ZENT, S. - Traditional Environmental Language

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Traditional Environmental Language, Knowledge, Practice, and
Biodiversity in Venezuela: Looking at Linkages, Transmission
Processes, Current Trends, and Conservation Actions
Stanford Zent
Stanford Zent has a PhD degree in Anthropology from Columbia University in the
City of New York and for the last 12 years has worked as a Researcher in the
Anthropology Department of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research,
Caracas, Venezuela. His research interests include ecological anthropology,
ethnobiology, traditional ecological knowledge, biocultural conservation, nontimber
forest products, and native cultures of lowland South America. He has conducted
long-term fieldwork among the Piaroa and Hotï ethnic groups of the Venezuelan
tropical forest. His current research projects include: 1) an applied study of Hotï and
Eñepa ethnocartography and land demarcation, 2) an inventory of wild plant products
traded in the markets and streets of the Caracas metropolitan area, and 3) the
persistence, loss, and change of ethnobotanical knowledge and practices among
diverse indigenous and rural communities in Venezuela.
Growing awareness that we are presently on the brink of converging crises of mass
extinctions of biological species and of human languages throughout the world is
largely responsible for the birth of biocultural diversity as an integrative concept for
understanding this dual degenerative trend and devising appropriate conservation
strategies. This concept is based on the notion that forms of biodiversity (genes,
species, ecosystems) and cultural diversity (language, ethnicity, religion, etc.) are
inextricably linked, interdependent, and coevolved. Yet the nature and extent of this
linkage are still not well understood and therefore increasing attention is being paid to
investigating the connections at empirical, comparative, and theoretical levels.
Progress toward a better understanding of the complex and variable interactions
between the heterogeneous elements of the biotic world and those of the human realm
has been made during the last decade but a number of issues remain unresolved. Thus
while it has been emphasized that traditional environmental language, knowledge, and
practice (TELKP) provides a key for explaining the divergent pathways by which the
natural environment influences and penetrates human society and vice-versa, well
documented, empirical examples of such interpenetration are relatively few and
therefore our knowledge of the range of possible relationships and their effects is still
limited. Research on TELKP retention, transformation, and/or loss over time has led
to a more realistic view of it as a dynamic phenomenon that is critically dependent
upon environment- and culture-specific contexts and customary methods of
knowledge transmission. But we still know very little about the specifics of who,
what, when, and how knowledge is passed along or acquired in diverse cultural and
environmental settings or what the role of language is in this process. Current trends
of TELKP shift and erosion are now being actively investigated and some of the
social, political, economic, technological, ecological, and other factors driving such
changes have been identified, but in particular we need to find out more about how
knowledge transmission processes are being affected and what are the conditioning or
determining variables. Finally, it should be acknowledged that many governmental
and nongovernmental organizations are taking corrective measures but it remains to
be seen what is working and what is not.
All of these issues are potentially important for development of a policy of
biocultural diversity conservation and they will be explored in the present paper
through a selective look at the current situation of biodiversity and cultural diversity
and their linkages in Venezuela. Specific examples will be discussed based on the
author’s research among indigenous groups in that country. The topics that will be
covered include: (1) the chain of connection among traditional environmental
language, knowledge, behavior, species, and biotic communities; (2) observable
patterns and processes of knowledge transmission/acquisition within and across
generations, local communities, and ethnic groups; (3) the importance of native
language for encoding, storing, and communicating knowledge and information about
the environment; (4) current trends of TELKP loss/change and their conditioning
factors; (5) the impact of cultural and environmental changes on TELKP transmission,
especially the effects of formal education and bilingualism, (6) the current state of
indigenous languages in Venezuela and their prospects for survival, and (7) an
evaluation of some of the policies and programs that are being enacted at national as
well as local levels to safeguard indigenous languages and knowledges.
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