In Langscape Magazine Articles

Strengthening the Link between Green “Fights” & Language “Fights”: A Proposal from Basque Country

September 02, 2019

Beñat Garaio Mendizabal

Langscape Magazine is the loudspeaker and meeting point for those of us . . . who believe that there is an alternative in this world, another way to understand our lives. We resist thinking that we will live and die on the same errant planet, a planet that is being systematically destroyed by our neglect and cannibalistic attitude.

We resist thinking that we will live and die on the same planet that is being systematically destroyed by our neglect and cannibalistic attitude.

Global warming is a reality, and we may soon see how, for example, two entire countries (Maldives and Tuvalu) will disappear from the face of the Earth due to the rapid melting of the northern and southern polar ice caps. Survival of the fittest? No, it’s definitely our fault.

Language shift, resulting in language death, is the decay of languages that can lead to their total disappearance. To be fair, a language does not die, but the speakers of that language stop using that language, shifting generally to a language of higher status. According to the Ethnologue report, we have more than 7,000 languages on this planet, but we should start the countdown: a language dies approximately every two weeks.

A language does not die, but the speakers of that language stop using that language.

Survival of the fittest? Not at all. A speaker may favor an alien language so as to have better prospects for their future; to avoid stigmatization from majority language speakers; to obey the orders of an autocratic regime that is promoting the language of the elite to the cost of others; and so on and so forth.

Indeed, language diversity and ecological diversity walk hand in hand. Moreover, we could argue that many language activists are also environmentalists, and vice versa. Interdisciplinary collaboration is vital if we want to achieve our aims; alone, we’re too small to convince the silent masses, let alone the big corporations, the governments, the lobbies . . . Why don’t we join forces to have a voice on these issues? Nobody apart from us is going to get off their comfy couches at home, unless they are persuaded, attracted, or motivated by a big wave.

Many language activists are also environmentalists, and vice versa.

Here, I’d like to talk about a specific spot in this world, called Basque Country. What can I say about it, if not that I love it with all my energy, and I am pleased when I see her virtues, but it hurts my feelings when I see her erring? My love of Euskal Herria, which means “the land of the Basque language,” does not blind me, and I will do my best to contribute to the start of a change.

language diversity

nik ere geldituko dut: “I will also stop the AHT (High-Speed Train)”—A famous rallying cry in Basque Country, written in Basque. Photo: Agurruza, 2013

Until a century ago, my great-grandparents lived in a rural region where fishermen, shepherds, and peasants had a very hard life, a life that could be eased only by their devoted love of God and the quite distinct culture, customs, and language that guided their way. But that mountainous green land was severely disrupted when the mining industry set up shop there, changing the social networks, bringing in many people with different beliefs and languages, and destroying the landscape of several valleys. That was the beginning of the largest historical decay of the Basque language, a decay that has been present ever since.

General Franco’s dictatorship could have inflicted the last stab to Basque Country and, therefore, to the language—and vice versa. The regime’s atrocious repression, witnessed by the entire world in the town of Gernika (Guernica), was supported by Franco’s overt assimilationist policy (what some would rightly call linguicide), mushrooming industrial development, road infrastructure and urbanization, and the immigration of thousands and thousands of Spaniards brought in to work as cheap laborers, with not even the slightest effort to maintain the local heritage.

General Franco’s overt assimilationist policy was what some would rightly call linguicide.

Moreover, those immigrants worked side by side with many Spaniard peers who were already under major stress, putting in long work shifts in a new industrial environment, far away from their beloved homeland. Under these conditions, one can understand and empathize with the demographic and socio-cultural shift in Basque Country.

language diversity

The way Basque farmers, baserritarrak, looked 100 years ago. Photo: Loreak Mendian

The history and the origin of the Basque language (Euskara) are very unique. Being an isolated non-Indo-European language, possibly the oldest in Europe, it is almost a treasure. But, to quote a reputed Basque linguist, the real miracle is how Euskara has survived under these harsh circumstances.

language diversity

Basque couple with common farming tools, and group of Basque farmers with popular musical instruments. These pictures were taken 100 years ago. Photos: Loreak Mendian

The language and political activists on both sides of the Pyrenees, the Northern Basques (in France) and the Southern Basques (in Spain) have tenaciously worked to ensure a future for our past. The decay, however, hasn’t stopped, and although the knowledge of the language is growing and growing, the use of the language is still declining. What else can be done?

The real miracle is how the Basque language has survived under these harsh circumstances.

But what about the environmental issues, you will ask. Well, the strong opposition of Basque society has not put a stop to many initiatives that are helping destroy our ecological diversity. As in many other parts of the world, fracking, the construction of huge infrastructure projects (especially roads and the high-speed train), and more urbanization are all shaping our new “langscape.”

Fracking, the construction of huge infrastructure projects, and more urbanization are all shaping our new “langscape.”

First of all, the AP-48/AP-1 Highway and the forthcoming high-speed train will create massive ecological disruption, as roads and rail need to go through steep valleys and huge numbers of tunnels, and long high bridges have been and are being built.

“We need to move forward.” “We need to become a top region in Europe.” “We need to follow the path of modernity in order not to fall behind.” “These infrastructure developments will bring prosperity to this country.” These are some of the mantras reflected in the mainstream media.

So far, these projects have brought some prosperity, but just for the pockets of the development companies and their handmaidens—the politicians. The initial budget is being constantly exceeded. Several reports have begun to challenge the usefulness of “modernity.” For example, the journey from Gasteiz (Vitoria in Spanish) to Bilbao will last about forty minutes by train, when these days it can take no more than forty-five to fifty minutes by bus! Moreover, the journey from Gasteiz to Donostia (San Sebastian in Spanish) can now be completed in one hour and ten minutes if the driver takes the new AP-48 highway, while by using the old N-1 route the “boring and never-ending journey” was one and a quarter hours long!

language diversity

6,000,000 € will be allocated to finish this project. “We deserve prosperity and modernity.” What about the massive environmental damage, the corruption, and the uselessness? Photo: Grupo Reputación Corporativa, 2012

Prosperity will change our lives, right? It is true that the train could alleviate the high congestion of trucks on the main roads of Basque Country, but governments have chosen the most expensive and damaging alternatives. Why?

The real miracle is how the Basque language has survived under these harsh circumstances.

Now fracking is emerging as the most recent enemy of our land: ninety-one percent of the territory of the Basque Autonomous Community (one of the three components of Basque Country) will be subjected to fracking for gas. Fracking meets strong opposition all over the world, as it has proved to be lethal for the environment.

Why should we risk our future? We could take advantage of windmills, solar panels, biomass centrals, wave-energy centrals . . . Do we seriously want to “perforate the veins of our Mother Earth”? That was the motto of an anti-fracking NGO in Basque Country, and I feel it is a powerful call to awakening.

And here’s the crux of the matter: many of these infrastructure developments will directly and indirectly affect the heartlands of the Basque language, so they will have detrimental influences on both the environment and the language.

Many of these infrastructure developments will have detrimental influences on both the environment and the language.

As in the Irish Gaeltacht towns where the Irish-speaking municipalities are protected by law, there is a similar initiative in Basque Country: the Federation of Basque-speaking Municipalities. To become a member, over seventy percent of the population needs to have a solid knowledge of Basque. As in Ireland, generally these municipalities are small rural towns with little industry and a relatively strong capacity to integrate newcomers, due to their linguistic and their cultural integrity. These heartlands are now getting weaker, however, as many of the newcomers are non-Basque-speaking people, looking just for relaxation and a green landscape.

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In green you can see the itinerary of the High-Speed Train and how it will affect the Federation of Basque-speaking Municipalities (UEMA). Map: Beñat Garaio Mendizabal, 2015

language diversity

This map shows the itinerary (in green) of the AP-1/AP-48 Highway and how it will affect the UEMA municipalities. Map: Beñat Garaio Mendizabal, 2015

language diversity

Notice the locations of fracking prospects (represented by squares) and how they will affect the UEMA municipalities (in green). Map: Beñat Garaio Mendizabal, 2015

Many social and cultural actors are concerned with this issue, and a number of scholars and professionals from different disciplines have created a working group called Lurraldea eta Hizkuntza, that is, “Territory and Language.” This group’s aim is to acknowledge that the future of Euskara depends not only on social, political, or linguistic factors, but also on economic, industrial, and urbanization factors. In a manner similar to what Wales and the Åland islands did, this group is lobbying for legislative change and proposing potential measures to stop the rampant, uncontrolled urbanization and the shift of the Basque language.

The future of the Basque language depends not only on social, political, or linguistic factors, but also on economic, industrial, and urbanization factors.

I studied for a master’s degree in Language Support and Revitalization at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. From Day 1, we were told that interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial in order to get things done. As I said earlier, linguistic and ecological diversity can be closely interlinked, and the combination of linguistic and “green” fights can be nothing other than beneficial. It’s inspiring to see that in Basque Country feminist NGOs are allying with pro-Euskara causes, and vice versa, since the oppression of a language can be in some ways linked to the oppression to women.

The key aspect here is empowerment. It was encouraging that in 2012, when my city, Vitoria/Gasteiz, was named European Green Capital of the year, some scholars, especially sociologist Iñaki Martínez de Luna and linguist Albert Bastardas, tried to achieve the signing of a “Linguistic Ecology Declaration”—a document that would have stressed the importance of addressing both issues and the benefits of combining them.

Unfortunately, that effort didn’t go very far. But I would like to pick up that thread and continue insisting on the usefulness of this collaboration. Aside from any practical reasons, I must keep stressing the point simply because I believe in this diverse and rich world: this is the world I want to live in. But, as I have just said, this new joint fight could be really practical. In a region with high political fragmentation and a covert linguistic conflict (Basque has been a strong identity marker for the mainly left-wing, pro-independence inhabitants), both our land and our language need a stronger foundation to have a bright future.

I believe in this diverse and rich world: this is the world I want to live in.

Lately, the strictly environmentalist movement (including some green political parties) hasn’t been particularly favorable to the revitalization of the language, and some of the associations involved in green fights use Spanish (or French) as their vehicular language.

language diversity

Various organizations around Basque Country organize activities to raise awareness of and fundraise for the Basque language, such as noncompetitive runs and festivals, which attract thousands of people. Photos: EITB (left); Tierra Estrella (right)

On the other hand, the left-wing, pro-independence EH Bildu coalition—the largest party trying to revitalize the language, or at least the largest party having an overt and brave pro-Basque language policy—has adopted in its manifesto some of the ideas from environmentalist NGOs, such as food sovereignty, local consumption, end of big infrastructure projects (including fracking and the high-speed train), a sensible urbanization plan, a focus on renewable energy, and so forth. Moreover, the idea of writing this article came to me when I read, in the manifesto of Desazkundea, the de-growth collective of Basque Country (de-growth: we live in a finite world but are supposed to grow indefinitely, so we need to reverse that trend to live harmoniously on this planet), that since we were trying to go local, then the use and promotion of the Basque language was an obvious choice.

So, why don’t we try and take the language out of the political fight and offer it to those who are closer to us—that is, those who are sympathetic to the Basque language but do not want to question their national identity at this time? And at the same time, why don’t we ignite the “green fighting” fire of language activists and become associated with a more general, stronger support group for diversity?

The mainstream parties won’t go any farther in both their linguistic and ecological ideas until they’re under pressure from society, so we’d better listen to that call and start putting our ideas into the political agendas of our friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and so on. The first steps are already made: the attempt to sign the Declaration, Desazkundea’s proposal . . . We just need to start following the path.

The author would like to thank Caoife Garvey and Txetxu Garaio (“aitte”) for their support and friendship. Urte askotarako!

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This story first appeared in Langscape Magazine 4(2), Winter 2015, pp. 66−70.


Beñat Garaio Mendizabal hails from the Spanish portion of Basque Country/Euskal Herria. Holding a master’s degree in Language Support and Revitalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, he’s affiliated with the Basque organization ELEBILAB – Bilingualism Laboratory. In addition to his sociolinguistic interests, he holds deep ecological concerns.
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The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

  • reaffirming cultural identity;
  • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
  • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
  • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

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