Wednesday, May 02, 2012

International Newsletter of Sustainable Local Development
Newsletter #88
May 1st 2012


Local languages: a genuine tool to support sustainable agricultural practice

Message from the Editorial Team

Globalisation is a fact of life, whether we like it or not. It brings the positive dimension of cross-cultural exchange, sharing of knowledge between peoples of our planet, and new forms of solidarity. Awareness is rising that we are all part of humanity and that we have only one planet with finite resources. But economic globalisation has no respect for anything. What we call neo-liberalism is responsible for the various crises: financial, economic, political, environmental and social. The cumulative negative impacts have now been clearly identified.

One of the negative impacts of globalisation is the result of the wars in which colonialists conquered and dominated the world in recent centuries. They imposed their languages, their cultural references, and all too often, their own religions, destroying much of the world’s language and cultural diversity. Every year, more languages are lost forever! The new forms of « conquest » are those of the mainstream mass cultural media, aimed at « profitability ». They rewrite history, disfigure reality, format people to a mass culture from early childhood. Just one example to illustrate this point: What connection can be made been Walt Disney’s Pocahontas and the reality of the culture shock imposed on Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Yet resistance and organised solutions are increasing, often through local endogenous development. At this point local populations throughout the world are re-appropriating their own cultures, and doing so with pride. Language and culture are living entities and as such, they develop, and reproduce, as much as any other form of life on our planet. Values, myths as well as traditional cultural and agricultural techniques that are appropriate for local resources are a relevant means of re-appropriation. Also many languages and cultures are becoming vectors for their own development. Local languages that were so decried by the colonisers can become genuinely powerful tools of sustainable local development.

In this issue, Judith illustrates this through the example of the African Institute for Food and Sustainable Development (IAD, l’Institut Africain de l’Alimentation et du Développement durable) in Mali, and tells how they help women Bambara-speaking farmers to enrich their language and learn the scientific aspects in their own language rather than use that of the colonisers (in this case, French). Local cultures testify to the vitality of these women, and what they can do when they make up their minds to do it. They are yet another proof of the fact that diversity is the true foundation of the universality of humankind.

We can stop mass culture! We have reached the end of an era of five centuries of domination. Holistic development of communities is rebuilding local social capital to enable life to continue. This renewal, should it succeed in linking pride in our different inherited cultures with open-mindedness (rather than the walls we so often see that are built to keep the neighbours out of our back yards), will help rebuild solidarity based on natural and cultural biodiversity in an interdependent world.

Judith Hitchman
Yvon Poirier
Martine Theveniaut

Local languages: a genuine tool to support sustainable agricultural practice

By Judith Hitchman

One aspect of colonialism that is often overlooked is the way in which indigenous languages were marginalised and supplanted by the three languages that dominate most of the planet, even today, English, French and Spanish. In some cases, such as in Ireland, there was a period of history when people caught speaking the native language were condemned to capital punishment!

This article is essentially about the way in which local languages in Africa can also become a powerful tool of empowerment, and how the dedicated work of organisations can help to build the linguistic tools of sustainable local development in communities that have often been neglected, in this case in Bambara in Mali, and with women farmers, many of them illiterate.

Bambara is one of the main languages spoken in Mali, along with Peul and Mandingue. But the official language used in formal education is still French. This means that as in many other African countries, unless a person has attended secondary school, that their command of the dominant language (English, French or Portuguese, depending on which power had colonised the land) can often be quite limited. It is also one of the reasons for having introduced the “blanket” language of Kiswahili in several States in East Africa, as it enables better communication between peoples, although education is still in English in East Africa. In many African countries, including Mali, women have traditionally been particularly penalised, and young girls are often pulled out of education earlier than boys at the end of primary school if not before, to take up the traditional tasks of farming, fetching water from the well, cooking and other household tasks.
One aspect in today’s technological world is that science and so-called scientific truth is used to foist many unacceptable choices such as land-grabbing and GMO seeds on small-scale illiterate farmers. But this story is about how a group of women farmers in Mali have been so empowered that they are able to speak to scientists, development NGOs and politicians alike, and more than hold their own in any discussion. It is a story of how the missing link of local language development can contribute to enabling traditional knowledge to be more valued and recognised by scientists.

Assetou Samaké founded the Institut Africain de l’Alimentation et du Developpement Durable, IAD in 2009. There are five members of staff, two of whom are educational scientists, specialised in developing curricula in Bambara, one specialist in environmental education and children’s recreational activities, one botanist, whose specialisation is the genetics of plants, as well as a technician who specialises in rice growing. The Institute has developed a number of strategic partnerships, including with N’ko, an association for the defence of local languages and promotion of culture, the Association of Professional Peasant farmers’ Organisations (AOPP, the Association des Organisations Professionnelles Paysannes), the coalition for the protection of African genetic heritage, and the University of Bamako, in order to develop national languages as a tool and support for learning. This work in turn helps to build understanding and share knowledge between different people working in a given field (such as agriculture). The overall objective is to build scientific communication in local languages.

The missing link.

IAD developed a pedagogical method of an active university-based pedagogy applied to the rural farming communities. It involves both university lecturers/researchers and farmers getting together on specific subjects and sharing their knowledge, learning from one another, as well as building solutions that are acceptable to both. It is this approach that has enabled them to measure the huge gap that exists between university lecturers and research scientists in Mali, who speak both Bambara and French, and rural communities where Bambara is the only language spoken. Although both communities have genuine knowledge and know-how, it was impossible to bring them together or to create synergy.

The key difficulty was the lack of scientific vocabulary.

The team’s experience in active university pedagogy in rural communities led to “inventing” scientific terms in Bambara that would facilitate exchange between communities. They began by words related to botany, because the prime focus of IAD is agriculture, and farming communities have traditional deep agricultural knowledge. Women are often those who know most, and are responsible for transmitting this knowledge to future generations.

IAD is continuing to work with village communities. Their end objective is to build a glossary of all botanical terms in Bambara. It is essential that the farmers be able to understand and have access to scientific research, particularly in botany and agriculture, as their traditional life-styles and cultural knowledge are threatened by the work that is being done by the international scientific community on seeds and biotechnology in the field of agriculture.

By working closely with the women farmers in the field (literally and figuratively), Assétou and her team have helped build a complete new scientific vocabulary in Bambara. They have created expressions that match the language used by scientists, and progressively enriched the language with expressions that are not “imported” loan words, as is generally the case, but rather created new expressions in a language that is largely based on images and gestures that already exist (Bambara is a very figurative language, so this is a complex process).

Several years down the road, the effects are quite remarkable. Combined with the support provided by their partners, the women have become highly organised in their own cooperative structures, and have built an effective network and chain that enables them to produce, store and market their produce in ways that ensure added value and better prices. They can discuss with scientists, and coherently justify why their traditional breeding practice and agricultural methods are more effective than hybrid or GMO seeds or chemical inputs, and what support they would really need.

Alimata Traore, woman farmer from the Sikasso region of Mali takes the floor during the satellite link up with DFID & Members of the British Parliament in Accra, January 2012. Photo, Michel Pimbert

I had the privilege of being part of an interpretation team that supported a High Level Policy Dialogue between these women and members of AGRA (the Green Revolution lobby in Africa), as well as with Members of the House of Parliament and Decentralised Cooperation in the UK. The meeting was organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development policy (IIED) in Accra in Ghana in January. These women, who in spite of being for the most part illiterate, were among the most articulate and powerful I have met in many years. Their strength and their courage is remarkable.

Above all, the power of the support provided by Assetou Samaké and her team could provide a model for other countries and other languages. Sadly many native/local languages have already been lost, mainly in America, where the whole indigenous community concept of relationships between humans and nature is a uniquely important model. More are being lost every year. And expressing yourself in the language of your people is a birthright, but sadly not one that is truly universal. It is also one of the key tenets of Babels, the global network of volunteer interpreters, an emanation of the World Social Forum, to enable everyone to speak in the language of their choice. But to be able to do that, the missing link in terms of sustainable development is indeed the work carried out by the IAD: that of “inventing” the appropriate equivalent terms to allow a full and equal exchange to take place, empower communities, and highlight the traditional knowledge that could otherwise be lost.

About the Newsletter

This Newsletter is published in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, It has been produced on a totally voluntary basis since the first issue in 2003.
The Editorial team wishes to thank the following volunteers for their support in translation and revision:
Michel Colin (Brazil)
Paula Garuz Naval (Ireland)
Évéline Poirier (Canada)
Brunilda Rafael (France)
We also wish to thank the Civil Policy Research Institute(CPRI) of Seikatsu Club in Japan for the Japanese translation.
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Yvon Poirier

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