News & Views

BCD 101: Diversity, Knowledge, Resilience


We live on a planet that is rich with languages, music, art; with ways of growing and celebrating food, and ways of tending to and living with Nature. We have genetic and cultural diversity; spiritual and biological diversity; and myriad ways of knowing, believing, living and dying. The emerging field of biocultural diversity encompasses all of this wonder and life, focusing on its connections and practicing conservation in a more integrative way.

A technical definition of biocultural diversity is ‘life in all of its manifestations – biological, cultural, and linguistic – which are interrelated within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system.’ Terralingua, a Christensen Fund partner, calls it “the pulsating heart of the globe, the multifaceted expression of the beauty and potential of life on this planet – a precious gift for everyone to cherish and care for.”

The Importance of Traditional Knowledge

Together with disciplines like Gaia theory, complexity theory, resilience thinking, and ethnobiology, biocultural diversity is integrating indigenous knowledge systems and worldviews with more conventional scientific approaches for a holistic way of looking at our relationship with the world.

It is estimated that indigenous territories contain 80 percent of the earth’s remaining healthy ecosystems and biodiversity ‘hotspots’. Traditional knowledge has evolved in parallel with these ecosystems, and it is critical to their survival. This knowledge is passed through generations by word of mouth; through art and music, and through hands-on, ecological practices on the land. While biocultural diversity is a feature of all human societies, the transformations of the last century mean that most remaining diversity is now defended and manifested by Indigenous and other traditional communities in marginalized regions.

In this age of globalization and massive cultural homogenization, the mere fact that indigenous cultures still live and thrive on this planet is a testament to the endurance and adaptability of these cultures, their ways of living, eating, and respecting the land. Sustaining the ancient wisdom and ways of co-existing with Nature inherent in traditional lifestyles is critical for the future of life on Earth.

Resilience is Key

The homogenization dimension of globalization can separate us from our landscapes, creating a world that is ‘over-connected’ ecologically, economically, socially, and culturally; a system that is highly susceptible to disease outbreaks, weather extremes, and economic insecurities. These negative effects are enhanced by inequalities, authoritarianism, short-term thinking, consumerism, and privatization of the commons.

Healthy biocultural systems, on the other hand, are a strong counter to the ‘reductionist’ effects of globalization, and can create refugia of biological and cultural wealth. A key component of healthy biocultural systems is resilience, which has been described by Dr. Brian Walker, a prominent resilience scientist, as ‘the propensity of social-ecological systems to learn, adapt, self-organize and absorb change, without losing functional integrity’. These systems can range from nutrient cycles to ecological niches; from the richness and functions of languages to epistemologies and governance institutions; from seed banks to pastoral networks.

The current path of human ‘progress’, however, is not supportive of these diverse and resilient systems. “It is hard to ignore the similarities between the practical forces driving biological extinctions and cultural homogenization,” says David Harmon, President of the George Wright Society. “The only effective way to meet them is with a cohesive, biocultural response.”

Spreading the Seeds of Biocultural Diversity

Fortunately, there is a growing movement led by individuals and organizations that believe in a diverse world; that oppose the dominant ‘reductionist’ forces and that are joining together to celebrate, protect, and enhance biocultural diversity. Thousands of less visible success stories mark this movement, such as the establishment of Vilcanota Spiritual Park in Peru; a culture and music festival in Southwestern Ethiopia called A Thousand Stars; revitalizing the practice of seed exchange in Costa Rica; creating peoples’ biodiversity registers in India; and the promotion of traditional medicines in Uganda, and many more.

Biocultural diversity is typically enhanced where the great social movemnets of our times connect in what Paul Hawken calls the ‘Blessed Unrest’; the movements for social justice and civil rights, the environmental movement and the Indigenous movements. For this to flourish, we must focus our creative and financial resources on maintaining resilient ‘nodes’ of biocultural diversity, whether these are local communities, aboriginal nations, or global networks of like-minded individuals. This is where the Christensen Fund is most active, backing the stewards of cultural and biological diversity.

[This article was adapted from a longer piece on biocultural diversity written by Gleb Raygorodetsky, a consultant specializing in biocultural diversity. Click here to download the original article]

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