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Restoring human cultures to the web of life

Luisa Maffi is the co-founder and director of Terralingua, an organization created 15 years ago around the idea of biocultural diversity. She is also co-author of Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Source Book (Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley, Earthscan, 2010), which examines and contrasts numerous projects around the world that take an integrated biocultural approach to...

Luisa Maffi is the co-founder and director of Terralingua, an organization created 15 years ago around the idea of biocultural diversity. She is also co-author of Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Source Book (Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley, Earthscan, 2010), which examines and contrasts numerous projects around the world that take an integrated biocultural approach to conservation.

Canada-based Terralingua has two basic purposes: To promote the investigation of the links between biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, as well as the adoption of an integrated biocultural perspective on the perpetuation, maintenance and revitalization of diversity on Earth.

I met up with Maffi last month at the congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology, in Tofino, Canada, where she was a participant in numerous discussions. (Disclosure: I attended the congress as a guest of The Christensen Fund, which also supports Maffi’s research.)

We talked about her book and the concept of biocultural diversity in this video interview:

Here is an edited version of some of Luisa Maffi’s remarks:

Biocultural diversity is the true web of life. When people generally think of the web of life they think of biodiversity, the diversity of plants and animal species, 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.

We have worked with this idea for these 15 years, bringing it from a completely obscure idea to an idea that is now being taken up in international policy.

Biocultural Diversity Conservation cover.jpgRecently we published a book called Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Source Book, in which we decided to make the lessons that we have learned about biocultural diversity more widely available.

There are many efforts around the world to maintain and restore the diversity of life in nature and culture, but they are isolated from one another, and people don’t have a way to find out about them and learn from them.

So that’s what we did in this book. We selected and described 45 projects from all continents, that take this integrated biocultural approach to conservation.

You have heard about thousands of projects to conserve biodiversity, but often they don’t take into account the relationships between people and biodiversity at the local level–the ways in which over hundreds, often thousands of years people have acquired in-depth knowledge about plant and animal species, and they have used and managed local environments in ways that have often been sustainable over long, long periods of time.

Knowledge threatened by globalization

All of this diversity of cultural knowledge, often expressed in local languages, is being threatened by globalization, in the same way that biodiversity is being threatened. And so the efforts that we like to support and that this book describes are efforts in which cultural traditions, local languages, are conserved and really enhanced by local efforts to maintain and revitalize the link between people and the environment.

We have lots of really interesting and fascinating examples. One of my favorites, for instance, is the people of the Andaman islands, a small archipelago that is part of India, in the Indian Ocean. In 2004 that part of the world was a victim of a tremendous tsunami that wiped out coastal communities all over the region. Researchers who were working with the last remaining speakers of the Great Andamanese languages were sure that those remaining speakers were wiped out.

Bit instead, when they were able to get in there they found out that everybody was doing just fine. Why was that? It’s because the elders in the community still knew from their ancestors the signs of an incoming tsunami and they were able to advise the rest of the population to run for the hills. If that knowledge had been wiped out before the tsunami by the social and economic changes that are changing cultural diversity around the world, those people would have perished. (Did Island Tribes Use Ancient Lore to Evade Tsunami?)

Another example of this: Food security related to traditional agricultural crops and traditional land management in many parts of the world that has been sustainable.

Education of heart and spirit

All these case studies are described in this book. We draw the lessons and make recommendations for policy, research and education. We care especially about education, not only education of the mind but also education of the heart and the spirit so that protecting the true web of life, biocultural diversity, will become a formal societal goal.

Is biocultural diversity an insurance policy for humans in times of great change?

Absolutely. Climate change is the next threat that is coming upon indigenous and local communities around the world. Years ago, maybe even ten years ago, Arctic peoples were trying to tell scientists, “things are changing here, you need to look into this. The ways we used to hunt are changing because the animals’ behavior is changing, and the ice is changing.” Interestingly enough, it took at least a decade for the scientists to begin to really listen. (Indigenous knowledge vital to understanding climate change and Using indigenous knowledge for studying climate change.)

There are so many other things that we can learn from indigenous peoples because of the intimate and direct connection that they have had with the local environment for hundreds or thousands of years. We have forgotten about those links and we need to remember.

Read more posts about biocultural diversity.

Additional information:

Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Source Book

Bio-Cultural Diversity (IUCN website)

Linguistic, Cultural, and Biological Diversity (Luisa Maffi in The Annual Review of

Language: A Resource for Nature (Luisa Maffi in The UNESCO Journal on the Environment and National Resources Research)

Biocultural Diversity and Sustainability (Luisa Maffi in The Sage Handbook of Environment and Society)

Backing the stewards of cultural and biological diversity (The Christensen Fund)

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn