'On the job' interview with Luisa Maffi, Co-founder and Director of Terralingua

Dr. Luisa Maffi is the co-founder and Director of Terralingua. Trained in linguistics, anthropology and ethnobiology, Luisa is one of the pioneers of the concept of biocultural diversity. Her interest in the relationships between language, culture and the environment, and between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity, led her to co-found Terralingua in 1996 and to launch the organisation’s activities with the interdisciplinary conference “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments” (Berkeley, California, U.S.A., 1996). She has written on a variety of topics ranging from Somali and Mayan linguistics to colour categorisation, ethnomedicine, traditional ecological knowledge, language maintenance and revitalisation, indigenous peoples’ linguistic and cultural rights, culture and conservation, and the relationships between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity.

What first got you involved in Terralingua and bio-cultural diversity?

It now goes back 20 years! In the mid-1990s, biologists were increasingly talking about biodiversity loss, linguists about endangered languages, and anthropologists about vanishing cultures. Having an interdisciplinary background in the social and natural sciences, I was hearing those clarion calls, and felt that all those things had to be related somehow, but nobody seemed to be making the connection. That is, until I read the International Society of Ethnobiology’s Declaration of Belém (1988), which stated that “there is an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity”, and it all started clicking in my mind.

Then I happened to go to a symposium in New Mexico, where one of the presenters, conservationist David Harmon, talked about the parallels and links between language loss and biodiversity loss. More lights went on! I literally grabbed Dave and a few other like-minded people, we went out for dinner, and by the end of the evening we had hatched the idea of an NGO that would research and disseminate ideas about the “inextricable link”. That was the beginning of Terralingua and of the concept and field we came to call “biocultural diversity”. We launched with an international symposium, “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments” (Berkeley, California, 1996), and with the book On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

Twenty years later, we have a full and integrative programme of biocultural research, education, and action. Biocultural diversity has gone from being an unfamiliar idea to being an accepted concept that is now applied in academia and in many fields of policy and practice—including of course in the Ramsar Culture Network’s Bio-cultural Thematic Group!

Why do you think bio-cultural diversity is relevant in today’s world, and particularly to wetlands?

What could be more important in today’s global socio-ecological predicament than realising that we humans are an inextricable part of the web of life, and that what we do to that web we do to ourselves? Thinking that the web of life is something “out there”, separate from us, and something we can dispense with, has become prevalent in our technologically- and materially-driven global societies. In my view, this misconception is the ultimate cause of the dramatic deterioration of the life systems on which we and all other species depend. Unless we come back to an understanding that nature is within us, and we are within it (an understanding that many of the world’s indigenous and local communities still hold and uphold) we’ll only continue to be on a downward slide.

All this applies to our understanding of wetlands. The many human societies who have traditionally lived alongside or even (as for example the Ma’adan) in wetlands developed sustainable ways of life that were deeply attuned to the rhythms and pulses of wetlands. But for more dominant societies everywhere, wetlands have mostly been seen as a hindrance: unhealthy, unsafe, unusable, something to be “reclaimed”. It is truly ironic that, just as we’re finally re-learning the immense value of wetlands, we find that we’ve destroyed so much of them, and displaced and dispersed so many of the wetland peoples who would have a lot to teach us about successfully living with wetlands. We must absolutely make sure we do no more harm, and that we work as hard as possible to restore not just the wetlands, but human relationships and interdependence with them.

People are becoming increasingly aware that languages, and the knowledge that comes with them, are disappearing from parts of the world. How can we respond to this?

There is no doubt that we’re going through what Dave Harmon has called a “converging extinction crisis” threatening the diversity of life in nature and culture. The loss of languages and of the traditional knowledge encoded in them hastens the loss of biodiversity, and vice-versa. Understanding that there is this vicious circle is the first step. The next and consequent step is to free ourselves from our preconceptions about “small”, “obscure”, maybe even “primitive” languages, whose loss “doesn’t matter” in today’s “modern” world. Each language is a perfectly developed expression of the human minds and spirits that produced it, and of human adaptation to and knowledge of a specific place. The more we learn about the value of linguistic and cultural diversity and its interconnection with biodiversity, the more supportive we’ll be of the language and knowledge revitalisation efforts that indigenous and local communities are undertaking around the world.

An example relevant to wetlands: the Saanich First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, with whom Terralingua works, has started restoring a culturally important wetland in what was their traditional territory. Bringing Elders and youth together on the land, they are replanting original vegetation, including the willows from whose bark they once made baskets, as well as cordage for the nets used in reefnet fishing—their traditional way of salmon fishing. The Saanich want to revitalize both practices, and the wetland and its vegetation are essential for that. So are the language and the traditional knowledge that the Elders impart while on the land with the youth. It’s all interconnected—including, ultimately, the reintroduction of a very sustainable way of fishing that can preserve salmon stocks much better than current commercial methods!

A thriving world can only be a bioculturally thriving world. And that’s the world I want to see for generations to come.

For more information about Terralingua’s work, visit www.terralingua.org.

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