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Language death means ecosystem death

Figure 1: Kenyah Dayak grandmother from Rukun Damai, East Kalimantan 1989.

Dramatic as this heading might be, it’s not entirely my idea. It comes from the article When languages die, ecosystems often die with them, I just left out the ‘often’ for dramatic effect.

Writing this post breaks a sequence of posts I’ve been intending to create, but it caught my eye and resonated well with these words

It is this knowledge of the natural world that is so apparent even with the briefest of contact with Indigenous peoples.

So, back to the story. It was written by Max J. Rosenthal who is the Digital Editor for Public Radio International (PRI). The article contains an interview with Jonathan Loh, a Research Associate of the Zoological Society of London, who co-authored a new report from WWF, Biocultural Diversity: Threatened species, endangered languages  finds that where biological diversity is reduced, so is linguistic diversity.

Listen to Max J. Rosenthal interviewing Jonathan Loh.

Loss of access to place

Visiting both East Kalimantan and West Sumatra in 1989 Indigenous people told me about language loss and I saw the ecosystem loss firsthand. They told me that without their place, without their forest they could not educate children in their language.


The Kenyah Dayak grandmother from Rukum Damai in (Figure 1), could speak no Indonesian. I was forced to rely on a translator to communicate with her.  Even then, she was reluctant to say very much.  Children from her lamin (longhouse) were already in a state school and a satellite dish connected the community to the outside world.

Just as in the Mentawai islands, people were being forced off their land by logging companies, aided by authorities like the Department of Health, and resettled along the larger channels of the Mahakam River

Some older men were prepared to voice their concerns. I came away from this experience with a clear sense that loss of contact with traditional lands meant language loss and a process of becoming foreigners in their own land, having to learn a new language.

Impacts of the cash economy

Figure 2: Dayak farmers clearing a hillside. East Kalimantan, 1989.

Where I did see Dayak cultivation, as in Figure 2, it was on a much larger scale than I had imagined swidden cultivation to be. I left with the impression that they too were being forced into the cash economy leaving their more traditional practices behind, and having an ecological impact that was unsustainable.

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