News & Views

Landscapes: Peoples and Patches of Variation


Human interactions with the landscape are always biocultural.

What people choose to do within their landscapes is structured through the cultural sensibilities that those people bring to and derive from their encounter with that landscape – their beliefs, their values, their goals, their ethics, their tools, and their experiences and interpretations of them.

And those cultural sensibilities are shaped, in part, by the character of a particular landscape – its endemic flora and fauna, its topography and soil features, its hydrologic regime, its seasonal variations, episodic catastrophes and so on.

For large expanses of the earth there is an increasingly common, mainstream culture of landscape use – informed by capitalist economic systems, driven by intertwined corporate and state goals, underlain by western science and legitimized by an ethic that privileges humankind over all other life forms.

But beyond these vast expanses of relative sameness there are other landscape patches where people are practicing alternative cultural preferences. Some are variations on the mainstream capitalist structure – organic farmers in California, for example, or Amish farms in Lancaster County. While others, such as the Konso people of Ethiopia or the Ni-Vanuatu of the South Pacific, are based on highly unique cultural practices with deep ancestries; practices informed by uncommon experience and evidence and with remarkable records of continuity and change.

The entrance to a village in Konso illustrates the inextricable link between culture and landscape

Southern Ethiopia: Entrance to the village of Kalla Gezahegn, one of the nine clan chiefs whose role includes managing the sacred forests, terraced agriculture and other dimensions of the Konso cultural landscape recently inscribed under the World Heritage Convention.

In many cases these alternative patches are the ancestral landscapes of indigenous or local communities who may, or may not, retain some degree of landscape sovereignty in the nation-state surrounding them. In other cases, the landscape users may share ethnic identity with the majority of the nation but nonetheless prefer a biocultural landscape approach based on cultural ideas different from the approach of the national government and its international and corporate partners.

The landscape patches of variation from the dominant cultural directions often are the sites of competing ideas about landscape use and practice as governments and others attempt to impose their preferred activities – mining, commercial agriculture or park lands, for example – in the name of economic development. These are the kinds of circumstances of central interest to the current grantmaking of The Christensen Fund.

Through its grantmaking in biocultural landscapes, Christensen and its allies engage with local stewards of these landscapes who are taking the lead on managing continuity and change in their distinctive cultural practices and charting with their communities a different path to development more in tune with their environmental and cultural heritage. Broadly speaking, the foundation works to increase understanding of these unique human-landscape dances that we consider so essential for adaptation and resilience. We see diversity in ways of living with nature as having intrinsic value as a repertoire of alternatives for the planet, and we help seed further indigenous innovation by exposing local groups to new ideas and practices from around the world.

Walt Coward is a member of The Christensen Fund Board of Trustees.

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