Leveraging technology to preserve indigenous languages and heritage (and recipes too)
21 February 2022
Uus Yaka Witnxi is an apt statement. It means “so we won’t forget” in the Nasa Yuwe indigenous language that is native to the Cauca region in southwest Colombia. Indeed, indigenous languages appear to be disappearing at a concerning rate around the world. Current data indicates that at least 43% of the world’s spoken languages are being forgotten, with indigenous languages making a significant part.
Today, on International Mother Language Day, we shine a light on an initiative that seeks to keep the Nasa Yuwe language alive at a time when emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) are transforming the very ways we interact with one another.
According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), there are 65 Indigenous languages in the country. Nearly one-third of them are at a critical risk of disappearing — and only three of them, including Nasa Yuwe, are spoken by more than 50,000 people.
This is the reality that Juan Pablo Camayo seeks to change. By leveraging ICT and new ways of communicating, Juan Pablo hopes to preserve Nasa Yuwe language and heritage.
Two years ago, in Caldono, a town in the southwestern highlands of Colombia, Juan Pablo and other neighbours—including members of the indigenous communities, farmers and former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP)—started a communications network that enabled them to provide Internet access to remote rural areas and disseminate content in their mother tongue.
That’s how Jxa'h Wejxia Casil — “Wind’s Net” in Nasa Yuwe — came to be.
A local telecommunications organization supported the community with the technical setup of the network, which took place remotely through phone calls and WhatsApp messages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initial part of the project was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC).
Currently, Jxa'h Wejxia Casil has about 200 families subscribed to their Internet service, at the relatively modest, fixed cost of less than US $10.00 a month, allowing community members to access the global network from remote rural locations and providing a tool that allows communities to preserve the use of their language.
With support from other project partners, Juan Pablo leveraged this new communication tool to produce and disseminate original communication materials in Nasa Yuwe.
Using the Internet to preserve heritage — and share recipes
On 20 January, a live conversation between Tech Walawesx ("senior citizens" in Nasa Yuwe) was broadcast and recorded through Google Meet. Thousand-year-old recipes, that have been used through many generations to promote wellness, were made available online, providing younger members of the Nasa Yuwe community — as well as the world — with a first taste of Nasa indigenous heritage.
Another member of the project and community, Edinson Camayo are working with other participants in producing a video of the initiative entirely in their mother tongue, which is titled Wetwet Fxihncenxia in Nasa Yuwe, or "traditional medicine and plants".
Edinson explains that 10 languages are spoken in the Cauca region, with Nasa Yuwe and Namrik being the only two that are used by a considerable percentage of the population. The other eight languages are nearly extinct.
"Here, in the same area, a few kilometers away from us, three other languages are spoken: Kisxuu, Ambalo and Totoroes. However, there are very few people who speak these dialects and sadly they will soon disappear", says Edinson.
There’s an evident drop in the use of Nasa Yuwe by children and adolescents in the entire region, Edinson explains, and that’s why the initiative comes at critical moment for safeguarding their traditions and native language.
"All the content that reaches them today is in Spanish, I am referring to television, radio and the Internet. So, we have to create content in our own language,” Edinson says, “otherwise, they [the new generations] will gradually forget it.” In addition, he explains that children spend less time with their relatives, especially with older adults, which further breaks the intergenerational transmission of knowledge.
Therefore, Juan Pablo, Edinson and their collaborators are looking to new technologies for language conservation.
Advancing peacebuilding efforts
Initiatives like Jxa'h Wejxia Casil are also key to strengthening reconciliation in areas previously affected by armed conflict in Colombia. That's why UNVM, tasked with monitoring the Peace Agreement in Colombia, closely supports their work.
Heiber Moran, a former combatant with the FARC-EP, is helping expand the communications network. He, along with three other families in his village, has a permanent connectivity point, where community members and ex-combatants come to access the internet.
"The network allows us to get closer to the community, as it promotes collaborative work and healthy coexistence with us as signatories of the Peace Agreement," says Heiber who became a signatory to the historic Peace Accord between the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP, and is reintegrating himself into civilian life in a village near the centre of operations of Wind’s Net.
Juan Pablo and his team helped with setting up the connectivity point, and now they’re exploring new entry points for the community as well.
In its essence, Jxa'h Wejxia Casil has a specific dream: Uus Yaknxijuk Yaknxissayuk Majimesah jxukate kipunawsucxa — “taking ownership of technology for knowledge”. And yet, its impact on the community is far greater than that.
Over 900 events were held to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019, bringing together key players and raising awareness on how to preserve, protect and promote Indigenous languages.
Written by Daniel Sandoval, Public Information Officer, UN Verification Mission in Colombia. Field support provided by Hada Guay, UNVMC. Translation and editorial support: Carolina Lorenzo and Michal Shmulovich, Development Coordination Office.
Learn more about the efforts of the United Nations in Colombia on Colombia.UN.org.