In this post, People and Nature Associate Editor Peter Bridgewater (@Global_Garden0), discusses his recent Perspective article with Ian Rotherham ‘A critical perspective on the concept of biocultural diversity and its emerging role in nature and heritage conservation‘.

The Somiedo Biosphere reserve in Spain. It shows the cabanas de teito de escoba, (broom-roofed huts) used by shepherds with the transhuman flocks of sheep from Extremadura. Transhumance still takes place, with families coming from the low lands of Asturias, such as Belmonte and Salas, to the summer highland grazing areas – a perfect biocultural landscape!

Ian Rotherham and I have just published in People and Nature a Perspective on biological and cultural diversity and their emerging role in nature and heritage conservation.  We had been working independently on these issues for some years, but the genesis for this paper came at the sixth meeting of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) held in Kuala Lumpur in 2016.  That meeting was important for approving the summary for policy makers on IPBES’ first assessment, on pollination and pollinators. 

But in the approval process fierce argument erupted on the floor or the meeting over the definition of biocultural diversity – which almost threatened to derail the approval process.  In the end cool heads prevailed and a working definition was accepted: “biocultural diversity, for the purposes of this assessment, is defined as biological diversity, cultural diversity and the links between them”.  Hannah Hughes and Alice Vadrot have produced an excellent essay about this process, and an insight in the working of IPBES.

The argument worried the then Chair, Sir Robert Watson, who wanted to have greater clarity around what was clearly an important concept for the work of IPBES likely into the future.  And very linked to some of the other work on Indigenous and Local Knowledge being undertaken by a special task force of IPBES.  The Chair suggested the Task Force look at this issue, but at the time there was little appetite for this idea by most of the Task Force members.  Meanwhile the Convention on Biological Diversity was working on issues dealing with innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and were also struggling with definitions, including bio-cultural diversity.

And so, the idea for our paper was born!  We trace the history of the concept/idea from the First International Congress of Ethnobiology, held in Belém, Brazil in 1988, which produced “The Declaration of Belém”.   In the declaration was a discussion on a common strategy to stop the ongoing and often dramatic decline in global diversity of both nature and culture, the first time these two diversities had been so clearly linked.  Since that time, and especially in the last decade, work on this idea of one, not two, diversities has evolved with many more publications, of which we give a representative, yet not exhaustive, list.  Critically we make the point that it is the feedback loops between the two diversities that is the essential feature of the concept, just as it is for the whole of thinking behind People and Nature

Here is where genes and memes come into play.  While we recognise the considerable debate, especially among Anthropologists, about the ability for culture in the broadest sense to be reduced to “memes”, some (e.g. Dawkins, 1976) have argued that like genes, memes could be transmitted in a similar way. Memes represent a way of describing cultural information being shared as an element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be passed from individual to individual by non‐genetic or epigenetic means. The idea of feedbacks between genes (biodiversity) and memes (human cultural constructs) seems a useful and simple way to conceptualise bio-cultural diversity, without closing off continued research, reflection and discussion.

The Secretariat of the CBD and UNESCO have a joint programme on biocultural diversity.  That programme noted “The convergence between biological and cultural diversity extends far beyond biodiversity hotspots. Ensembles of biodiversity are developed, maintained and managed by cultural groups. Diversity of cultural practices depends upon specific elements of biodiversity for their existence and expression”.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) hosts a convention dealing with agro-biodiversity heritage sites (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems – GIAHS).  Local traditional knowledge is often associated with agro‐biodiversity and is just one example of the role of biocultural diversity.  We saw value in separating “indigenous biocultural diversity”, which has cosmological echoes, from local or traditional knowledge, which can incorporate many levels of cultural knowledge and links with nature.

Much of biocultural diversity is expressed at landscape level, and we illustrate how the ideas and concepts developed since Belém all help in creating and formalising ideas on cultural landscapes.  Indeed, there are contributions from all three areas (genes, species and ecosystems) of biodiversity to the focal issue of (bio)Cultural Landscapes, adopted as a formal designation by the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1992. 

In order to address these challenges, it is important to gain a more effective understanding of the drivers of these cultural landscapes. Ian Rotherham has explored the idea of the “eco‐cultural nature” of landscape, as derived from long‐term, intimate, interactions between people and ecology. This interplay of people with nature generates both the critical idea of sense of place and local distinctiveness. Across Europe, twenty-first century depopulation means that rural landscapes are abandoned yet not necessarily subsequently wilded – the concept of cultural severance.  The consequences of cultural severance, rather than enhancing biodiversity, include dramatic declines in ecological richness. In some cases, however, there may be the emergence of distinctive novel and recombinant ecologies.  For example, the newly developing Betula-Buddleia forests over most of the abandoned railway sidings in the UK suggest even stark environments such as those can become wilded again – a sort of laissez-faire biocultural effect! That is certainly something for the nature conservation bodies in the UK to think about as they wrestle with their Govian 25-year plan….