Indigenous peoples everywhere are under threat today. One indicator of the loss of human cultural diversity is the loss of language. Linguists predict that almost half the world´s 6000 languages will die out in the next century. When they do, these cultures will also take with them traditional knowledge that is invaluable.
The world´s 250 million indigenous peoples live in about 70 countries and are marginalised wherever they are. They are also known as First Peoples, Indians, Natives, Aborigines, Nomads, Tribal?, First Nations, Minority Nationalities (China) and Small Peoples (Russia). But they are not just the first-comers to a land. The term is usually used more broadly, to include other marginalised groups such as the nomadic peoples of Africa. British anthropologist Andrew Gray says that, compared with the number of national state cultures, indigenous peoples constitute 90 to 95 per cent of global cultural diversity and “therefore represent the diversity of human existence, even though they constitute a numerical minority”.
Previously, the main threat to human cultural diversity was extermination, which led, for example, to a fall in the Aboriginal population of Australia from 500 000 to 100 000 in the century after the arrival of Europeans. Since 1900, in Brazil alone, more than 90 indigenous groups have disappeared; 26 of those tribes were killed or scattered in the past decade. The rate of extinction has accelerated as a result of forest destruction. Today, assimilation is the main threat to cultural diversity.
Examples abound of the value of indigenous knowledge to modem agriculture and medicine. Forest dwellers in Papua New Guinea have for years cultivated the hardy and protein-rich winged bean (Psychocarpus tetragonohbus) which also enriches the soil by its ability to fix nitrogen.
Virtually unknown outside the region 20 years ago, the plant is now grown in more than 50 countries and is set to improve the diets of hundreds of millions of people in the countries of the South. Of the 121 plant-based drugs in the modem medicine chest, three-quarters were discovered through ethno-pharmacology, which draws on indigenous knowledge to help pinpoint useful plants.
“Native people have been stewards of 99 per cent of the world´s genetic resources, and there is an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity,” stated the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) at its first congress in Brazil, in 1988. The Congress called sought ways of compensating native peoples for the use of their knowledge and their biological resources. “Recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge by our civilisation would permit Indians to be seen as major intellectual contributors to humanity rather than exotic footnotes to the pages of history books,” says ISE president, Danell Posey.
Increasingly indigenous peoples are devising their own strategies for conservation and development, founded on their rights to ancestral lands, control of their resources and self determination. Brazil´s Union of Indigenous Nations (UNI) has set up a research and training center to preserve traditional knowledge about the rainforest and apply it to sustainable development. It is compiling an inventory of natural resources on Indian land to determine the products available for sustainable use and to identify areas in need of regeneration. A Forest People´s Charter is being drafted by representatives of the 50 million forest dwellers worldwide.