Conserving Biocultural Diversity: Approaches and Conditions

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How do we conserve biocultural diversity? It may sound like stating the obvious, but it is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that the best way to “conserve” the diversity of life is to make sure that it does not get depleted in the first place—that is, that it continues to thrive when it is still vital and resilient! When local cultures are alive and well, and people and their local environment are not threatened, biocultural diversity can be sustained in an implicit and spontaneous way, through the continued unfolding of traditional values, beliefs, knowledge and practices, as well as through the sustained use of local languages. And, indeed, there still are areas in the world where local cultures have maintained their vitality without imminent threats, or where they show resilience to such threats.

But the threats to biodiversity and cultural diversity are pervasive and far-reaching worldwide, and as a consequence the vitality and resilience of many local cultures and environments is rapidly eroding. In such cases, support for biocultural diversity often takes the form of explicit and conscious efforts at “revival”: that is, attempts to sustain cultures, languages and the environments when damage is imminent or has begun, or to restore them after they have already been damaged. Revival approaches are prevalent in the case studies included in our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook and presented in the project gallery on this portal. This underscores the urgency of the situation and the need to understand what conditions need to be in place in order to address the threats and restore vitality and resilience to bioculturally diverse people and places.

The projects we analyzed in the Sourcebook exemplify a great diversity of approaches to this challenge.  Each project addresses aspects of a whole constellation of issues that are critical for the achievement of biocultural diversity conservation and global sustainability. Looking at the projects as a kaleidoscope of human ingenuity put to the service of confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our times serves to highlight their very diversity as the key feature, instead of singling out individual projects as examples of “best practices”. It is the collective dimension of these projects as a whole, rather than the features of any one “model project”, that reveals the variety and richness of “good practices” that are and can be deployed according to need and circumstances. The diversity of approaches, united by a common goal, is what makes for the projects’ collective strength.

At the same time, the Sourcebook projects share several commonalities, beginning of course with the recognition of the critical link between biodiversity conservation and the affirmation of cultural values, beliefs, knowledge, practices and languages—particularly those of indigenous peoples and local communities who live in close association with the natural environment. Some of the projects emphasize biodiversity conservation as their main goal; others mostly emphasize the maintenance or revitalization of cultural knowledge, practices (management and use) and beliefs associated with biodiversity, or the maintenance or revitalization of local languages and the knowledge they contain about the natural environment. All of them recognize that conservation objectives are difficult to achieve without taking into account the importance of traditional knowledge, practices, beliefs and languages for biodiversity conservation.

Because of the recognition of this link, we found that some key recurrent approaches in biocultural diversity conservation projects include:

  • Encouraging and strengthening existing traditional knowledge and management practices that contribute to biodiversity conservation;
  • Supporting land claims, resource tenure and governance systems to enable locally controlled decision making on sustainable use and management of local biodiversity;
  • Building on nature-based belief and value systems and strengthening cultural identity to sustain and enhance local biodiversity;
  • Reviving and revitalizing local languages or aspects of language that embody knowledge of biodiversity.

Our analysis of the projects also shows that the requirements for project success vary considerably depending on the particular context of each project, and so do the challenges and obstacles that people encounter on the ground in their efforts to sustain biocultural diversity. At the same time, in our analysis we found that a number of recurrent conditions are highly instrumental in sustaining biocultural diversity:

  1. Maintaining and restoring the strength of local institutions, including importantly institutions for intergenerational transmission of local knowledge and languages
  2. Reconnecting Elders and youth, so that traditional teachings and knowledge can be passed on to the next generations
  3. Strengthening the cultural identity of indigenous peoples and local communities, as a means to maintain resilience
  4. Securing land and resource tenure for indigenous peoples and local communities, by upholding traditional land and resource rights and the right to self-determination
  5. Emphasizing traditional resource use and management practices that foster biodiversity conservation and ensure sustainable livelihoods
  6. Using traditional environmental knowledge in conservation planning, for the benefit of both people and the environment
  7. Establishing genuine collaborative partnerships in any conservation work that involves indigenous and local communities and outsiders
  8. Focusing on capacity building, so that indigenous peoples and local communities can take biocultural diversity conservation in their own hands
  9. Enlisting government support to address some of the challenges that go beyond the local scale and fall outside the control of indigenous and local communities
  10. Influencing policy at different scales (local, national, global) to create a favorable climate for biocultural diversity conservation

Without doubt, these are only a representative sample of the conditions that are important for biocultural diversity conservation—and we trust that the users of this portal will contribute many more ideas about the circumstances that help (or hinder) biocultural conservation efforts! What the factors we mention above make clear is that the challenges to sustaining biocultural diversity are at the same time local and global challenges, and that integrated biocultural conservation involves a linkage of scales between the local and the global. In this sense, biocultural diversity conservation is both a bottom-up and a top-down process, in which efforts at the local level must be matched by major policy changes at the national and international levels.

Greater efforts are needed to understand what is happening at the local community level and how the issues link across scales, from the local to the national and international. National governments and international governing bodies need to be accountable for the loss of diversity in all its forms at the local level, to listen to the voices of those who are working at the local level, and to understand and implement what needs to be done at national and global scales to help prevent further losses. There is a need for increasing awareness of these community-based biocultural conservation initiatives and for placing the intimate relationship between cultures and biodiversity up front on the political agenda of conservation and development strategies.

There is a critical need for awareness raising about indigenous peoples’ rights and of social, cultural and linguistic policies among all of those involved in biodiversity conservation, natural resource management and land use decisions. Conservation cannot be done effectively by using single-sector approaches and policies. Rapid social and ecological change is best addressed by the integration of approaches across disciplines and among governments, NGOs and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) at the local, national and global levels. Major national and global efforts are also needed to remove the many barriers of state-controlled systems, and the neglect of cultural diversity.

Addressing the many challenges also depends on an increasingly favorable climate of acceptance of this kind of approach. “Connecting the dots” among biocultural diversity conservation projects and illustrating their nature and accomplishments contributes to this goal, by giving greater visibility and a higher profile to this approach. But above all, what is needed is a profound shift in societal values toward embracing what one of the contributors to our Sourcebook has called the “logic of interconnectedness”. Adopting this logic leads to recognizing that the diversity of life is diversity in both nature and culture, and something to be cherished and cared for as both the product of the evolution of life and the expression of its future potential. To accomplish this societal shift requires a major educational effort. Our Sourcebook and this portal are two contributions we offer to this vital effort.

We look forward to many more people joining forces throughout the world to work together to sustain biocultural diversity.  Contribute your thoughts on biocultural diversity conservation on our discussion forum (see BCD Conservation in Practice), or write an article on this topic for the Solutions page!

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