Home>Dimensions of Diversity> Cultural Diversity and the Conservation of Biodiversity

Cultural Diversity and the Conservation of Biodiversity

Mapping Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity
A Diversity of Knowledge
Biodiversity and the Loss of Cultural Diversity
Beyond Traditional Knowledge?

Debates surrounding biodiversity have classically focused on analysis of biodiversity on the genetic, species and ecosystem level. However, within the context of growing awareness of the limited knowledge of biodiversity within western science, and the pressing need to ensure the conservation of biodiversity, attention has increasingly turned to the role that the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities might play in the conservation of biodiversity.

As we will see, to date, debates taking place under the Convention on Biodiversity have been marked by an emphasis upon the importance of disseminating technical aspects of traditional knowledge about plants, animals and other species.

However, the complexities of the issues surrounding traditional knowledge, or more accurately, knowledges, are also encouraging a wider perspective in which indigenous peoples, scientists, linguists and others are increasingly exploring the role of human "cultural diversity" in the conservation of biodiversity and the long term survival of humanity. [1]

As we have seen above, biodiversity encompasses all biological life forms on this planet. We, as human beings, are also part of this diversity, yet the remarkable feature of the human species is its uniformity in purely biological terms. This is revealed when we consider that the human genome, the map of all human genes, contains an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 genes and in genetic terms every single person on this planet possesses 99.99% of the same genes. [2] As such, human beings are remarkably similar. This has led to increasing recognition that in purely biological terms, the concept of race appears to be meaningless.

Working from the opposite direction, linguists have established that the richness of human diversity lies on the cultural level. They have established that there are approximately 6,000 spoken human languages. [3] Of these between 4,000 and 5,000 are estimated to be spoken by indigenous peoples. That is, indigenous peoples speak somewhere between 67% to 83% of the world's languages. [4]

Linguistic diversity is the best indicator available for measuring human cultural diversity. Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that the estimated 300 to 600 million indigenous people around the world represent the majority of human cultural diversity represented by the diversity of human languages, institutions, laws, cosmovisions, cultural identities and values. [5]

Mapping Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity

The significance of the cultural diversity represented by indigenous peoples for the conservation of biodiversity begins to become clear when we consider the results of recent efforts to map the relationship between human linguistic diversity and biodiversity.

In 2000, the international conservation organisation WWF and the specialist linguistic organisation Terralingua published a large-scale map and analysis of the relationship between cultural diversity and biodiversity.

The basis of the analysis was the relationship between ethnolinguistic diversity and global ecological regions (ecoregions). Put simply, an ecoregion is a large scale and environmentally distinctive area such as boreal forests/taiga, tundra, mangroves, flooded grasslands and savannahs etc. [6] A total of 895 ecoregions have so far been identified, of which the WWF estimates 238 (referred to as the Global 200) are of outstanding international importance. [7] In approaching the complex task of mapping the relationship between cultural diversity and biodiversity, the ongoing study prioritised the 238 ecoregions of outstanding importance.

The results of this work were startling. The study found that out of a total of 6,867 ethnolinguistic groups, 4,635 are located in ecoregions of outstanding international importance. [8] Furthermore, some 2,900 of these ethnolinguistic groups (representing some 42% of the worlds ethnolinguistic groups) are located in tropical forest and mangrove ecoregions.

The importance of this ambitious and ongoing research is that it represents the first large-scale study of the relationship between cultural diversity and biodiversity. The startling results of this study conclusively demonstrate what indigenous peoples have long argued. That is, that there is an inextricable link between indigenous peoples and the conservation of biodiversity. Put quite simply, the lands and territories of indigenous peoples fall both within the areas of the highest biodiversity in the world and areas of outstanding environmental importance such as the tropical forests, arctic tundra, mangroves and other areas.

A Diversity of Knowledge:

The WWF-Terralingua study also supports the ever-expanding body of detailed research conducted by ethno-botanists and others, which demonstrates that indigenous peoples and local communities around the world possess detailed and sophisticated knowledge of the plants, animal and other species located within their lands and territories. In marked contrast to the limitations of western taxonomy, indigenous peoples and local communities possess detailed knowledge of the behaviour and ecology of the species within their lands and territories. [9]

This knowledge lies at the foundation of indigenous peoples management practices which contribute to, and in many cases significantly enhance, the maintenance and conservation of biodiversity.

As indigenous peoples have consistently argued, this knowledge and the management systems developed by indigenous peoples, cannot be separated from their lands, territories, institutions, laws, cosmovisions, and identities as peoples. [10]

Western scientific knowledge of the environment is based on a strictly utilitarian approach, where elements in the environment have been reduced to objects which can be manipulated with impunity to serve human purposes. [11] In contrast, indigenous peoples have consistently argued that nature cannot be reduced to a mere assemblage of biological objects. The recent collection of papers assembled for the Global Biodiversity Assessment entitled Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity eloquently demonstrates that indigenous peoples from around the world generally approach nature on the basis of concepts of relatedness to the natural world. [12] This stands in marked contrast to the vision of the world which informs western science which is predicated on the radical separation of humanity from nature. [13] As a result, policy-makers find it particularly difficult to accommodate and understand indigenous peoples perspectives on appropriate relations with the natural world.

Biodiversity and the Loss of Cultural Diversity:

The results of the WWF-Terralingua research on the relationship between linguistic diversity and biodiversity are important because they allow us to measure the relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biological diversity.

It is here that we must briefly turn to the issue of population levels. It is estimated that indigenous people world-wide number between 300 to 600 million people. However, it is important to highlight that the fundamental criteria for identification of indigenous peoples set out within existing and emerging international instruments is self-identification. [14]

As such, any attempt to calculate numbers of indigenous people are limited by the availability of data on those who identify themselves as belonging to a particular indigenous people. Accurate and detailed data will not become available until such time that governments recognise the right of their citizens to choose how they identify themselves, and provide the opportunity to affirm their cultural identities within national census. For this reason, linguists and others presently rely on the term ethnolinguistic group.

As we have seen, indigenous peoples are estimated to speak between 4,000 and 5,000 of the world's 6,000 languages. Indigenous peoples populations are known to range in size between small numbers of surviving individuals to many millions. However, existing ethnolinguistic research suggests approximately half of all spoken languages are spoken by communities of 10,000 speakers or less. [15] Based on the total of 6,703 languages within the world's largest catalogue of languages, the Ethnologue catalogue, this suggests approximately 2,234 languages are spoken by communities of less than 10,000 speakers. [16] Furthermore, it is estimated that half of these 2,234 languages (some 1,117) are spoken by communities of 1,000 speakers or less.

The significance of this is that approximately fifty-per cent of the world's languages are spoken by ethnolinguistic groups, predominantly represented by indigenous peoples, whose languages are threatened by a combination of pressures. These pressures include:

  • Policies and laws directed towards the assimilation of indigenous peoples and the imposition of dominant languages and cultural values upon indigenous peoples.
  • The marginalisation and fragmentation that accompanies formal and informal western style development which deprives indigenous peoples of their livelihoods, lands and territories.

These trends towards the simplification of human linguistic diversity and cultural uniformity, represented by what Vandana Shiva has termed 'monocultures of the mind', are vividly brought home by the available data on languages under threat. [17] It has been put at a conservative estimate that some 420 of the 6,703 languages in the Ethnologue catalogue are nearly extinct (moribund). Others estimate that 705 languages may be nearly extinct, while in other cases it is projected that "as many as 90% of the world's languages may become extinct or moribund in the course of the next century". [18] More recently, in 2002, UNESCO estimated that at least 3,000 languages are "endangered, seriously endangered or dying in many parts of the world". [19]

In considering the relationship between the loss of biodiversity and the loss of cultural diversity, the implications of these figures are dramatic. As WWF-Terralingua highlight, extinction rates for species are accelerating compared with normal rates. It might, for example, be expected that some 50% of seed plant species will become extinct over the next 3,000 years. [20] However, in the case of linguistic diversity it is possible that we may be confronted by the extinction, or near extinction, of up-to 90% of the world's languages in the course of 100 years. As such, it appears that the loss of linguistic diversity is outstripping the loss of biodiversity.

It is useful to move beyond the level of dense technical information to consider the wider implications of this loss. Specifically, the analysis of global biodiversity encourages us think on the species level and to take the bold step of considering the implications of policies and actions for the survival of the diversity of species on this planet.

We have seen above that in genetic and biological terms (and contrary to appearances and entrenched preconceptions) the diverse peoples who make up the human species are remarkably uniform in biological terms. [21] Seen from this perspective, the success of the human species has depended not on dramatic genetic adaptations to diverse environments which might result over time in 'varieties' and sub-species. It is the mental capacity to adapt to these environments, with varying degrees of success, that makes possible a relationship with these environments that is sustainable over the long-term.

The strength of the human species and its ability to survive over the long term may depend on the maintenance of cultural diversity and the experience, knowledge, options and possibilities for innovation that this diversity provides in maintaining a sustainable relationship with the environment and confronting new challenges as they appear. It is equally clear that the loss of cultural diversity marked by the disappearance of languages, collectively deprives humanity of what will often be unique experience and unique knowledge. In reality, the loss of these languages represents a very real human tragedy for many millions of indigenous people around the world. This must never be forgotten. However, this is also a tragedy on a wider level, because the loss of each distinctive culture represents the collective loss for humankind of possible options and possible opportunities for innovation in responding to collective challenges.

The human capacity to recognise these challenges as they appear is reflected in the very existence of international environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. These international environmental agreements are, to varying degrees, designed to be flexible and to allow the international community to react in accordance with new experiences and new developments. In the case of the Convention on Biological Diversity this possibility is provided for in Article 23.4(i) of the Convention, which specifies that the Conference of Parties will:

"Consider and undertake any additional action that may be required for the achievement of the purposes of this Convention in the light of experience gained in its operation." [22]

In the context of growing awareness that cultural diversity is central to the conservation of biodiversity, this Article of the Convention provides an important opportunity for the Convention to improve its effectiveness in light of emerging knowledge and evidence. Central to this process will be recognition of the existence and rights of indigenous peoples.

Nevertheless, the obstacles to progress in this area remain significant. This can be seen when we consider the logic that informs existing approaches to the issues of traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples and local communities under the Convention.

Beyond Traditional Knowledge?

As we will see in more detail in later sections, to date the work of the Convention with respect to traditional knowledge has prioritised one issue. That is, documenting and disseminating traditional knowledge of the environment.

This insistent drive to document and disseminate traditional knowledge of the environment is informed by a brutal and ruthless logic. The basic elements of this logic are as follows:

  • Parties recognise that traditional knowledge of biodiversity possessed by indigenous peoples and local communities is being lost at an unknown but possibly rapid rate. [23]
  • Parties recognise that this knowledge is vital for future innovations in a wide variety of commercial areas and for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • Parties recognise that many governments refuse to comply with their existing and emerging obligations and commitments under international law with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples. If properly implemented, meeting these obligations would reverse the loss of this knowledge and contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Since Parties refuse to meet their obligations, the loss of traditional knowledge is inevitable.
  • Certain Parties to the Convention conclude that priority should be given to documenting the technical aspects of traditional knowledge as soon as possible. Once documented, concerns surrounding the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and the spiritual and other values of biodiversity will simply cease to be relevant to the work of the Convention. [24] On this basis, large-scale projects such as the Global Taxonomy Initiative are actively promoted by the Parties. [25]

At the heart of this logic, and the race to document and disseminate traditional knowledge, is a refusal. It is a refusal to recognise that complying with international human rights obligations and commitments that recognise the rights of indigenous peoples would actually enhance the capacity of governments and the Convention to address the threats to global biodiversity by providing a clear foundation for the conservation and maintenance of human cultural diversity.

In reality, this refusal is rooted in a series of misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding the rights of indigenous peoples and the aspirations of indigenous peoples. The principal area of misunderstanding is the perceived threat that recognition of the existence and internationally established rights of indigenous peoples represents for national sovereignty and the integrity of nation-state systems. This perception represents a misunderstanding of the meaning of national sovereignty within the context of international legal frameworks and customary international law constituting binding undertakings, and a misinterpretation of the significance of legal concepts such as self-determination under international law concerning the rights of indigenous peoples. [26]

As a result of these misguided concerns, the debates under the Convention have so far taken place under the ambiguous construction of 'indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles' and full recognition of indigenous peoples and the importance of cultural diversity remains some way off. However, it is important to recognise that there is hope for the future. In marked contrast with other international Conventions and agreements, notably the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol, and the new United Nations Forum on Forests, the Convention on Biological Diversity has often proved to be remarkably innovative and flexible. [27]

Until a more mature view prevails which recognises the internationally established rights of indigenous peoples as rights-holders, progress in the achievement of the main objectives of the Convention, the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, will remain slow. Projects such as the Global Taxonomy Initiative may ultimately prove to offer nothing more than a false hope. As we have seen above, indigenous peoples and local communities are central to the conservation of biodiversity. Far from being an issue of isolated concern to indigenous peoples and local communities, the loss of human cultural diversity concerns us all.




Entire report (in
Word 319 kb)


Download this section (in Word)

Dimensions of Diversity

| Acknowledgements | About the Authors | Introduction | Dimensions of Diversity | Indigenous Peoples.. |
| From Policy to Implementation? | Executive Summary COP5 | Executive Summary COP6 |References |