Bio Cultural Diversity

A growing recognition of humans as intrinsic parts of ecosystems implies that successful conservation requires consideration of human activities and needs as well as those of other species. Humans are part of, rather than separate from, their environment and therefore their practices and culture are an integral consideration for any kind of environmental campaign. There is therefore little point developing conservation or environmental policy without considering the needs, and the culture that informs them, of the people living in an area into consideration. This culture includes traditional forms of governance, economics and music/art and ritual.

Successful conservation strategies require acknowledgement and support of traditional knowledge systems and practice. This means that we look at the interrelationship between traditional practices and the environment, for example where music mirrors a respect / prayer for the environment it would be good to encourage the sustainability of such a practice as a means of protecting the environment.

There has been considerable research by the likes of Luisa Maffi et al that illustrates the importance of considering traditional cultural practices in developing biodiversity conservation policies. This approach asserts that traditional forms of governance, social and political institutions and traditional festivals and rituals are essential in the development of effective management strategies for conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

Several research projects have specifically focused on the revitalization of indigenous languages as key to biodiversity conservation. Language is the link to knowledge of the ecosystems – when languages are revived and passed on to younger generations, specific nuances of ecological knowledge are also passed on. Music and dance are also way of preserving culture and language and are powerful means of knowledge transmission.

What is Biocultural Diversity ?

Biocultural diversity (BCD) is the total variety exhibited by the world’s natural and cultural systems. It may be thought of as the sum total of the world’s differences, no matter what their origin. It includes biological diversity at all its levels, from genes to populations to species to ecosystems; cultural diversity in all its manifestations (including linguistic diversity), ranging from individual ideas to entire cultures (see Hunn 2001, 121); the abiotic or geophysical diversity of the earth, including that of its landforms and geological processes, meteorology, and all other inorganic components and processes (e.g., chemical regimes) that provide the setting for life; and, importantly, the interactions among all of these.

A basic premise of first-generation scholarship on BCD has been that the relationships between humans and the world’s non-human species, and between them both and the landscapes they inhabit, do not run on parallel tracks. Rather, these relationships affect each other, in certain cases are closely linked and sometimes may even be constitutive of each other in important ways. Much of this first-wave scholarship has aimed to establish correlations between biological and cultural/linguistic diversity in terms of (1) geography (e.g. areas of overlap), (2) theory (e.g. how language may be related to long-term environmental management in indigenous communities) and (3) common threats to their continuation. Among the challenges for the next wave of BCD scholars will be to see if the relationships go deeper than mere correlations to something approaching actual coevolution, to elucidate the complexities of how humans and non-human species interact not only with one another but also with abiotic diversity (e.g., through the formation of cultural landscapes), and to deepen the theoretical foundations of BCD research.

Language, knowledge, and the environment have been intimately related throughout human history. This relationship is still apparent especially in indigenous, minority, and local societies that maintain close material and spiritual ties with their environments. Over generations, these peoples have accumulated a wealth of wisdom about their environments and its functions, management, and sustainable use. Traditional ecological knowledge and practices often make indigenous peoples, minorities, and local communities highly skilled and respectful stewards of the ecosystems in greatest need of protection. Local, minority, and indigenous languages are repositories and means of transmission of this knowledge and the related social behaviors, practices, and innovations.

As with biological species, languages and cultures naturally evolve and change over time. But just as with species, the world is now undergoing a massive human-made extinction crisis of languages and cultures. External forces are dispossessing traditional peoples of their lands, resources, and lifestyles; forcing them to subsist in highly degraded environments; crushing their cultural traditions or ability to maintain them; or coercing them into linguistic assimilation and abandonment of ancestral languages. People who lose their linguistic and cultural identity may lose an essential element in a social process that commonly teaches respect for nature and understanding of the natural environment and its processes. Forcing this cultural and linguistic conversion on indigenous and other traditional peoples not only violates their human rights, but also undermines the health of the world’s ecosystems and the goals of nature conservation.


Why is Biocultural diversity important?

More than half of the planet’s diversity of languages and cultures are held by only 5% of the population – the 370 million indigenous peoples. Yet these communities have become the most marginalized, fractured and least represented in society. For every group that is dispossessed urbanized or assimilated, a culture vanishes – taking with it ancient knowledge of the environment, unique ways of living, irreplaceable skills, artistry and ancient wisdom – the rich diversity of humanity. The accelerating rate of disappearance of the world’s 6900 spoken languages are an indicator – one is lost every two weeks and only half are still taught to the young.

The essence of these minority cultures and their insights are embodied in their oral traditions. Anthropologists over the years have collected some of their stories from the elders – a ‘last chances to preserve’ the oral heritage for outsiders.

The relationships between biological and cultural diversity, and the growing threats they face in common, have drawn increasing attention over the last decade (e.g., Moore et al. 2002; Harmon 2002; Sutherland 2003). Building on pioneering scholarship in ethnobiology, ethnobotany, and related fields, the concept of biocultural diversity has taken hold (Maffi 2001) and is being spotlighted more and more. Conservationists, among others, have begun to take the idea on board. This is in line with a two-decade-long trend toward more receptivity to accounting for the needs of people in nature conservation schemes. While by no means universal, this attitude is now a firm part of conservation debates. It is now not unusual to read prominent (though often rather superficial) declarations of the importance of preserving biological and cultural diversity as a central conservation goal. Concerns about these dual realms of diversity have found their way into major international conservation communiques (e.g., the Durban Accord of the 2003 World Parks Congress) and are enshrined in capstone international instruments, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Biocultural Diversity of Life

Diversity of life is therefore thought of as biocultural diversity, made up of the variety of plant and animal species and ecosystems, cultural traditions, and languages that have developed on the planet. We see these diversities as intimately related to, and profoundly shaping, one another over the history of human presence and activities on earth. There is an increasing awareness that humans are an integral part of nature, and that we have helped shape many “natural” environments. This points to co-evolution between humans and the natural environments in which our species evolved. Therefore understanding the role of humans within the natural world and the languages and cultures that define that role is becoming increasingly important to a holistic view of diversity. Moreover, languages, as the main carriers of cultural traditions, play a central role in the relationship between humans and nature, by encoding and transmitting knowledge, beliefs, and values about the environment through words, ways of speaking, stories, songs, and many other forms of expression. Evidence suggests that the global patterns of distribution of biodiversity coincide significantly with the patterns of distribution of linguistic diversity (as representative of cultural diversity as a whole).

Biocultural Diversity in Crisis

But biocultural diversity is in serious jeopardy. It is apparent that many of the same socioeconomic and political factors, such as economic globalization, overexploitation of natural resources and growing worldwide sociocultural homogenization are negatively impacting on all forms of diversity. The current biodiversity extinction crisis is well known. But a comparable, and converging, crisis is affecting the world’s cultures and particularly the diversity and richness of languages. There are currently around 6,000 oral languages in use around the world—and the total number of languages may go up to over 10,000 if Deaf languages are included (which are commonly ignored in cataloguing the world’s languages). Furthermore, linguistic diversity encompasses dialects, registers, specialized lexicons, and the linguistic ecologies in which forms of speech live. Many of these languages and forms of speech have disappeared in recent decades or are at grave risk of extinction. Some are actively suppressed by hostile governments; others are being replaced by larger languages spoken by politically and economically more dominant cultures. Unless action is taken to support and foster linguistic diversity, some scholars have estimated that perhaps 50% of the extant oral languages — conceivably as many as 90% — may become extinct, or doomed to extinction, as native tongues by the end of the century. With the languages, also at risk are the many forms of knowledge, wisdom, and world views developed by the world’s diverse peoples in response to the challenges of survival, adaptation, and satisfaction of human material and spiritual needs. 

Global Significance

It is well known that a diversity of species lends stability and resilience to the world’s natural ecosystems. A diversity of languages and cultures does the same for human ecosystems — and that natural and human ecosystems are intimately, indeed inextricably interrelated, as are the consequences of diversity loss: a monolithic global human culture is not good for biological communities. Likewise, depauperate flora and fauna are not good for human communities and loss of ecosystem health has profound consequences for human biophysical, psychological, social, and cultural health—and vice versa. Everybody should care about the loss of our life-support systems, in nature and culture. And everybody should care about the abuses and the human rights (including linguistic human rights) violations that are at the root of much of this loss.