Publisher’s Letter: Biocultural Diversity

By Lisa Bland, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief –

In our rapidly changing world, the concept of biocultural diversity may be the crucial framework through which we need to see the diversity of life and our place in it—helping us see the context in our lives, making sense of the co-evolution of humans and the natural world, and strengthening our caring and responsibility towards our biological and cultural inheritance, preserving it into the future.

Luisa Maffi is the co-founder and director of Terralingua, an international organization devoted to sustaining the world’s biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity through research, education, and policy change. She defines cultural biodiversity as as the interrelationship between language, culture, and biodiversity, coevolving within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system. Maffi suggests that the cultural and biological diversity within a region are intertwined rather than separate from each other and are the result of complex and evolving relationships between humans and the environment.

Throughout time, all people of the earth had – of necessity – an intimate and vitally dependent relationship with the natural environment as their source of air, water, food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. The Earth and its bounty helped human beings meet their physical, psychological, and spiritual needs. As societies evolved they developed complex knowledge about plants, animals, and ecology in their regions, along with unique cultural values and practices expressed through the thousands of different languages found on our planet. According to the Biocultural Diversity Toolkit: Volume 1, in Terralingua (www.terralingua.org), the interdependence between language, culture, and environment also correlate globally with overlapping areas of high linguistic diversity, biodiversity, and cultural diversity.

Often, biodiversity and culture are considered separate or opposing viewpoints. Scientific approaches describe the natural world formed by evolutionary process and in a ‘pristine’ state, unless and until humans encroached upon it. Biological ecosystems are considered independently in conservation work, which dehumanizes landscapes to preserve species, often resulting in conflicts when cultural knowledge is excluded from management activities. Culture is treated as an externality to biological systems rather than a vehicle that has shaped the diversity of species on the landscapes they inhabit.

Ecosystem services (ES), as defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2006, are “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems,” a concept developed to deal with the problems of loss of biodiversity in global policy and management decisions. ES describes human well-being as relying on nature and biodiversity. In contrast to the relational nature of biocultural diversity, ES describes a passive flow between human demand and ecological supply, emphasizing the economics of commodities that nature provides. The problem with defining ecosystem values by market terms is that by it ignores a reciprocal interaction between humans and nature. In ES, nature is transformed into capital that is only “saved” by evaluating it in capitalist terms or “selling nature to save it.” The ES logic of supply and demand is still the most dominant in scientific and policy deliberations.

In contrast, biocultural diversity replaces the ES definition with contextual knowledge. A biocultural diversity framework may be described as a sensitizing concept, or, diversity versus productivity, as captured in the following quote by Blumer in his article, “What is Wrong with Social Theory” in American Sociological Review: “Definitive concepts provide prescriptions of what to see; sensitizing concepts suggest directions along which to look. The hundreds of our concepts – like culture, institutions, social structure, mores, and personality – are not definitive but are sensitizing in nature. Instead, they rest on a general sense of what is relevant.”

Biocultural diversity describes how the cultural landscapes of Indigenous people and their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) are continuously adapting and evolving. TEK may include food harvesting and processing, living in communities and seasonal camps, trade and exchange, education, and ceremonies, often developed over long periods of time. Many Indigenous cultural landscapes have maintained their biodiversity over generations, reflecting sustainable practices from in depth knowledge and long-term use.

Whether describing the past or the present, biocultural diversity relates directly to meaningful and grounded relationships to the world through a sense of place, access to resources such as food and cultural materials, psychological health, well being, and spiritual need.

As biodiversity loss accelerates and climate changes are felt globally, direct impacts to traditional cultures are measured in terms of how they affect people’s ability to practise traditional ways of being—the effects the loss of Arctic ice flows have on traditional hunting areas is one example. Indigenous cultures often feel the impacts long before a crisis is measured in global economic terms.

As many fragile ecosystems disappear, so, too, do the interwoven connections between cultural and biological diversity.

In response to the crisis of worldwide biodiversity and cultural loss, at the First International Congress of Ethnobiology in Belém, Brazil, in 1988, the International Society of Ethnobiology recognized Indigenous peoples as stewards of 99 percent of the world’s genetic resources and acknowledged that the economies, agriculture, and health of Indigenous people depend on these resources. The Declaration of Belém, arising from this meeting, acknowledged the unique ways that Indigenous and traditional peoples perceive, use, and manage their natural resources. It recommended programs for sharing, preserving, and strengthening traditional knowledge, preserving ethnobiological information, supporting traditional healing practices, recognizing the right to compensation for and authority over their resources and the environment, acknowledging human rights including cultural and linguistic identities, and ways to compensate Indigenous peoples for their intellectual property and knowledge.

In the decades since the Declaration of Belém, although some progress was made, the world continues to lose its biocultural diversity at an accelerated rate, driven by the same processes causing ecosystem degradation. The loss of cultural knowledge and contextual connection to place has further been absorbed into the modern mindset where cultures once alive and evolving are commoditized and sold on the world stage, promoted via modern technology and communication avenues.

However, biocultural diversity is still maintained in many cultures with long-standing histories such as the Haida people of Haida Gwaii. Cultural keystone species and places are species and cultural landscapes essential to a culture in their transmission of culture and identity through their use and can be used as symbolic and iconic representations to the broader world for recognizing their value and communicating their worth. One of the most prominent cultural keystone species to the Haida is the Western red cedar.

A Culturally modified tree (CMT) – Western redcedar, on the White Creek Trail on Haida Gwaii. Photo: Lisa Bland

Western red cedar was used widely and in every aspect of the Haida culture, revered as a living being to conserve carefully and appreciate with prayers and songs. Canoes, totems, houses, and storage boxes were, and continue to be, created from cedar logs, and clothing, mats, baskets, and hats were woven from the bark and roots. The Haida selectively managed and enhanced production of the cedar by limiting competing species and creating favourable growing conditions.

The same CMT with Haida elder, Barb Wilson, explaining in a rich narrative (in a biocultural context), how the historical method of western red cedar tree harvest and selection determined the quality of Haida canoes. Photo: Lisa Bland

Today the Western red cedar forests on Haida Gwaii have been severely impacted by the combination of industrial logging and introduced species (Sitka black-tailed deer) impacts, affecting the Haida people’s ability to practise their culture.

The question of how to live in the modern world and preserve ecosystems and biocultural diversity is complicated. Cultures and ecosystems have never faced so many changes in such a short period of time. Historically, human relationships with ecosystems evolved slowly and weren’t subject to commercial/industrial interference, climate disregulation, and global networks of communication and trade.

In our modern world, biocultural diversity may be viewed nostalgically as a reference point relevant mainly to the past, but a context created through connections of people to place still applies. Actions and behaviour can grow out of meaningful relationships with community and the natural world and can bring relief from isolation.

When biocultural diversity is respected, celebrated, and understood in geographical regions as the ongoing relationship between humans and nature whether for survival, food, spiritual, or social reasons, Indigenous cultures are respected in their home territories.

The sense of belonging that comes through biocultural diversity is an antidote to the impoverishment brought upon humanity by corporatized industrial resource extraction and the commoditization of Earth’s resources. What if biological and cultural extinction are, in their most basic, an outcome of loneliness and lack of connection?

Regardless of cultural orientation, context and relationships are everything. The places and people we love and depend upon, we protect.

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