigenous priorities regarding development, but also to consider how development ideas are appropriated within local political and institutional frameworks, and how institutional capacity is built up, allowing for fruitful collaboration with national and international development agencies. Sweeping assumptions regarding preferred indigenous futures, without reference to the aforementioned literature, strikes one as a serious flaw; as over-compensation. Indigenous peoples may hold the key to the survival of the planet; but in the post-colonial, W.T.O. era, they also need help. Who is defining the problem and the proposed solution? Indigenous peoples, or their advocates?

As an organization, Cultural Survival supports indigenous planning initiatives -- the creation of elaborate community-based social and economic development plans (the Colombian Planes de Vida, for example). Such indigenous visions (both Plan A and Plan B) look ahead seven generations, planning where the people will be, who they will be, and how they will be living. Providing assistance for indigenous peoples to undertake these visionary exercises should be a priority for WWF and Terralingua. With such plans in hand, governmental and non-governmental agencies will have a solid basis for determining the types of partnerships indigenous peoples desirein order to make their future visions a reality. These may include collaborating in mining ventures, working closely with conservationists, and/or lobbying for more stringent efforts from the outside world to pressure states to formally recognize their rights as described in the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the International Labor Organization Convention 169. Article 7 of this latter document, for instance, states that interested parties shall determine their own development priorities and shall participate in the formulation, implementation, and assessment of national and regional development plans and programs which may affect them directly.

Thirty years ago, the WWF/Terralingua report would have been considered revolutionary; it would have enjoyed widespread and undivided support from indigenous and pro-indigenous lobbies. Fifteen years ago, social commentators such as Pascal Bruckner (1986) would have viewed this top-down "development" proposal as a mere reflection of the soulless developed-world's guilt and militant self-denunciation over colonialism. The report affirms the quasi-divinity of indigenous peoples and denounces Western systems of belief and practice as worthless.(4) Bruckner might even have described the report as advocating a form of cryogenics: keeping indigenous peoples locked away in cultural preserves, maintaining their traditional ways in some "pure" form for an undetermined point in the future, when Westerners, having become wiser and more mature world citizens, could learn from them. Now, however, in the twenty-first century, given the overwhelming support shown by a majority of the world's nations for indigenous peoples to assume the role of environmental stewards, is it time to take a pragmatic approach? Is it time to ask whether these methods and attitudes are the most realistic ways for sustaining indigenous lives and livelihoods?

Although indigenous peoples might claim for themselves the role of saving mankind -- perhaps achievable if there is widescale adherence to ancient indigenous law -- fulfilment of such a claim is a heavy burden to carry. If, through partnerships with conservationists, indigenous peoples are to be world leaders for ecological salvation, then the world-at-large must contribute to their liberation and empowerment in every way possible. When indigenous peoples have their inalienable rights in hand, they will be in a position to enter into partnerships of parity. The expectation is, of course, that they will choose prospective partners who promise sustainable futures, so that we all may be beneficiaries of their largesse.

(1). PeFoR, the Peoples, Forests and Reefs program, is supported by WWF, USAID, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Resources Institute. It attempts to ensure that indigenous peoples manage the millions of hectares of threatened forest they occupy and the coral reefs that they depend upon for sustenance.

(2). In contrast to the Biological Diversity Convention, only 14 countries have signed International Labor Organization Convention 169, which advocates self-determination for indigenous peoples. Moreover, there is wide-scale opposition to the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from a majority of the 72 states that have indigenous populations. National governments with a controlling interest in the determination of indigenous policy (with or without consultation) often show little inclination to engage in partnership-building or power sharing. Sovereignty is held by the state and not by its constituent peoples. More often than not, those in authority view indigenous issues as domestic "problems" to be solved through assimilatory measures.

(3). Many forms of practice are not comprehensible in terms of articulated statements of knowledge.

(4). This is what Georg Simmel called the tragedy of triumphant cultures. The arrogance of the imperialist world, which swept away all taboos and customs in order to establish its supremacy, has become the source of all its ills. (Bruckner, 1986)

References & further reading

Bruckner, P. (1986). The Tears of the White Man. Compassion as Contempt. New York: The Free Press.

Downing, T.E. (1999). Plan B and Cultural Survival. In Indigenous Peoples and Involuntary Resettlement. A Harvard University Conference featuring Arundhati Roy (Video). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cultural Survival.

Escobar, A. (1994). Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Krauss, M. (1996). Linguistics and Biology: Threatened Linguistic and Biological Diversity Compared. In CLS32, Papers from the Parasession on Theory and Data in Linguistics. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. Pp 69-75.

Peters, P.E., Ed. (2000). Development Encounters. Sites of Participation and Knowledge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shiva, V. (1993). Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London: Zed Books.

WWF International/Terralingua (2000). Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation. An Integrated Approach to Conserving the World's Biological and Cultural Diversity. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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