“The defense of minority languages is a powerful instrument for the sustainability of the planet”

One of the great challenges of our society today is to decide through which strategy we will address this serious loss of biodiversity. Unai Pascual García de Azilu, environmental economist at Ikerbasque and BC3, favors introducing variables that move away from traditional visions, such as the promotion of accession to Basque and other minority languages or the recognition of the values of indigenous communities.
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Ed. Marisol Ramirez/Argazki press

You are working hard on the study of the values of nature and its integration at the centre of scientific debate. You distinguish instrumental, intrinsic and relationship values, right?

Yes, a few years ago we began this reflection in an international group. In fact, we saw that in the science of sustainability and in high-level policies there is a continuous dichotomy when talking about the value of nature: on the one hand, a very instrumentalist discourse that talks about the resources that nature generates for society or for people, going through the filter of the economy (which can create jobs, promote tourism…). When we talk about the green of the economy, for example. Very related to the Western vision and always with a very violent instrumentalization. And on the other hand, what comes from biology and what emphasizes the intrinsic value of nature, beyond the resources we can provide. Sometimes, at the hand of a great sense of responsibility in the care of nature. And between the two there is a permanent shock, the conflícticos occur.

In Euskal Herria we have many examples. The newspaper opens and there are several local conflicts every day: now is Bolintxu the project of connection of the Supersur with the AP-68 in Bilbao. But there have been many conflicts: The Itoiz reservoir, the Leitzaran motorway, the TAV… We see a continuous social shock and we believe that there is another kind of value necessary to understand and overcome this question: emotional relations with nature. They are relationship values that can be different for each person. A forest can have great emotional value for a human group. We must understand and map these relationships to put them on the agenda. They are not abstract, they affect us very much. When making decisions, beyond instrumentalization and biocentrism, they are a variable to be introduced in the equation. But for this we must name it.

You have also related these relations to the language. Why?

Relational values have a lot to do with our identity. And that identity feeds on things: the Basques have a close relationship with our landscape and with the Basque language, they are part of our identity. Euskera makes us, nature makes us… And we wanted to know if that emotional relationship with Basque has something to do with our perception of nature and, therefore, with the values we attribute to nature, including instrumental, intrinsic and especially relational values.

An inuit perceives its culture — (its own cultural eyes) and gives meaning to that reality. It gives you a way to understand nature and life. It gives you a way to understand nature and life. Culture and language give us the keys (or a grammar) to perceive and interpret that reality.

We wanted to know if Basque is an intermediary in value relations and how it conditions those values that people express in relation to nature. To see if the Basque language is important in creating those relationships of value, feeding them and expressing them in our daily lives.

And what conclusions have you reached?

The research is carried out in the Western Pyrenees, north of Navarre and in Zuberoa: Irati, Amezketa and in the area. In this space three languages are spoken: Basque, but also Spanish (south) and French (north). We wanted to see if in these conditions there is a pattern in which sociolinguistic profiles have some relation with the way of valuing nature. For this we use a semi-quantitative methodology. Although it uses statistics, it is not a matter of making an X-ray of the whole society. We try to identify the different human groups to see if a perspective on the values of nature prevails in each group.

The disregard of our values of relationship with nature generates continuous social conflicts on environmental issues, according to Pascual. Ed. Wikimedia

We took the forest as a model, but we could take the sea or any other. We study all kinds of relationships with the forest: instrumental (attracting tourism, removing wood…), binary and emotional experiences (what they feel when they are in the forest), moral (indicating responsibility, the need to maintain the forest for the next generations)… We systematize phrases derived from literature, which have a lot to do with relational values (for example, “I need the forest to understand my cultural identity”), and have an intrinsic value. About a hundred people participated in the research and with these phrases, the perspective of the people of the forest was clarified.

We saw that in this society there were three main perspectives that are presented at different levels in each person: one of the main ones is that of the “caregivers”. The main perception that these have about nature is that they have a responsibility to exploit the forest well, since it has many ecological and social benefits that owe to the following generations. It is a very strong discourse that gradually incorporates responsibility for care.

Another fairly widespread perspective was the so-called “eudalmonia”, which indicates that the forest offers them a full life and satisfies them spiritually. They believe that without forests they would lack something very basic in their life.

And to the group of people with a very strong third perspective we have called “in the Basque language”. People who have shown this vision have a strong commitment to the place in which they live, closely related to cultural identity; and this type of value relations with the forest are related to Basque. On the one hand, they cannot differentiate the native forest and nature from their cultural identity and their local adherence. And Basque is a mediator in all this, Basque conditions local adherence, cultural identity and adherence to nature.

The sociolinguistic profile has a lot to do with how people value nature. Adherence to Basque conditions cultural identity and adherence to nature. Ed. Wikimedia

Knowing the intermediation of Basque, and within the framework of this environmental emergency, what is your strategy to promote a more sustainable life?

Above all, we must break that dichotomy of moral-intris values and instrumental economists and introduce into the debate our values of relationship with nature. It seems that languages, and especially the defense of minority languages, can be a powerful instrument to maintain and promote those values of relationship and reach that scenario of sustainability. If not, the journey towards the sustainability of our country will be much more abrupt and difficult. The necessary sustainability will never come hand in hand with instrumental and intrinsic values. They must be placed to make decisions in politics.

But I want to say clearly that it is not just about knowing and speaking Basque, but about fostering the relationship and, therefore, adherence to Basque, rooted in one's own identity. We have to work that identity knowing that it is conditioned by the Basque language.

He has also published an article with an international group of scientists that relates local life to biodiversity. You have criticized the attitude of the most conservative movement in the West.

Ed. Marisol Ramirez/Argazki press

In a journal of the Nature family we have published a perspective article. It is not an investigation, we have published an article derived from our research, because we wanted to promote a debate around the world biodiversity summit to be held in China in October this year. We bring together great referents from scientific disciplines such as Bill Adams in geography, Georgina Mace and Sandra Diaz in ecology, each as a global marine light in their discipline, have great authority to bring strategic ideas for the future in their scientific community.

In view of our research and many others, we saw that conservation policy is dominated above all by the Western vision, and often intervenes in southern countries. They use a very tactical approach. They have a perception of nature, of wild nature, of the virgin, derived from colonialism 120 years ago, although it has to pass over the value system of the people who live in it. Thus, on many occasions, unfair actions are proposed to protect highly charismatic species or habitats. Biodiversity is measured in the number of species, genes, habitats or ecological processes, but many people living in nature and linked to nature may not use these variables. What we claim is that this other approach must be understood and considered to promote the conservation of ethically just nature.

Can you set an example?

Well, in countries like South Africa or India, since the time of colonialism natural parks have been created to protect the public address (elephants, tigers, etc. ), for the benefit of those who often established colonies (for example, for hunting), but in the neo-colonial situation, governments continue to expel and marginalize people living there or indigenous communities. Great injustices are carried out, knowing that these indigenous communities have conserved this biodiversity, and that in this natural space they have coevolved their culture and the relationship values mentioned above.

The word nature is the word we build human beings, as anthropologists say. What is nature? Are we also part of nature? What role do we have in the evolution of nature? The scientific concept of biodiversity works very well when it comes to cataloguing things, that is essential to understand and protect nature, but also human sciences (anthropology, history, economics, psychology…) have much to say to understand nature and understand our position regarding nature. In a transparent way we would get the 2.0 version of biodiversity science.

What response have you received from the conservationist movement?

We believe that many academics liked the reflection; almost 10,000 people have achieved the article for two or three weeks. But the criticism is coming, we know. The conservationist movement might think that we have a very urgent task, such as protecting 30% of the planet, and that our proposal does not help to establish such magic numbers. We say that 30% is fine, but it cannot be based solely on species catalogues, as people live in these places, so conservation policies and measures should be designed and implemented with people living there.

However, for many years there has been a strong clash of interests between instrumental and ecocentrist approaches. And so far, in this clash, the instrumental or economist perspective is slowly imposing itself, even in world politics. Perspectives based on relational values are not properly taken into account and, therefore, as the economy grows, nature is becoming losing. In other words, we are losing the battle with a strict understanding of biodiversity. We have not dared to look in this broad way at what nature really is for us, in a plural way, and from there to create effective policies.

Now, the goals for the next decade will be set at the China summit and the goal of protecting 30% of the planet's land surface will probably be set to protect biodiversity. But, as we said, where will we put that 30%? Especially in indigenous communities? Who will primarily affect profit and who will affect an extraordinary economic and social cost? In order to decide this we must take into account the aforementioned plurality, we cannot only use species metrics, where more species or endemic species are found. If we generate a prism to understand nature, if we were able to take into account the relationships and multiple values between society and nature, the implementation of these shelters would benefit both nature and people. Otherwise, the location of shelters can generate new conflicts and within 10 years achieve the opposite effect to desired.

Ed. Marisol Ramirez/Argazki press

Knowing that this year in China there will be a first class summit, the scientific and political community, that is, the IPBES scientific-political platform related to the United Nations and the agents involved in the international biodiversity convention, we wanted to shake a little. In some spaces of the United Nations this idea has already begun to be incorporated in their debates, so they have communicated to us. And we don't know how far it will go, but we felt the need to launch this debate. Many people have been talking about it for a long time, but the debates have taken place in a very fragmented way, each in his small community, in his bubble; we have tried to open it up to the four winds. We wanted to blow up these bubbles.

It has been a very difficult process for us, the understanding between researchers from different disciplines and the run over of the article, because the world-leading researchers who have participated know they have a great responsibility in their community. But the agitation processes are very creative. If not, in science some inertia are created and we all know that traveling in inertia is very comfortable… To break that inertia we wanted to shake it, be disruptive. We will see if it has been fruitful or not in the next two or three years. I think so, that through this article we will take the opportunity to agitate the world of science and politics.

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