What is biocultural diversity and why is it important?

What does the English concept of campaign mean, the French concept landscapesthe spanish dehesas and Australian Aboriginal the country have in common? They are all unique landscapes that have been created through long-term management by people. All are underpinned by centuries, even millennia, of intangible knowledge, cultural heritage and practices.

Importantly, these landscapes also contain more biodiversity than the areas around them. It is this observation that coined the term ‘biocultural diversity’, to encompass how crucial the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities are for conservation and sustainability.

Biocultural diversity first attracted attention at the 1988 First International Congress of Ethnobiology in Belém, Brazil. This congress brought together indigenous peoples, scientists and conservationists to devise a strategy to halt the continuing decline in the global diversity of nature and culture.

The Congress declaration said: “There is an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity.

The rice terraces of the Cordillera in the Philippines are recognized by the UN as a “cultural landscape”.
david stanley, CC BY

In 2016, the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Mo’otz kuxtal (which means “roots of life” in the Mayan language) guidelines to access and equitably share the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous peoples for conservation and sustainability.

Language and biodiversity

How is biocultural diversity manifested? An example can be found in the language.

Language diversity hotspots often correlate with species diversity hotspots; similarly, endangered languages ​​often correspond to areas where there are a large number of the threatened species.

The importance of language in biodiversity conservation can be seen in the management practices of First Nations in North America in the temperate rainforest from western Canada and the United States. Particular phrases in native languages ​​indicate, for example, harvest times for wild plants and animals, and other biodiversity signals that enable sustainable harvesting.

Similarly, many Australian Aboriginal people define seasons through a language based on biodiversity signals. They link these signals to fire management techniques, which are key to protecting Australia’s landscape from increasingly deadly wildfires.

And on the Isle of Man, the resurrection of the Manx language had positive effects on both the local culture and the environment. The use of Manx names for plants, animals and habitat management enables civil society and tourists to better appreciate biodiversity, landscape and culture.

Separating cultures

While the intertwining of nature and culture can have a positive effect on biodiversity, its opposite, the separation of nature and human culture, known as cultural break, is negative. Cultural separation is a serious problem for the conservation of nature and culture.

A view of the Isle of Man from an airplane window
The Isle of Man has benefited from the revival of the Manx language.
Mariusz Kluzniak, CC BY-NC-ND

Creating deliberate cultural separation (even depopulation) is effectively “rearmament,” but without direction. Landscapes shaped by people who suffer from depopulation may suddenly appear ‘natural’, but will have fewer drivers for ecosystem functions. This has potential negative consequences, despite the growing demand for rewilding.

Cultural separation has taken place all over the world. Examples include the conversion of upland moorland and bog to intensive grouse moorland in the UK; the conversion of prairie land to intensive agriculture in the American Midwest; and the removal of indigenous management of landscapes in Australia, Africa and Latin America.

Cultural separation can lead to dramatic declines in ecological diversity. Many species whose numbers and distribution are now diminished have declined because long-term human involvement in landscape management has come to an end.

New Concepts

Since 2018, a concept has been developed to describe our relationship with the environment, “nature’s contributions to people”. It is an evolution of the idea of ​​ecosystem services, which refers to the positive benefit that the environment provides to people, and it is not without controversy.

It only refers to people’s contributions to nature in a very obscure way. To be a complete concept, it must explain the retroactions and the links between cultural diversity and biological diversity. In schematic form, these returns and links look like this:

Provided by the author

UNESCO recognizes cultural landscapes in its World Heritage Convention. This constitutes a growing list of places important for their biocultural diversity, from the Saloum Delta in Senegal to Norway’s Vega Archipelago, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Central Australia and the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras.

The people who live in and around the landscapes have cultivated intergenerational knowledge sharing about the maintenance, management and reshaping of the lands they inhabit. This can be summed up simply as “the interplay between genes and memes”. We do not mean memes in the sense of social media, but in the original sense given by richard dawkinsas an inherited culture.

The Convention on Biological Diversity defines biocultural diversity as “biological diversity and cultural diversity and the links between them”. The convention also defines biocultural heritage as the holistic approach of many indigenous peoples and local communities. This collective conceptual approach recognizes knowledge as a “heritage”.

We suggest that these definitions be widely used and we encourage further work on the concepts, both theoretical and practical.

For 50 years, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) has combined the exact, natural and social sciences to find solutions implemented in the 727 exceptional sites (131 countries) of the biosphere reserves.

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