Published by Kerry on 27 Jan 2010 at 11:00 am
To mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity, we are spotlighting one of our related communities, the Biocultural Diversity Portal, on WiserEarth. An expert on this topic, Luisa Maffi, Director of Terralingua, took some time out to talk with us. We would like to share with you what biocultural diversity is, how it has evolved over the years, and why it is so crucial to maintain.
What is it?
The term biodiversity conjures colorful plant and animal life. Biocultural diversity is broader and encompasses the diversity of life in all of its manifestations: biological, cultural, and linguistic. There is a growing realization that the three are closely interrelated: indigenous languages preserve knowledge of threatened cultures and life, the loss of those cultures and sustainable methods can further endanger biodiversity, and the diversity of plant and wildlife has helped sustain many such cultures for thousands of years.
How did it begin?
Luisa explains, “In the early 1990s, the idea of an “inextricable link” between biodiversity and cultural diversity was just in the air in academic and professional circles–although for indigenous peoples the interdependence of humans and nature has been a given for centuries or even millennia! A number of people, including myself, started thinking about it seriously, seeing that cultural diversity and linguistic diversity were threatened globally as much as biodiversity, and that the threats seemed to be the same for all of these diversities.”
From this idea a new nonprofit called Terralingua was founded in 1996. As Luisa recounts: “We started thinking of the diversity of life as diversity in nature, culture and languages–all manifestations of the deployment of life’s evolutionary potential–and we started calling these interlinked diversities “biocultural diversity” for short.”
Why should you care?
The web of diversity, both biological and biocultural, is important for maintaining the stability of our ecosystems. Think of the fragility of an fish population that relies on a yearly spawning during a full moon where all the fish for miles around gather in a small area the size of a tennis court. Now think of an indigenous culture and language that teaches it is taboo to harvest fish on this day in this place. If these practices are lost, the fish might all be caught in one day in one place before they can reproduce.
Luisa notes, “As my colleague Dave Harmon says, ‘diversity in nature and culture makes us human’–without that diversity we would lose the essence of our own humanity. What’s more, biocultural diversity is the very fabric of life on this planet–and what could be more important than that?”
Over the past 13 years, Terralingua has been educating, promoting policy, and developing the academic underpinnings of the concept of biocultural diversity. “We have lived and breathed biocultural diversity day in, day out for all these years!” Luisa says.
During her fieldwork in Mexico, Luisa has been working mainly with Mayan people in Chiapas and the Rarámuri people of Chihuahua. Both areas are high in biological and cultural diversity, and face similar threats: economic, political and social. The land is threatened by resource exploitation which also threatens the livelihood of the indigenous peoples. In addition, the indigenous people are often marginalized, oppressed, and even physically threatened. Their communities are torn apart as the dominant society seeks to assimilate and undermine their identities.
Luisa notes, “One of the key consequences for indigenous peoples is the breakdown of communication and knowledge transmission across generations, which is the backbone of the resilience of communities.”
Luisa notes, “Biocultural diversity is not mainstream yet. There’s still a lot of fragmented thinking that leads people (especially in urban, industrialized environments) to think that humans are separate from nature, that leads academics and professionals to consider the natural sciences as separate from the social sciences, that leads funding agencies to have separate lines of grant-making for “environment” and “culture” (let alone “languages”).”
“The challenge we all face, and one that at Terralingua is working on now, is one of education–education not just of the minds, but of the hearts and souls. Globally, we need to rebuild our awareness of the “inextricable link”, of our inescapable interdependence with the natural world, and to move toward recreating the kind of balance that naturalist Aldo Leopold envisioned in the 1940s, where humans can occupy the earth without rendering it dysfunctional.”
Where it’s headed
Biodiversity, global linguistic diversity and traditional knowledge are on the decline. Terralingua has tools to measure these declines, such as an Index of Linguistic Diversity and a Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge.
Luisa recalls, “During my fieldwork, a Rarámuri elder expressed his joy about our work with them to restore the health of their landscape and of their cultural traditions: ‘This is an awakening! We are beginning to remember things that we once knew and practiced, but that we had forgotten.’ …People everywhere need to remember our inescapable interconnection and interdependence with nature, and to bring our lives back into balance with the natural world. Our coexistence with the rest of life, with one another on this planet, depends on that.”
What you can find on WiserEarth
The Biocultural Diversity Portal, featuring a quote from one of Luisa’s books, has over 1,800 interested members, 108 resources, 250 related organizations, and more. You can also check out the Biocultural Diversity Working Group.
Photo by Leonard John Matthews
More resources: Terralingua, Index of Linguistic Diversity, Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge, Terralingua’s Portal on Biocultural Diversity Conservation [live in Feb], Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook, Wikipedia Page for Biocultural Diversity
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