Our History

Terralingua owes its existence to a chance “meeting of minds.” In 1995, Luisa Maffi, a linguist and anthropologist, and David Harmon, a conservationist, met at a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA), and discovered they had been thinking along similar lines about biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity as interconnected manifestations of the diversity of life on earth. They also found themselves in agreement that diversity in all its forms is at risk, mostly because of human action, that diversity loss will have profound consequences for humanity and all of life, and that something should be done to stave off that far-reaching threat.

Over dinner that evening, Luisa, David, and a few other like-minded conference participants hatched the idea of creating a non-academic organization devoted to research and action on what we would later label “biocultural diversity.” The following year, in 1996, that idea came to fruition when Terralingua incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the USA. We chose that name, from the Italian terra, “earth” and lingua, “language,” to signify both the languages of the Earth — the many voices of the world’s diverse peoples — and the language of the Earth, that is the voice of Mother Nature. Since 2012, Terralingua has also been a registered charity in Canada.

biocultural diversity

Our inaugural event in 1996 was the international working conference “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments,” held at the University of California, Berkeley. We brought together a small group of researchers and practitioners from different disciplines in the natural and social sciences as well as activists, including both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, for three days of intensive discussions on the links among diversities, the role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities as stewards of biocultural diversity, the value of languages and traditional knowledge, and much more. Out of those discussions, biocultural diversity emerged as a new, integrative field of knowledge and practice.

The volume based on the conference, On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment, edited by Luisa Maffi (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), is now considered one of the foundational texts in this field, along with David Harmon’s In Light of Our Differences: Why Diversity in Nature and Culture Makes Us Human (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).

From the start, we set out to disseminate our research results broadly and actively participated in a variety of international processes concerned with conservation and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, in efforts to promote a biocultural approach to the conservation of nature and culture.

In 1998, those efforts led to a pivotal collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund-International (WWF-I). WWF had developed a map of the world’s ecoregions as a tool for its new ecoregion-based conservation strategy, but there was no trace of people on the map, which left Indigenous Peoples and other key conservation stakeholders invisible. We were asked to (literally) put the world’s peoples on that map. The map we created showed for the first time the geographic distribution of the world’s languages (and, by proxy, ethnic groups) across the world’s ecoregions and the high concentration of linguistic diversity in areas of high biodiversity.

The map, Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and the Global 200 Ecoregions, and the companion report we co-authored with WWF, Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation: An Integrated Approach to Conserving the World’s Biological and Cultural Diversity were launched in 2000. They sparked widespread attention and helped usher in a shift from “nature-centric” toward “people and nature” approaches to conservation.

The next milestone came in 2001, when we received an unsolicited grant from the Ford Foundation — the first grant ever awarded specifically for biocultural research and applications. That initial support, followed by repeated grants from The Christensen Fund, allowed us to develop a comprehensive program of work. Among the results of that work were other “firsts”: several tools we developed to provide quantitative evidence about the state and trends of biocultural diversity and its components.

linguistic diversity
Credit: David Harmon and Jonathan Loh / Terralingua

The Index of Biocultural Diversity combines indicators of the world’s biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity to assess the state of biocultural diversity globally and by country. The Index of Linguistic Diversity (ILD) measures trends in the numbers of mother tongue speakers of the world’s languages, lending quantitative support to anecdotal claims about the decline of the world’s linguistic diversity. The Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (VITEK) allows for testing the persistence or loss of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) and its intergenerational transmission.

The ILD and the VITEK were developed in collaboration with the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership, an international initiative that responds to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD’s) need for indicators to assess its progress toward achieving its conservation targets, including the protection of traditional knowledge relevant to biodiversity. Although the VITEK directly measures the state and trends of TEK, the CBD chose to adopt the ILD, using trends in the speakers of the world’s languages as proxies for trends in the protection of TEK.

Our participation in international processes also included collaboration with the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which resulted in our writing chapters on biocultural diversity for UNEP’s volume Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity (1999) and its 4th Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4, 2007), and numerous collaborations with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to promote the integration of culture and cultural diversity into IUCN’s policy and program of work.

By 2008, when Terralingua joined the American Museum of Natural History and IUCN in organizing the international symposium “Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World: Lessons for Public Policy” in New York, with participants from all over the world, the concept and field of biocultural diversity were becoming well established in research, policy, and on-the-ground practice. The ideas laid out little over a decade earlier were spawning a variety of bioculturally-oriented studies, programs, policy statements, and projects worldwide.

biocultural diversity
Research concept and design: Ken Wilson. Data analysis: Yang Tan. From: Ken Wilson 2016. "Flourishing at Twenty: On Context and Foundations in the Rise of the Concept of Biocultural Diversity". Langscape Magazine 5(2), pp. 10-15
biocultural diversity

Those developments prompted us to recognize the need to consolidate the state of knowledge about biocultural diversity and its relevance to policy and practice. In 2010, we published the first sourcebook on biocultural diversity conservation (Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook, Earthscan, 2010).

We made the results of all our work up to that time — including a portal with dozens of examples of biocultural diversity conservation drawn from the Sourcebook — available on our website under the umbrella of what we call the Biocultural Diversity Toolkit project. The Toolkit project is complemented by a set of digital booklets that provide a basic introduction to biocultural concepts and tools (Biocultural Diversity Toolkit, Terralingua, 2014).

Since then, we have focused increasingly on the education and outreach aspects of our work, with projects like Voices of the Earth, which supports Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ efforts to document and revitalize their languages and place-based cultural traditions, and the Biocultural Diversity Education Initiative, which aims to introduce a biocultural perspective into education and to produce relevant curriculum for high schools and early college years.

Our main vehicle for disseminating our ideas among a broader public is our flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. With thoughtful stories and beautiful images from all over the globe, it supports our mission to educate minds and hearts about the vital value of biocultural diversity, and bolsters our efforts to bring about a profound shift in human values that will make sustaining biocultural diversity a primary societal goal.

At a time of growing environmental and social challenges around the globe, we believe that Terralingua’s mission is as valid and as urgent as ever. By sharing our ideas, our projects, and the stories from Langscape Magazine, we hope to continue to foster understanding and appreciation of biocultural diversity and to inspire more and more people to join the biocultural diversity movement!

biocultural diversity
For more about the history of Terralingua and of the idea of biocultural diversity, download two retrospective articles that appeared in Langscape Magazine in 2016, the year of Terralingua’s 20th anniversary: “Biocultural Diversity: Reason, Ethics, and Emotion,” by David Harmon, Terralingua co-founder, and “Flourishing at Twenty: On Context and Foundations in the Rise of the Concept of Biocultural Diversity,” by Ken Wilson, former Executive Director, The Christensen Fund.