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Nature, Culture and Climate Change

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Biocultural Diversity Key Asset for Century of Climate Impacts

"When people generally think of the web of life they think of biodiversity, the diversity of plants and animal species and ecosystems. But we think that there's an inextricable link between people and the environment, and that's what we call biocultural diversity. It's the diversity of life in nature and culture."

-- Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director, Terralingua, NatGeo News Watch, from the post "Restoring human cultures to the web of life"

On December 20, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.

Three reasons for the declaration are listed on the official U.N. Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) website:

  1. Humans are part of nature's rich diversity and have the power to protect or destroy it.
  2. Biodiversity, the variety of life on Earth, is essential to sustaining the living networks and systems that provide us all with health, wealth, food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on.
  3. Human activity is causing the diversity of life on Earth to be lost at a greatly accelerated rate. These losses are irreversible, impoverish us all and damage the life support systems we rely on everyday. But we can prevent them.

The 2006 U.N. declaration marked an alarming reduction of biodiversity -- as well as linguistic and cultural diversity -- a precipitous decline that four years later, during this International Year of Biodiversity, shows no sign of abating.

Ten years before the U.N. declaration, in 1996, Luisa Maffi, a linguist, anthropologist, and ethnobiologist, co-founded Terralingua, an international NGO that she leads to this day. Terralingua researches, communicates, and seeks to ameliorate the loss of biological, linguistic, and cultural diversity -- "biocultural diversity" for short -- in part by communicating that nature and culture are inescapably linked.

Maffi says, "The existence of an 'inextricable link' between nature and culture was first affirmed in 1988 in the Declaration of Belém, issued by the International Society of Ethnobiology."

In 1993, Maffi developed that idea into the now burgeoning field of biocultural diversity, which asserts that biological, cultural and linguistic diversity are intimately interrelated and interdependent. Humanity's cultures and languages, in other words, are tightly integrated with rich and complex ecologies as well as the planetary system that's being altered by climate change.

Since industrial civilization has dangerously degraded ecologies, the natural web of life has been radically disrupted, causing the loss of not only terrestrial and oceanic species, but also human species, in particular, Indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages that embody valuable knowledge of natural systems.

To assist with safeguarding nature and culture, Maffi advocates bringing the term "biocultural diversity" into common parlance. She recently contributed a guest post on the "NatGeo News Watch" blog of David Braun, the chief news editor of National Geographic.

"We want for 'biocultural diversity' to become a household name in every household and for everyone to reconnect with, and care for, the true web of life -- in nature and culture."

Maffi, author of On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), is co-author with Ellen Woodley of the just-released Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010).

Having conducted fieldwork in Somalia, Mexico, China, and Japan, Maffi brings decades of academic and on-the-ground experience to her latest book, which skillfully interweaves her and co-author Woodley's expertise with that of biocultural diversity conservation leaders around the world. Project leaders -- from researchers to Indigenous traditional knowledge experts -- contributed 45 projects to the book that illustrate how research, education, and policy can contribute to on-the-ground work that revitalizes the links between biological, linguistic, and cultural diversity.

"As the most biodiverse regions [of the planet] are typically under Indigenous stewardship," she explains, "the accelerating loss of biodiversity correlates with a quickening loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of Indigenous cultures and languages."

Since we're in the midst of a "biocultural diversity extinction crisis", as well as facing catastrophic climate impacts, Maffi, an International Fellow of the Explorers Club, emphasizes biocultural diversity's role in providing resilient ways of thinking and being. These ways, in turn, would help humanity build greater socio-cultural resilience before catastrophic climate events occur -- and would contribute lasting approaches for rebuilding and survival after such occurrences.

So, how can biocultural diversity -- possibly humanity's core asset in adapting to climate change -- help people make the transition to a more challenging day-to-day existence?

"One of the keys there," says Maffi, "would be the maintenance, revitalization and strengthening of traditional knowledge."

"The way climate change is happening now because of anthropogenic causes is totally unprecedented in human history. Place-based societies that have been in situ for a long period of time have experienced climate variability over many generations.

"As one way to respond to this variability, they have been able to develop a variety of landraces [the technical term for varieties of basic crops that are made to adapt to different weather and climate conditions, dry years, wet years and more]."

Maffi adds that agricultural biodiversity "is being rapidly depleted" because of "the homogenization of agricultural crops," with genetically modified seeds and 'terminator' seeds often displacing native seeds.

She adds that because there has been "a tremendous reduction in the pool of knowledge and resources that have been used to address climate variation," the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and other international organizations are starting to recognize the importance of traditional knowledge for food security, which is under threat from climate change.

"Traditional knowledge," according to Maffi, "can help people to adapt and combat the effects of climate change and is central to maintaining and restoring biocultural diversity."

An example is the traditional knowledge that various Mexican peoples have about how varieties of native maize might adapt to particular locales, knowledge that's increasingly vital in the era of climate change, particularly since monocultures of genetically modified maize are likely to erode the resilience of a key food source -- and repository of culture.

International Year of Biocultural Diversity, anyone?

(Disclosure: Terralingua is currently a client.)

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