Biocultural diversity is the interweave of humankind and nature, cultural pluralism and ecological integrity. It arises from the continuing co-evolution and adaptation between natural landscapes and ways of life, and between biological processes and cultural endeavors. Biocultural diversity tends to be richest in locations where cultures have had long intimate connections with their landscapes, is reflected within languages and traditional ecological knowledge systems, and manifests in beautiful ways through cultural and artistic expression. A comparatively new concept, it is rapidly gaining currency as a powerful way to understand how different dimensions of diversity are connected. UNESCO declared in 2008 that: ”The notion of the ‘inextricable link’ implies not only that biological and cultural diversity are linked to a wide range of human-nature interactions, but also that they are co-evolved, interdependent, and mutually reinforcing.”
Building on the research of Dr Luisa Maffi and others the IUCN points out that it is no coincidence that areas of linguistic and ethnic diversity are also areas rich in biodiversity. Terralingua, a pioneer in this field, has established a community of practice for biocultural diversity conservation. Other valuable resources working on biocultural diversity at landscape scales include the Biocultural Diversity Learning Network of the Global Diversity Fund, the various activities of the International Society for Ethnobiology who have long called for this approach, and the bioculturalheritage.org website of the International Institute for Environment and Development which gathers together important materials illuminating application of this concept.
Who are the stewards?
“Custodians” or “stewards” are a key concept for Christensen. These are the individuals, institutions and small communities whose role and passion it is to care for, embody, perform and explain knowledge, relationship, lands, species, art forms and indeed all manner of beautiful unusual biocultural things across the generations. Custodians come in a variety of forms in different societies and cannot be neatly boxed. Typically being a custodian is a responsibility towards something of collective benefit rather than a right over it, whether that be a song, a sacred place, a way of harvesting stingless bees or system of timely landscape burning or rain-making. Custodians may not choose their roles, but instead be chosen. Custodians actively maintain what they care for alive in the world as well as in the human imagination. They have special knowledge which is necessarily of the heart, the head and the hand, such as does the grandmother who grows and stores many varieties of beans. What the stewards do is a kind of performance, perhaps practical, perhaps ritual, usually both, and they do this continually over many years steadily shaping their communities and landscapes. Custodians may appear ordinary and little recognized, or be famous and praised locally, be in conflict with other claimants, be entirely marginalized by new ways, be themselves pioneering new beliefs, be charismatic saints, or be regularly drunk. We don’t create them, and cannot make them. We find those who are making a difference to living diversity, and who want some help. They are the focus of our grantmaking efforts, though we often reach them through their allies, the unusual scientists, scholars, artists and advocacy groups who have chosen to respectfully partner with them to sustain biocultural diversity around the world.
According to the pioneers of this concept, the Resilience Alliance:
‘Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future. Humans are part of the natural world. We depend on ecological systems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale’.
The resilience perspective adds significantly to thinking about sustainability by developing understanding of thresholds and the dynamic instability of systems, and of what happens to systems when they are centralized, simplified and pressed into maximizing a few variables (as in monocultures). As such this approach often connects richly to the ways in which indigenous stewards think about landscape processes, including attention to cyclic change and the need for diversity and disbursed governance systems that promote connectivity across sectors, landscapes and generations.
Biocultural land and seascapes
A biocultural landscape/seascape is a geographic area bounded both by its physical features and by a human understanding in which its geologic, topographic, hydrologic, biological, economic and cultural elements are understood as part of an intertwined holistic system that has been shaped by human management over long periods of time. This means that the stewards of such a landscape consider how water moves through a landscape, for example, and seek to ensure its distribution between fields and swamps, people and animals, deploying both physical interventions like canals alongside ritual and cultural practices to ensure fair distribution and future rains. Thus memory and identity become ingrained in the land and waters, and biodiversity is shaped and included in defined ways. Long engrained in Indigenous thinking and local management systems, there are many practical efforts now underway around the world to shift conservation efforts towards this kind of approach. Meanwhile international initiatives seek to nurture and recognize such approaches from that of the UN Food and Agriculture Program’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, to UNESCO’s increasing attention to World Heritage Sites with both cultural and natural components, to the Satoyama Initiative to advance socio-ecological production land and seascapes.
Refers to the the culturally-grounded ways in which people grow, hunt, fish, gather and trade their food, and how they store, prepare and consume it in both the day-to-day and times of feast and famine. It embraces the ecological, economic, nutritional, artistic and community aspects of eating and drinking, both traditional and contemporary.
Artists often enable us to perceive things differently. They can be important agents of change and innovation, and often have unparalleled abilities to foster cross-cultural and intergenerational understanding. In English, the term ‘artist’ is often associated with the formal work of painters or musicians, sculptors or actors. In a biocultural context, we use the term ‘creative practitioner’ to describe artists not only in the Western sense, but also as people who cultivate and partner with nature and communities in creative and artistic ways, who express aesthetically what it means to be human deploying both traditional knowledge and innovation.