Eye on the Amazon

The Zápara Language: Nonmaterial World Patrimony May Soon Disappear

Photo Credit: Eduardo Pichilingue

Today is International Mother Language Day, a day promoted by UNESCO to recognize the intrinsic value in the diversity of languages across the world and the importance of their conservation for the good of humanity. Language is an integral part of culture; it is a crucial element of oral history and is intimately related to cosmology. Without language, cultural identity loses its roots and quickly disappears.

There are well over 100 languages in the Amazon, reflecting the incredible cultural diversity of the region. After Papua New Guinea, it is the area with the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet. There are approximately nine distinct languages in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Among them is the Zápara language, officially recognized in 2001 by UNESCO as a nonmaterial world patrimony.

Throughout modern history the Zápara population has suffered under the effects of colonialism, foreign diseases, deforestation, slavery, forced displacement, abuse by settlers, and on the other hand, by extractivist industry such as oil, mining, rubber, and logging. In 1680, the Zápara population numbered around 98,500 people, distributed between Ecuador and Peru, but by the beginning of the 20th Century their numbers had been reduced to around 20,000 people, according to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Patrimony. There is disagreement about the actual number of Zápara today. While the Ministry of Patrimony claims there are 400 Zápara in Ecuador and 500 in Peru, other sources argue that the number is far smaller, some 100 Zápara in Ecuador and 200 in Peru.

Zápara cosmology is based in large part on dreams. These form an integral part of decision-making and activities in the communities. This cosmology is expressed in the language, the loss of which would mean the loss of a fundamental part of the Zápara identity. The Zápara have developed an oral culture rich in knowledge of their natural surroundings, with an abundant terminology for rainforest flora and fauna and for the Zápara's knowledge of medicinal plants. Their language, which transmits myths, cultural and artistic practices, represents the living memory of an entire region and history.

This world patrimony is currently in danger of disappearing. Today, it is estimated that in Ecuador only six elders conserve the original sound of the language, and only five young people speak the language well, although the elders say that it is mixed with Kichwa and Spanish and does not reflect the original sound. Of the 32 dialects that originally existed, only two remain.

Now there is a new, greater threat to the Zápara's survival in Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government plans to auction oil blocks that cover 100% of the Zápara's territory, in what is being called the XI Oil Round. Amazonian history has shown that when the oil industry arrives, deforestation, contamination, settler migration, forced displacement, and violence all increase. The result is the disappearance of indigenous cultures. If we truly value world cultural heritage, we need to take steps to protect it.

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