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For Ecuador’s Sápara, saving the forest means saving their language

The Sapara have been living in the Ecuadorian Amazon for centuries; their language and traditions reflect a deep knowledge of their environment. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay

  • The Sápara people of Ecuador, who live in one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, are fighting to retain their traditional language, spoken today by only a handful of native speakers.
  • Tropical rainforests around the world and especially in Latin America are at the forefront of a rapid decline in linguistic diversity, and the traditional ecological knowledge encoded in it.
  • Half of the world’s languages, many spoken by only a few dozen or a few hundred people, are kept alive by only 0.1 percent of the world’s population, and constitute some of the most threatened languages.
  • 2019 has been declared the “year of indigenous languages” by the U.N., in recognition of the importance of linguistic diversity around the world and its rapid decline.

NAPO, Ecuador — Gloria Ushigua, president of the Sápara women’s association, stops by a large, thin, spindly tree that looks almost dead, and breaks off a thin branch. Running her fingers along it, she finds a small, almost invisible inch-long raised groove and bites into it. Tiny ants swarm out, which she picks off with her teeth. “Ormigas acidas,” or sour ants, she explains in Spanish. “Before my grandparents even heard of limes or lemons, we used these ants to season our dishes when we wanted a sour taste.”

This is just one of many examples of how the Sápara, who have inhabited the eastern part of the Ecuadoran Amazon in the Napo eco-region around Yasuni National Park for centuries, have developed a deep local understanding and language for the rainforest they call home — a rainforest that happens to also be one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. But that knowledge is threatened on multiple levels.

Gloria shows a fungi commonly used for ear-ache. The cultural and oral traditions of the Sapara are considered an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO because of the depth of ecological and medicinal knowledge the Sapara have. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay

Currently, only 400 Sápara, considered the smallest of the Ecuadoran indigenous nations, remain, and only a handful of elders speak Sápara fluently; when they die, many of the stories and traditional ecological knowledge encoded in the language is at risk of extinction. The nation also faces external pressure: their roughly 400,000-hectare (990,000-acre) territory sits on top of six oil concessions, two of which the Ecuadoran government has repeatedly tried to auction off.

“It’s a dangerous situation for us, the Sápara,” Ushigua says. “There are so few of us in our territory and there is also petroleum in our territory. We know that if we allowed oil extraction in our territory it would be the end of us for good.”

The story of the Sápara’s decline isn’t dissimilar to that of other nations and tribes in the Amazon Basin. Once a nation of around 200,000 people, the Sápara were decimated after contact with outsiders through the rubber trade, enslavement and disease. Now they’re in a race against time to revitalize their dying language. And they’re not alone. At least a quarter of the world’s languages are threatened with extinction, according to a WWF report in 2014, and most of them are indigenous.

Language losses in forests worldwide

A recent U.N. report on the state of global biodiversity warns that as many as a million species could be at risk from extinction in the coming decades. The U.N. has also designated 2019 the “year of indigenous languages,” to draw attention to the rapid decline in indigenous languages worldwide. Even though indigenous people constitute less than 5 percent of the world’s population, they conserve an estimated 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

Globally, areas of high biological diversity, largely tropical rainforests, are also areas of high cultural-linguistic diversity. In fact, the three core areas of biocultural diversity are situated in the three largest, most intact tropical rainforests: the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and Southeast Asia.

“When you look at distribution of languages around the world, tropical forests really show up as hotspots of linguistic diversity, and overlap with trends in biological diversity,” says Jonathan Loh, an honorary research fellow at the School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, U.K. “They are also the areas where decline is happening the fastest.”

Half of the world’s languages, many spoken by only a few dozen or a few hundred people, are kept alive by only 0.1 percent of the world’s population, according to the WWF report. These are some of the most threatened languages.

A young girl participates in the traditional “mono gordo” Sapara festival, which was celebrated for the first time in 30 years in June 2019. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay

“Most of the world’s 7,000 languages are spoken by indigenous people. When the language is lost, the traditional and ecological knowledge that are encoded in the language [are] also lost,” says Loh, who co-authored the WWF report. “We could be losing a lot of potentially valuable knowledge. Who understands the species and the relationships to the ecosystem better than the people who have lived there for centuries?”

The central idea of biocultural diversity is that the diversity of life on Earth is comprised not only of biodiversity but also of cultural and linguistic diversity, “all of which are interrelated (and possibly coevolved), within a complex socioecological adaptive system,” according to The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages.

“People became interested in biocultural diversity for the same reasons people became interested in global biodiversity: It was starting to decline rapidly,” Loh says. A conservation biologist turned biocultural scientist, Loh became interested in the connection between biological and linguistic diversity when he became aware of the fact that thousands of languages worldwide were spoken by just a few people, largely in the tropics. “It very much reminded me of rare, endemic species distribution. So I started to do research. And here I am.”

Biocultural diversity and the Sápara

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the language and traditions of the Sápara as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” in large part because of their complex oral culture, which is deeply marked by their environment and reflects a profound knowledge of the Amazonian jungle.

Walking through the rainforest with a hunting party of Sápara, their deep knowledge of the forest is never far from sight. They bring no water or food with them. A large curuarawangu liana is cut, and from it flows sweet, filtered water. A midday snack of chonta palm and tuco, a grub that lives in the roots of the palm, is produced. A paca, a large forest rodent, is killed, and from the dozens of vines surrounding the hunting party, the sturdiest and most flexible are expertly chosen to tie up the heavy animal and carry it back to the community.

The tuco grub, which lives in the roots of the chonta palm is a staple for the Sapara. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay.

By far the most rapid losses in linguistic diversity have occurred in the Americas, where 60 percent of languages are threatened or have gone extinct since 1970.

“There is so much to learn about the different Amazonian languages,” Bernat Bardagil Mas, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in Amazonian indigenous languages, tells Mongabay. “What little we do know is this: How rich Amazonian linguistic diversity is, and how endangered most of the languages are.”

According to Loh, most of the languages threatened with extinction are evolutionarily quite distinct from the few dominant world languages; they also represent very different cultures and knowledge systems. If trends continue as they have, this vast store of knowledge could largely be lost by the end of this century.

“Conservation biologists sadly in the past have just focused on biological diversity,” he says. “But particularly in those biodiversity hotspots that are also linguistic and cultural hotspots, conservation really needs to take into consideration and conserve the whole of biocultural diversity, instead of just the biological diversity.”

The Sápara now have a language revitalization plan in place, which includes teaching children the language at school, and developing pedagogical tools to help both children and adults relearn the language. For Ushigua, there is no doubt in her mind that any attempt to revitalize the language will directly impact the Sápara’s ability to also protect their forest.

“Years ago I made the point that protecting the integrity of our forest and protecting our culture and language went hand in hand, but there were no spaces to do both, so I chose to fight for our territory,” she says. “But if the forest goes extinct, we as a people are done. And if we were not here, the forest would not exist in the same way it does today. It’s that simple.”

The Sapara control 400,000 hectares of rainforest in the Ecuadorian Amazon, most of which sits on top of oil reserves that the Ecuadorian government is considering exploiting. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay.

Banner Image Caption: The Sapara have been living in the Ecuadorian Amazon for centuries; their language and traditions reflect a deep knowledge of their environment. Image by Sarah Sax for Mongabay.

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