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UN experts urge decade of action to aid survival of indigenous languages
by UN Office for Human Rights, agencies
August 2019
In a statement to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, UN human rights experts are calling for a decade of action to protect and promote the use of indigenous languages, many of which are endangered:
“Indigenous languages are necessary for the enjoyment of human rights, as well as being a part of the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples.
However, indigenous rights experts are concerned that of the 7,000 indigenous languages around the world, many are endangered. Forty per cent of them are in danger of disappearing altogether.
This situation reflects historic State policies and ongoing discrimination against speakers of indigenous languages, and towards the assimilation of minorities and nation building. Over time, such policies can undermine and effectively destroy a culture and even a people.
Indigenous languages allow for the freedom of expression and conscience critical to human dignity, as well as cultural and political self-determination. They are also critical for the survival of our global society. Containing the wisdom of traditional environmental knowledge and cross-cultural communication, indigenous languages hold the keys to combating climate change, and living in peace.
Language is a right not a privilege. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises the right of indigenous peoples to revitalise, use, develop and transmit their languages to future generations. Importantly this includes the right to establish and control institutions responsible for education, media, and governance.
We call on UN member States to recognise, protect and promote indigenous languages through legislation, policies and other strategies, in full cooperation with indigenous peoples, including adequate, sustained support for bilingual and mother tongue education.
We call on States to ensure access to health, employment, judicial and other public services in the languages of indigenous peoples, including through cyberspace and the internet.
We support the States that have encouraged the UN to declare a Decade of Indigenous Languages. Ten years would provide the time and resources necessary to reverse the historic destruction of indigenous languages and reclaim these languages for the future of indigenous peoples and the world community, alike.”
Feb. 2019
Call to revitalize ‘language of the ancestors’ for survival of future generations. (UNESCO)
Hundreds of ancestral languages have gone silent in recent generations, taking with them the culture, knowledge and traditions of the people who spoke them. To preserve and revitalize those that remain, the United Nations has officially launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Delivering inaugural remarks, Kanentokon Hemlock, a Mohawk community Bear Clan Chief from Kahnawke, paid tribute to Mother Earth.
“As indigenous people, our languages are those of the earth and it is those languages that we use to speak with our mother”, he said, saying “the health of our languages is connected to the health of the earth”, which is being abused.
“We lose our connection and our ancient ways of knowing of the earth when our languages fall silent”, he explained, stressing that “for the sake of future generations we must ensure they too can speak the language of our ancestors”.
The President of the UN General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces highlighted the close connection between indigenous languages and ancestral culture and knowledge, saying that “they are much more than tools for communication, they are channels for human legacies to be handed down”.
“Each indigenous language has an incalculable value for humankind”, she said, calling each “a treasure laden with history, values, literature, spirituality, perspectives and knowledge, developed and garnered over millennium”.
“When a language dies,” she spelled out “it takes with it all of the memory bound up inside it”.
Indigenous languages are symbols of their people’s identity, “vectors for values, ways of life and expressions of their connections with earth”, according to the Assembly president, who called them “crucial” for survival.
Indigenous languages also open the door to ancestral practices and knowledge, such as in agriculture, biology, astronomy, medicine and meteorology. Although there are still 4,000 in existence across the globe, many are on the brink of extinction.
“This International Year must serve as a platform from which we can reverse the alarming trend of the extinction of indigenous languages”, to recover and preserve them, including by implementing education systems that favor the use of a Mother tongue, Ms. Espinosa stated.
Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, addressed the survival of indigenous people and languages under the force of colonialization.
“Today we come here having survived the colonial era which has tried to bring our elders to their knees and squash them beneath the weight of injustice”, he said.
Mr. Morales called on everyone to work together through dialogue to promote policies which help to preserve Indigenous lives, identities, values and cultures.
There are 770 million Indigenous people across 90 countries, constituting six per cent of the global population, living in many biodiverse regions, the President noted. And yet “capitalist greed” has left them among the poorest 15 per cent of the population.
Warning that greed was driving the move to annex yet more indigenous resources, he said that there was a “criminal silence” on the part of world leaders “when it comes to speaking out against these phenomena”, pointing out the hypocrisy of lecturing indigenous people about democracy and human rights, while quashing their community identities and suppressing languages at risk of dying out.
“Language is culture, language is an expression of a cosmovision and that is a way of seeing the world”, he said. “If languages disappear… the memories that they bear will disappear as well as the people that speak them”.
Encouraging everyone to “preserve the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors”, Mr. Morales urged that a new paradigm be ushered in, one which is the fruit of indigenous peoples and “champions the Mother Earth”.

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Murder of Brazilian indigenous leader a ‘worrying symptom’ of land invasion
by UN News, The Lancet, agencies
29 July 2019
In the wake of the murder of indigenous leader Emrya Wajapi in Brazil, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called on the country’s authorities to “react quickly and decisively” to protect the rights of indigenous peoples on their lands.
Emrya Wajapi was killed on July 23 in Amapa, a region in the far north of Brazil, bordering French Guyana.
According to media reports, witnesses saw a number of gold miners enter the protected reserve of the Wajapi community, then stab their leader to death.
“The murder of Emrya Wajapi, leader of the indigenous Wajapi people, is tragic and reprehensible in its own right”, said Ms. Bachelet on Monday.
“It is also a disturbing symptom of the growing problem of encroachment on indigenous land – especially forests – by miners, loggers and farmers in Brazil.”
According to the UN human rights chief, the proposed policy of the Brazilian Government to open the Amazon up to mining could lead to “incidents of violence, intimidation and killings.”
The UN human rights chief underlined that the protection of indigenous peoples and lands is not only an issue in Brazil, but the whole world.
While some progress has been made in recent years, enforcement of existing laws and policies has been weak, and in some cases existing environmental and indigenous institutional frameworks have been dismantled: the statement declared that this “appears now to be the case” in Brazil.
Ms. Bachelet called on the Government of Brazil to reconsider its policies towards indigenous peoples and their lands, so that Emrya Wajapi’s murder does not herald a new wave of violence aimed at scaring people off their ancestral lands.
This could, she continued, enable “further destruction of the rainforest, with all the scientifically-established ramifications that has, for the exacerbation of climate change.”
July 2019
Brazil registers huge spike in Amazon deforestation. (DW)
The Brazilian Space Agency has released data documenting a massive spike in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Citing figures from June, the agency registered an 88.4% increase over the same month in 2018.
That figure comes on the heels of increased deforestation in May, which was up 34% compared to 2018.
The agency measures annual July to July activity, but says the first 11 months of this year''s report already show a 15% rise over the previous period.
That increase translates to some 4,565 square kilometers (1,762 square miles) of lost rainforest over an 11 month period. June alone saw the loss of 920 square kilometers.
Environmentalists have long been concerned about the steady loss of one of the world''s largest sources of oxygen and carbon sequestration and their fears were compounded when far-right anti-environment candidate Jair Bolsonaro became president in January.
Bolsonaro has aggressively dismantled environmental laws and protections for indigenous people living in the Amazon in order to spur economic growth.
Much of the area being clear cut is converted for agricultural planting, such as soy beans and grains, as well as for ranching and mining. The need for such clear cutting has been fueled by the world''s growing lust for meat as a dietary choice.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized the country''s Ibama environmental agency for what he complains are excessive fines against logging. He argues that fines simply drive up prices, making illegal logging more lucrative.
His son Flavio, who is a senator, has also pushed for legislation that would relieve farmers of the obligation of maintaining 20-80% tree cover on their land.
Bloomberg news agency reports that this could lead to the clearing of up to 1.6 million square kilometers of rain forest— a space roughly the size of Iran.
Though the deforestation may provide short-term profits for Brazil and international companies it is bad news for the environment and could also threaten the passage of trade deals.
Last week, the European Union announced that after almost 20 years it had reached agreement with the Mercosur bloc —Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay — on a new free-trade deal.
However, EU countries are adamant that all parties involved must uphold commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change — these include a pledge to curb deforestation.
July 2019
Amazon deforestation accelerating towards unrecoverable ''tipping point''.
Scientists warn that the Amazon forest is in growing danger of degrading into a savannah, after which its capacity to absorb carbon will be severely diminished, with consequences for the rest of the planet.
“It’s very important to keep repeating these concerns. There are a number of tipping points which are not far away,” said Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research. “We can’t see exactly where they are, but we know they are very close. It means we have to do things right away. Unfortunately that is not what is happening. There are people denying we even have a problem.”
In his first seven months in power, Bolsonaro, who was elected with strong support from agribusiness and mining interests, has moved rapidly to erode government agencies responsible for forest protection.
He has weakened the environment agency and effectively put it under the supervision of the agricultural ministry, which is headed by the leader of the farming lobby. His foreign minister has dismissed climate science as part of a global Marxist plot. The president and other ministers have criticised the forest monitoring agency, Ibama, for imposing fines on illegal land grabbers and loggers. The government has also moved to weaken protections for nature reserves, indigenous territories and zones of sustainable production by forest peoples and invited businesspeople to register land counter-claims within those areas.
This has emboldened those who want to invade the forest, clear it and claim it for commercial purposes, mostly in the speculative expectation it will rise in value, but also partly for cattle pastures, soya fields and mines.
Earlier this month, it was reported that thousands of gold miners illegally invaded Yanomami indigenous territory near the border with Venezuela. Elsewhere, illegal loggers have mounted at least two attacks in response to Ibama enforcement operations..
June 2019
Head of Indian Affairs Foundation fired in Brazil. (The Lancet)
The move is the latest in a series of measures prioritising agriculture business over the health of Indigenous populations in the country. Barbara Fraser reports.
Policies proposed by the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, which would eliminate the country''s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI) and roll back protections for Indigenous territories, could spell disaster for the country''s Indigenous people, experts warn.
The head of Brazil''s governmental Indian Affairs Foundation (FUNAI) was fired on June 12—the latest in a series of moves undercutting protections for Indigenous people and their territories. Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freitas, an Army Reserve general, had headed the agency since January. Ribeiro de Freitas blamed his ouster on Agriculture Ministry officials who back Bolsonaro''s proposals to open Indigenous lands to mining and large-scale agriculture.
Although FUNAI is not directly responsible for health policy, its task is to protect Indigenous peoples and territories. Budget and personnel cuts in recent years have undermined its ability to do its job, observers say.
“Since this government took office, there has been backsliding in social policies for Indigenous people, in areas like demarcation of territories, education and health”, says Ysso Truka, a leader of the Truka people and a representative of Articulacao dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, a national Indigenous organisation.
Truka has also been a member of a national forum of presidents of district-level civic health oversight councils. A restructuring of the health ministry, announced in May, eliminates that forum, although not the local councils. It also eliminates the administrative department of SESAI, a branch of the national health ministry, its responsibilities into other SESAI departments without increasing their staff.
Bolsonaro has said the restructuring is needed to eliminate corruption in government contracting. Brazil is currently mired in a huge corruption scandal involving bribes and kickbacks from construction companies.
One goal of the restructuring apparently is to eliminate SESAI and include Brazil''s Indigenous people in the country''s universal health-care system.
An attempt in March to shift Indigenous health care from the federal government to local governments was withdrawn after it sparked protests by Indigenous peoples in March. Truka said the country''s Indigenous organisations are in favour of eliminating corruption but do not want to see SESAI dismantled.
Established two decades ago, the Indigenous health system increased access to health care and lowered indicators such as maternal and infant mortality among Indigenous people, although they still exceed those of non-Indigenous Brazilians, says Douglas Rodrigues, an epidemiologist and Indigenous health expert at the Federal University of São Paulo.
Eliminating SESAI and shifting responsibility to local governments would jeopardise those gains, Rodrigues says. Health care for remote Indigenous communities is expensive because it requires travel by plane or boat. Those districts are among the poorest in the country and the least able to afford those costs, he said.
Many Indigenous territories are also very large. The Xingu Indigenous Park, where Rodrigues works part time, covers an area nearly the size of Haiti and overlaps five districts, which would have to coordinate health services under the restructuring plan, Rodrigues says.
Studies link territory loss to poor health indicators, and Bolsonaro''s plan to reduce the size of Indigenous territories and make it easier for mining companies and large-scale agribusinesses to operate there could further undermine Indigenous health.
FUNAI''s budget and personnel cuts have also made it difficult for the agency to protect Indigenous people and their territories. These cuts leave lands open to invasion by loggers or ranchers, resulting in higher rates of violence, as well as malaria, Rodrigues says. Lifestyle changes tied to the fragmentation of Indigenous lands have raised rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide, he says.
In Atalaia do Norte, a small town on the Brazil-Peru border in the Amazon Basin, several hundred Indigenous people staged a protest on March 27 against the proposal to turn Indigenous health care over to local governments. The town lies just outside a vast, roadless area inhabited by five known Indigenous peoples, as well as smaller, semi-nomadic groups that shun contact with the outside world.
SESAI attends the health needs of the contacted groups while FUNAI is responsible for protecting the isolated groups, who lack immunity even to common diseases, from contact with outsiders.
“The Indigenous health system was built piece by piece, with much discussion over many years between experts and Indigenous leaders”, said Jorge Marubo, SESAI coordinator in Atalaia. If the system is turned over to local governments, he predicted, “many people will die” because of inadequate management.

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