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Creating Spaces for Indigenous Voices: Q&A with Nigel Crawhall of UNESCO

November 25, 2020

Since Terralingua’s founding in 1996, our mission has been to promote the understanding and appreciation of biocultural diversity (diversity in nature, culture, and language), and to serve as a platform for amplifying Indigenous voices. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to form productive working relationships with likeminded colleagues, including Nigel Crawhall—sociolinguist and Chief of Section, Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge (SC/PCB/SII) in UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector. This summer, Nigel shared some very good news with us: 1) that UNESCO had launched its first newsletter on Indigenous Peoples, and 2) that the United Nations will be spearheading a new Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages.

Nigel Crawhall, Chief of Section, Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge, UNESCO.

Nigel Crawhall, Chief of Section, Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge, UNESCO.

We knew right away that we would want to interview Nigel to learn more about both initiatives and spread the word among our readers. Fortunately for us, he graciously made the time in his busy schedule to answer our questions. Below, you’ll find our conversation with Nigel in the form of a Q&A.

Nigel’s Crawhall’s work at UNESCO is focused on the understanding, transmissions, and application of Indigenous and local knowledge systems in sustainability, climate change responses, and conservation of biodiversity and associated ecosystems. Prior to his time at UNESCO, he was Director of the Secretariat for the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) based in Cape Town, South Africa, for 19 years, and spent 8 years working with the South African San Institute (SASI). Notably, he worked with the last 20 speakers of the Njuu language during a land-claim process in the southern Kalahari. Please note: Nigel’s comments in the Q&A below were given in his current capacity as a UNESCO Chief of Section; he does not speak on behalf of UNESCO as an institution.

Q&A with Nigel Crawhall

Terralingua: We were heartened to read the first edition of UNESCO’s new Indigenous Peoples Newsletter and to hear of your organization’s many recent collaborations with Indigenous populations around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the inspiration behind the newsletter?

Nigel Crawhall: UNESCO has been working for decades with Indigenous peoples on a range of programmes and initiatives across the globe. UNESCO has a formal policy of engaging with Indigenous peoples. In 2020, we were all caught up suddenly in this global pandemic and the UNESCO offices were being called on to help with communication, support, and guidance. The UNESCO intersectoral working group on Indigenous peoples’ issues recognized that Indigenous peoples were being impacted on in diverse and serious ways and we felt it was important to help get their story and voices out to a wider audience. The Director General supported the initiative immediately and encouraged us to get to work, mobilizing our field offices and speaking directly to our Indigenous partners. As we anticipated, Indigenous peoples did need to speak about their challenges, and at the same time, they inspired us with stories of solidarity and support.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay in Mexico at the closure of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. © UNESCO, 2019

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay in Mexico at the closure of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. © UNESCO, 2019

TL: As Director-General Audrey Azoulay mentioned in her foreword, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities among Indigenous populations, many of which are “among the most marginal and precarious of all.” In your work with UNESCO, you are no doubt witnessing this phenomenon firsthand around the world. What are some of your observations?

NC: The Director General has been really engaged on Indigenous peoples issues since taking up her role at UNESCO. She appointed the first UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador on Indigenous Peoples, the Mexican actress, Yalitza Aparicio. For the bulletin, we mostly got feedback from the Africa and Latin America regions, though also from the Arctic, Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia. We learned that Indigenous peoples were mobilizing ahead of the pandemic. Some triggered traditional customs for shutting their villages, territories, or islands to ensure a sanitary barrier. Some organized health education in local languages, provided food relief and sanitary packages, or they turned to community radio to get information flowing when lockdowns limited movements. For many Indigenous peoples, their own home-based care was going to be the only option, and they had to figure out how to do that while minimizing risks. Some Southern African Indigenous communities used existing HIV/AIDS education and care networks to help provide support to remote rural areas as the pandemic rolled out.

There was a lot of concern about schooling. Residential schools posed specific challenges. Internet connectivity was a big challenge. Some areas were concerned about unplanned pregnancies with girls and boys suddenly being out of school. People spoke a lot about the loss of elders, about losing much-loved people full of wisdom and knowledge who normally should have been helping with intergenerational transmission of knowledge and culture. Some Indigenous peoples rely on income from tourism, which dried up instantly, creating economic gaps. Nomadic herders struggled with restrictions on movements. Some Indigenous peoples found that their low population density and being out on the land helped provide social distancing. There was a lot of diversity of experiences but the overwhelming message was one of community mobilization, support, and solidarity.

I think what we are seeing in the media is a greater awareness that we cannot treat nature and wildlife in any manner we want, without there being consequences. A holistic approach to the well-being of the living world, from individual to system, is a pertinent and profound message for our generation. —Nigel Crawhall

TL: As you mention in the newsletter, the pandemic will almost certainly accelerate the process of language loss throughout the world. In Mexico alone, 68 Indigenous languages and 364 variants that are spoken in the country are under serious threat of disappearing. Can you tell us a bit about some of the work UNESCO is doing to help endangered languages thrive at this time?
TL: These are unprecedented times in many ways, and yet for Indigenous populations the pandemic brings up haunting history. As Peruvian authors Chonon Bensho and Pedron Favaron wrote in this recent Pandemic Perspectives dispatch for our blog, “The history of Indigenous nations cut down by diseases brought in by strangers repeats itself from Patagonia all the way to Canada. Perhaps that’s why disease awakens in us a sort of genetic memory of fear, transmitted from generation to generation.” How can we all work together to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself now?

NC: We got that message right from the start. Pandemics associated with colonialism were such a cruel and regular feature in the experience of Indigenous peoples. There is deep trauma about the invisible force of a pandemic. Cultural memory likely triggers pain and anxiety for some peoples. This pandemic, as indeed with others, impacts on everyone, everywhere, but it does not impact equally. Social and economic vulnerability exacerbate impacts.

TL: Azoulay also emphasizes that “we all have much to learn from Indigenous peoples and their experience in managing epidemics.” We’ve seen that time and again in the writing we publish in Langscape—for instance, in this Langscape Magazine article about how the pandemic has given villagers in Jharkhand, India, the opportunity to reclaim their traditional, sustainable living practices. Why are Indigenous voices and wisdom more important than ever during this global pandemic?

NC: Our aim was to create some space in an electronic newsletter for Indigenous voices and wisdom to be expressed, to be heard. In my experience of working with Indigenous peoples in different parts of Africa, and I imagine it is similar in other parts of the world, healing plays a central role in the society. Wellness, the healing of individuals, of the community, or the land, waters, wildlife, and territories—these are central to Indigenous cosmovision and practices. I remember a UNESCO-supported project on HIV/AIDS in the southern Kalahari. A traditional healer, Oom Jan van der Westhuizen, explained that both a human and a virus have a life force. The role of the healer is not to condemn one form of life over another, but to understand the balance between them. The same balance that is required when harvesting medicine plants or wild food. I think what we are seeing in the media is a greater awareness that we cannot treat nature and wildlife in any manner we want, without there being consequences. A holistic approach to the well-being of the living world, from individual to system, is a pertinent and profound message for our generation.

NC: A number of communities, particularly those with elderly speakers of endangered languages, have expressed great concern about language loss from the pandemic. You will see in the bulletin that particularly in Latin America, UNESCO has been working with Indigenous peoples to use community radio as a way to share information, health guidance and help connect people through their own languages even during confinement periods. A number of Indigenous peoples worked on oral or print means to help communicate with rural communities in Indigenous languages about how to recognize COVID-19 symptoms, how to manage a “bubble,” the use of protective barriers, and the need to protect the elderly in particular. The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) team at UNESCO have been sharing materials on the pandemic on the main website. UNESCO has now been designated the lead agency for the UN International Decade on Indigenous Languages, and the pandemic experience will help inform a strategy on supporting the vitality of Indigenous languages.

The pandemic is a big wake-up call about how precious are the oldest generation. Within endangered languages are gemstones and hidden worlds. —Nigel Crawhall

TL: As the newsletter emphasizes, the strengthening of Indigenous languages plays a vital role in ensuring effective cultural diversity, communication, self-sovereignty, and education. What needs to be done on the level of policy to ensure endangered languages survive this crisis?

NC: We always think we have more time than we do. I think of my own grandparents and all the things I should have asked them before they passed. The pandemic is a big wake-up call about how precious are the oldest generation. Within endangered languages are gemstones and hidden worlds. We saw many examples during IYIL of communities seriously dedicated to language revitalization. At the same time, there can be a policy lag. Governments have a lot to contend with, including trying to ensure quality education in the national language/s, ensuring other languages are accounted for and resources made available. There is a risk that endangered languages seem a luxury; whereas these elders are treasures, irreplaceable and unique. They may know about rare plant medicines, they may know about undocumented histories, they may provide insights into gender equality and stopping gender-based violence, they may understand a philosophy which could change the course of human history. The combination of the IYIL and the pandemic, may help people connect the dots and realize we need to take action on language loss right now, and that this is an investment in our common future.

TL: We’re very excited to hear of UNESCO’s new initiative: the Los Pinos Declaration [Chapultepek] – Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages. I understand this project builds on the legacy of the United Nations’ 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages (which, with your encouragement, we were pleased to participate in with our new Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle). Can you tell us more about this new, far-reaching project and why it’s so vital?

NC: Terralingua has made such valuable contributions to the IYIL, and the Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is an inspiration. UNESCO is busy putting the structures in place to usher in the International Decade of Indigenous Languages in 2022. There have been valuable consultations which you see expressed in the Chapultepek / Los Pinos Declaration. The main takeaway message is that the IYIL helped raise global awareness and build networks and communication platforms. The Decade needs to bring real changes, right on the ground where people need it. The Decade will be built on a multi-sectoral approach, engaging in a range of developmental domains. Evidently as a UN-wide process, we are looking forward to engagement by all Member States, the UNESCO National Commissions and Indigenous peoples, civil society and academic partners. Make sure you are signed up on the IYIL webpage and also subscribe to the UNESCO bulletin on Indigenous peoples.