One indigenous language vanishes every two weeks, and Quechua, once the tongue of Peru's mighty Inca Empire, was one of those heading to extinction. In Peru, however, something unique has happened.
Quechua — a language that according to influential Peruvian commentator, Richard Webb, was on the road to annihilation — has been thrown a lifeline. Last 16 December at 5:30am the first ever Quechua language television news service — Ñuqanchik ('All of us' in Quechua) — went to air on the platforms of TV Peru and National Radio, the public broadcaster.
It was a historical moment. Hugo Coya, the executive president of the Peru's National Institute of Radio and Television and the architect of the Quechua television news service, described the project as a small step in recognising that Peru is a 'multilingual and multicultural country. The national broadcaster,' he said, 'belongs to all Peruvians not only to those who speak Spanish.'
Quechua, after Spanish, is the second largest language in Peru and one of the 47 natives languages used by Peru's 55 indigenous nations. It is the most widely spoken indigenous language in Latin America. It is the mother tongue of indigenous communities in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador.
In 1975 Quechua joined Spanish and Aymara — the other major indigenous language in Peru — as an official language of this Andean country. In Peru, Quechua is spoken by 4 million — a figure that in the context of the country's 30 million inhabitants clearly reflects the gloomy prognosis that the language was destined to vanish.
Until the mid-20th century two thirds of Peruvians spoke Quechua. But in the 1950s the mass migration of impoverished indigenous and rural communities to the cities brought about a catastrophic event; indigenous people were forced to speak Spanish.
Roger Gonzalo Segura, Professor of Quechua at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, said he was concerned very few children now speak indigenous languages. He cautiously praised the Quechua news broadcast. 'This is a time when all efforts and policies can help to preserve the language,' he told me.
Peru's national broadcaster, which reaches 90 per cent of the country, has among its staff 14 reporters who are fluent Quechua speakers. They have total editorial independence. This is hugely important in terms of creating a news service that is not a simple translation of Spanish news. Ñuqanchik provides to the Quechua community news framed around their unique indigenous cosmology.
"Just a decade ago, to hear Quechua on the streets of Lima was rare. It was 'spoken in silence', as the advisor for the Ministry of Education's Indigenous Languages Office Agustín Panizo lyrically put it."
The faces of the television news service, Clodomiro Landeo and Marisol Mena, are from Apurímac, a region in southern-central Peru where 70 per cent of the population identify Quechua as their mother tongue and only 29 per cent consider Spanish as such.
Landeo is an experienced reporter and the producer of a popular Radio National morning program, and Mena, who is also a primary school teacher specialised in inter-cultural bilingual education, was chosen among 200 to be the news presenter of Ñuqanchik.
Landeo and Mena are speakers of the two most popular versions of Quechua. Mena speaks the Collao variation from the Cusco region and Landeo the Chanka variety from the south central region of Ayacucho, which in the 1980s was the epicentre of the war that Peru's armed forces waged against the Maoist oriented Shining Path guerrilla.
Mena, who is not unfamiliar with racial discrimination, praised the Peruvian government for 'caring and hearing' indigenous people. The news service in Quechua was, she told me, 'a historical event'. She said it was the fruit of 'many struggles' and hoped other Peruvian media organisations would be encouraged to open their airwaves to indigenous voices.
In Peru there are encouraging steps to preserve, protect and disseminate the culture of the first people. Fundamental to this was the Law for the Use, Preservation, Development, Revitalization and Use of Indigenous Languages passed in Congress in 2011. The law established that the state has the obligation 'to serve all Peruvians in their own languages'.
In 2016 the Peruvian legislative system introduced a landmark regulation that established that in order to be appointed as a judge in regions where Quechua and Aymara were the languages of the majority the potential candidates must be able to speak these languages.
It has to be recognised — and praised — that in the last few decades Peru has been making notable advances in leaving behind a very dark past of racism against its indigenous communities. It's difficult to forget, for example, that under the 1990-2000 regime of Alberto Fujimori more than 200,000 indigenous women, largely from the Quechua and Aymara communities, were forcefully sterilised. It was an aberrant attempt by Fujimori, who is now in jail, to racially 'purify' the country.
Just a decade ago, to hear Quechua — or any other indigenous language — on the streets of Lima, the Peruvian capital, was rare. It was 'spoken in silence', as the advisor for the Ministry of Education's Indigenous Languages Office Agustín Panizo lyrically put it.
For a very long time Quechua was associated with marginalisation, poverty and discrimination and those who stubbornly tried to speak it were either unable to find work or were humiliated. Mena is optimistic that the country is moving toward becoming a more racially tolerant society.
Antonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and Director of the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture, CPC, RMIT University, Melbourne-Australia.