Filling the Gaps in Biocultural Diversity Conservation

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What do we need to do to further promote biocultural diversity conservation?

Since the existence of an “inextricable link” between cultural and biological diversity was affirmed in the pioneering 1988 Declaration of Belém, the field of biocultural diversity (BCD) has grown organically out of a variety of sources in the natural, social, and behavioral sciences, humanities, applied sciences, policy, and human rights. It has developed as an integrative approach that sees biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity as three interrelated and interdependent aspects of the diversity of life. BCD research has also shown that there is a “converging extinction crisis” of BCD: BCD is in significant decline globally, under the cumulative and synergistic effect of environmental degradation and rapid socio-economic, cultural and political changes driven by economic globalization and cultural homogenization. These changes affect in particular Indigenous peoples and local communities, who represent most of the world’s cultural diversity and are the main stewards of BCD.

Efforts are underway all over the world—many of them spearheaded by Indigenous peoples and local communities themselves—to sustain and restore cultures and biodiversity, often against tremendous odds. Efforts are also underway to further advance knowledge and understanding of BCD and impart this approach in education, as well as to promote the adoption of bioculturally friendly policies at international and national levels. In short, BCD is becoming an increasingly accepted paradigm; yet, the overall prospects for sustaining the biocultural diversity of life remain precarious. The very fabric of life in nature and culture continues to unravel, leaving our biocultural world increasingly fragile and the outlook for humans and all other species increasingly uncertain. What more needs to be done to foster a global shift in values toward a new paradigm that celebrates, cherishes and protects the biocultural diversity of life, in order to ensure that sustaining and restoring BCD becomes a primary societal goal and a fundamental object of political, social, and economic action? What obstacles need to be overcome, what opportunities need to be seized?

In our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), Ellen Woodley and I identified a number of gaps and needs at various levels: in research and field work, in policy, in synergizing with other germane approaches and common interest communities, and in education. Some examples are:

In research and field work:

  • Identify causal links between effective conservation and the maintenance of traditional and local values, beliefs, institutions, knowledge, practices and languages, in order to provide stronger guidance to conservation action.
  • Gather more information on how strengthening local cultural knowledge, practices and languages and ancestral connections to the land can benefit the biodiversity and ecological health of the respective areas through life-enhancing interactions between people and the environment.
  • Further develop methods and tools for researching, measuring and monitoring the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity, including indicators that measure both the ecological and the cultural benefits of integrated biocultural conservation.
  • Carry out long-term documentation of the progress, changes, setbacks and successes of BCD conservation projects, and systematic comparisons between the outcomes of projects that take an integrated BCD approach and projects that do not.
  • Analyze the contributions of biocultural conservation projects to sustainable livelihoods, to foster understanding of the relationship between environmental, cultural, and socio-economic resilience.

In policy

  • Fully acknowledge the role of culture in sustainable development.
  • Adopt a human rights approach to conservation and support civil society efforts to create more socially just societies.
  • Increase awareness of, and promote action upon, the social, economic and environmental impacts that the forces of globalization are having on some of the most vulnerable sectors of the world’s population, such as Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
  • Strengthen support for Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ institutions and learning processes, to ensure fully informed participation in conservation and development choices and decisions.
  • Promote policy support for local and traditional knowledge and languages as indispensable for the maintenance of both biological and cultural diversity, and thus for sustainability, with a major focus on strengthening the vitality and intergenerational transmission of knowledge and languages.
  • Place biocultural diversity conservation on the political agenda of national development strategies as a human rights issue.

In synergizing:

  • Join forces with like-minded approaches and groups, in order to share experiences and lessons learned; improve understanding of what works, where, why, and how in BCD conservation; heighten visibility of integrative approaches; and increase capacity to influence policy and practice.
  • Strengthen mutual understanding and collaboration between social scientists and cultural advocates, on the one hand, and natural scientists and conservation practitioners, on the other.
  • Promote genuine partnerships between Indigenous Peoples and local communities and outside researchers and conservationists working in Indigenous territories.
  • Raise national and international awareness of the important role that indigenous peoples and local communities play in biodiversity conservation, and of the difficulties they face in maintaining their traditional control over and management of their lands and territories and their natural resources.
  • Help governments and international agencies see the need to provide funding for aboriginal language education and aboriginal curriculum rooted in the land and in local cultural traditions.
  • Create a forum to encourage international cooperation concerning biocultural diversity conservation issues.
  • Improve access to funding opportunities for BCD projects.

In education:

  • Overcome the fragmented sectoral approaches that are still common in the “institutional culture” of many academic, non-governmental, governmental and international organizations, to promote an integrative BCD perspective and systems thinking in training, research, applied work, and policy.
  • Promote integration in the funding programs of institutions at all levels (governmental, inter-governmental, or non-governmental agencies, private foundations, and other donors), which also suffer from a structural fragmentation that hampers support for biocultural diversity initiatives.
  • Foster a profound shift in understanding and values among the general public, to rekindle awareness of our continued dependence on, and interdependence with, the ecosystems we live in, and adoption of a “logic of interconnectedness”.

Again, these are only some examples of the gaps and needs that need to be addressed. There’s much to be discussed on these, and I’m sure that other participants will come up with a number of other issues. Together we can form a much stronger plan of action to sustain the biocultural diversity of life.

Do pitch in with your comments and suggestions!   Contribute your thoughts on gaps and needs in biocultural diversity conservation on our discussion forum (see Gaps and Needs in BCD Conservation), or write an article on this topic for this Solutions page!

Luisa Maffi

Luisa Maffi, Ph.D., is co-founder and director of Terralingua. She is one of the pioneers of the field of biocultural diversity. She edited On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); co-edited Ethnobotany and Biocultural Diversity Conservation (New York Botanical Garden Press, 2004) with Thomas J. Carlson; and co-authored Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010) with Ellen Woodley.

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