Vol. 5 Num 1058 Thu. May 24, 2007  

Biodiversity, language and logical participation of the state

Language is no unilateral, linear medium. Because of the ways of expression, production of meaning and the discursive space it creates, language is represented as a global phenomenon. Whether it is mainstream or subaltern, it is always related to the power structure. When Bengali middleclass people go to Shaheed Minar bare footed on the morning of Ekushey February, or when the United Nations declares it International Mother Language Day, its historical multiplicity becomes more evident. How a language spreads, or how it is constructed, or how it exists, attracts our attention.

It is often said that many languages are on the verge of extinction/are lost forever. But can any language be lost forever? What does this suppression of language indicate? Does any institutional aggression or hegemony become the language suppressing the many faces of language?

Raising these questions within the language discourse, and searching for a solution, is very important for political decision-making regarding language. As we have seen, a language does not become extinct for nothing, without any external intervention. A language faces such a fate when the elements and conditions in which it is constructed, and functions, are altered. In this process, a language loses its own distinctive features and becomes a concept of a dominant linguistic scheme/hegemony.

In that altered reality, the altered/new language structure is also presented as a "new" formation of that language. We are told that it is an inevitable process of linguistic change. "Why should a language survive when it does not deserve to be so worthy?" (Survival of the fittest!). In this article we want to consider the relationship between language, biodiversity and the participation of the state. It is an important issue as it is directly related to the sovereignty of the state and the continued existence of the people and institutional framework of the state.

Language grows around the surrounding ecology and ecosystem -- language is a part of ecological systems and is diffused around local biodiversity. It is the philosophical statement of this delta landscape. We do not want this discourse to be ethnocentric. But we present a platform of relationship between the languages people use and the biodiversity of this landscape.

Once Mandis used to live in big trees of ha.chek(hill/mountain). Then rurupa kokothokopa (procupine) one day asked them: "Can't you build houses?" Balfong nokma chipong rachcha (crab of mountain streams) first showed the way. Then came me.npa chekshenpa (sal forest insect) and taught them the technique of making bamboo sheds. Saramma dusinem (sal forest bird) showed the way of living in that house.

Then Mandis built their own houses and started to live in them, in Mandi kususk (language) it is called nokmandi. These ideas no longer exist in Mandi kusuk of Madhupur sal forest. As there is no sal forest, no nokmandi now, ideas like rurupa kokothkopa, me.npa chekshenpa, saramma dusinem have also disappeared.

ADB and other donor agencies have imported "development" agendas, and corporate companies have expanded their business in Madhupur. The Sal forest has undergone a total transformation under National Park/eco park projects and colonial forest laws(1927). In this changing situation, the condition of the Mandi language and of oppressed Mandi life under this transformation is never taken into consideration in any institutional framework or policy reform processes related to forest biodiversity conservation, indigenous people's rights, and development.

In today's Mandi linguistic usage, many terms related to local biodiversity are no longer used, as the lives the terms denote are no longer there -- they have disappeared or become extinct. Many words like sarengma rongthamben and dembra jagedong are used no longer in Mandi kusuk (language). Instead, new words and ideas like BR-29, BR-11, Paijam, IRRI have replaced them. The reason is that sarengma rongthamben and dembra jagedong(local jhum rice), all rice varieties, have disappeared from Mandi lands.

Since 1995, I have conducted a number of surveys in Lawachhara and Magurchhara rainforests of Srimongol-Komolganj. Lawyachhara and Magurchhora are Khasi villages, and Dolubari is a Tripuri village. In 1996, I made a list of trees used by these indigenous peoples in all three villages. In the meantime, on June 14, 1997, Occidental was responsible for a blowout in the area.

A large part of the forestland was burnt in the flames, destroying the ecological balance of the forest. In 2004, I went there to make a list of trees again. This time I found that the new generation adolescents were no longer using the terms that describe or name the trees that disappeared from the area after the blowout. When I name a few which I could not find the second time but were there during my first survey, they said that they had not heard most of these names.

Then I discussed with the elders the linguistic changes within the Khashi (Mankhomer language family) and Kokborok (Tibetan-Berman family) languages of the locality. They told me that nobody remembers the names of trees that are no longer there. Libang, paichi boduk, kaichi boduk, masua phai, sokshuma, abithi were burned to ashes by the fire, and have become extinct in these villages. These names have gradually disappeared from the language commonly used by new generation adolescent Tripuries. Likewise, kraperda, kraseya, tiarman, kraking, chiral are not commonly used in Khashi language of the new generation.

Changes in local biodiversity directly influence the patterns of language structure. So far we have always overlooked this relationship in development initiatives and institutional policy processes regarding language. Destroying biodiversity is also destroying one's own language. Language is built around local biodiversity. When a language loses its matrilineal elements, it is bound to change in its matrilineal formation.

Once, in the rivers like Jadukata, Rokti, Kimao Maimadi (Nitai), Simsang (Someshwari) that flow from mountain streams of north-eastern Sunamganj-Netrokona near the borders of Meghalaya, mahashol fish (Tor tor) was found in abundance.

In haor areas, nanid fish (Labeo nandina) was also available, among many other fish varieties. We no longer have mahashol or nanid in our wetlands. In our language, concepts related to mahashol or nanid are altogether replaced by the ideas/names like silver-carp, grass-carp, miner-carp, African magur (exotic commercial fish species) etc.

It is difficult now to say how many rice varieties we had in our country. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) documented names of more than twelve thousand rice varieties in a book titled "Deshi Dhaner Jat" (Local Rice Varieties), published in 1982. All these rice varieties had an ethno-ecological relation with the languages developed from this land. Netpasha, somudrophena, kobrok, bajal, sadamota, beerpala, jamaiaduri, boaler dat, lokkhidigha, gallong, nuniya, gourokajol, gondhokosturi, lakhai, moynasail, chengri, digha, mi-khocchu, jotaibalam, guamouri, and a whole lot of other rice varieties, formed our concepts, indigenous knowledge and wisdom. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), CGIAR, so called "Green Revolution," and corporate controlled world food system has changed the linguistic structure of our farmers by capturing or/and destroying inherited rice varieties. When we talk about agriculture or right to mother language, we tend to ignore this.

In the language space that sprung from the agro-biodiversity of plain land or jum cultivation, we witness now the intervention of chemical fertilizer-insecticide-pesticide-IRRI-HYV-hybrid-GMO food. In these circumstances, we want to attract everyone's attention to the deep- rooted relationship of our language with our ecology and biodiversity. Bhapa pitha, khir puli, malaikari, shondesh, sorshe ilish, godaiya, jau, khichuri, chedoh, khari, sorbot etc constitute our food culture.

But when McDonald's potato French fry, beef burger, Coca Cola, Pepsi or Pizza Hut's pizza occupy our language, it proposes new dimensions to our language. Then these pizzas become our language, and a violent corporate system enforces every means to inflict new elements, new items, new dimension into our language, suppressing the language that sprung from bhapa pitha.

And in this process of construction and transformation of a language, a woman is the most likely to be a linguistic refugee. Irrespective of whether she is from a dominant or marginalised section of people, the language of her livelihood springs from the historical relationship between local biodiversity and her society.

A woman is the first victim in the process of destruction of biodiversity by male-chauvinist corporate aggression. It's anti-ecological "commodity language" suppresses the language of woman, and makes an advertisement of it. We are told that this is also a form of language. But we believe that any exercise of force/violence, any process of alienation and destruction, cannot be a form of language. At best, it can be a communication tactics to promote global consumerism. It is not a language.

Language is ceaselessly constructed; it exists, and is also transformed, depending on the relationship of biodiversity, and by protecting that relationship. So far, the initiatives and participation of the state regarding the issues of language and biodiversity were not distinctively different from the corporate controlled male chauvinist attitudes.

On the one hand, right to mother language is recognised, while on the other, not enough initiatives are taken to protect the matrilineal elements and resources that construct that mother language. When a language loses its matrilineal elements, it can no longer be called a mother language. So, state initiative is an imperative, as the linguistic space and structure is dependent on the conservation of biodiversity.

An integrated mother language rights policy has to be formed, incorporating language, ecology, biodiversity and people's rights. It is not a unilateral or linear matter. Bangladesh has already adopted the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD 1992). Article 8(j) of the convention says, subject to national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices, and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices.

In line with this convention, Bangladesh prepared a draft act in 1998 and updated in 2005. This draft act affirms that if any breeder, governmental or non-governmental, misappropriates the name of any plant variety traditionally used by farmers, the farmers will secure the right to demand cancellation or/and appropriate punishment. [Plant Variety Protection and Farmer's Right Act (draft) 2005/ Update Version]. We are yet to formulate a participatory integrated policy regarding language in our country.

Though we have a draft of a biodiversity policy, it is not yet finalised. Biodiversity, language, ecology are closely linked to one another. If the existence of one is threatened, the other two are equally affected. The state should include the subaltern dimension while considering the issues of language, biodiversity. The state has to create provision within its institutional framework for these marginalised people to express their pain of losing language or biodiversity.

Translation : Ahsan Habib

Pavel Partha is a Researcher, Ethnobotany and Biodiversity Conservation.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv