A Biocultural Approach to Development

Ganga Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh, India. photo: Jamie Beck

It is a natural assumption that international development programs lead to direct improvements in lives around the world. Decreasing rates of under-five mortality from malaria? Absolutely. Improving lives in the wake of unimaginable destruction from natural disasters? Without question. It was under these obvious assumptions that I worked for years on various development programs as part of a large government agency. However, I quickly realized that this dominant model of development – one that often takes a Western approach to what progress looks like and applies it to people in all parts of the world regardless of their own values – does not fare so well in empowering cultures, languages or local solutions. With time I saw clearly that in addition to building health clinics, schools, and green revolutions, I was in some cases unknowingly contributing to the creation of a Western monoculture and the destruction of beautifully diverse cultures and languages that hold immeasurable value.

What I learned and experienced through that work led me to believe that deep and fundamental change is needed to this Western led and strictly structured development paradigm. Along with many others, I now call for a new approach to international development that breaks with Western tradition to embrace local tradition: one that empowers local people to drive their own progress; one in which diverse approaches, practices and ideas are heard, embraced and celebrated.

These two models of development– the dominant Western approach and this new, sustainable one that values biological and cultural diversity – are reconcilable. The old model is rooted in indisputable good will, far reach, and well-researched methodology, but desperately needs to be reframed into one that allows the development conversation to be defined and led by those to whom it is most critically relevant.

The Dominant Development Paradigm

It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to the traditional development model that together create a three-legged stool upon which a healthy society rests: environment, society and economy[i]. Undeniably, this dominant approach has made great strides in creating opportunity and improving lives – indeed for the ‘recipients’ of the aid, but also for the development industry and those who work within it. Through working within that approach, I was given the invaluable opportunity to learn from some of the most brilliant, creative, and driven local and indigenous peoples from India to Tanzania. Deeply impressed by the vast storehouses of ideas, practice and knowledge that these communities held, I realized that more often than not, the solutions to their own development needs already existed within their respective communities.

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A Development Paradigm for Community Well-being

Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)

Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)

Interview with Felipe Montoya Greenheck by Ortixia Dilts

This article blossomed from my continuing delightful conversations with Felipe Montoya Greenheck.  Initiated as an inquiry over the MILPA seed project as presented in Terralinguna’s publication, Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), we soon diverged from our original subject and into the intent and thinking behind the MILPA projects, concluding with an inspiring model for community revitalization. 

…..tell me a little about Milpa.

I began MILPA as a project to revitalize the living connection between Costa Rican rural communities and the traditional seeds they cultivated.  Among the most memorable and enduring activities was a simple seed exchange among small farmers. Paying respects to the local seeds, traditional crops, and land races the participants brought to exchange was very important to tear down the ideology of the supremacy of “improved varieties” that had been introduced and officially promoted, displacing the traditional varieties.  Their worth was restored and from that time on (since 1997), traditional seed exchanges have continued to take place in Costa Rica, mostly linked to organic farmers markets.  MILPA also organized a conference on Cultivated Biodiversity which was declared of “national interest”.  So MILPA pushed the issue among peasant farmers, NGOs and the academia, as well. Only recently, MILPA was offered a project to “revitalize agricultural-food traditions” among rural communities (one project with the FAO), as well as among urban and semi-urban marginal communities (the other project with UNESCO).    We have to come up with a “revitalization strategy”.  So the idea is first to understand how these traditions satisfy a number of human fundamental needs (I borrow this concept from Manfred Max-Neef, an economist from Chile). Among these needs are: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Freedom, Understanding, Participation, Creativity, Identity, Leisure, and Transcendence. Recognizing how preparing or cultivating certain traditional foods contribute to satisfying some of these different needs, will help restore the value of these traditional practices. The science involved here is basic social science: interviews, questionnaires, with a representative sample of the population so that the results are statistically significant.  But in our field work inquiries we also ask about the more empirical science involved in the cultivation and preparation of these traditional foods. …and how does language fit in? Language is probably our most sophisticated instrument not only of communicating, but of actually creating our world.  Each language continue reading–>

Conserving Biocultural Diversity: Approaches and Conditions

How do we conserve biocultural diversity? It may sound like stating the obvious, but it is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that the best way to “conserve” the diversity of life is to make sure that it does not get depleted in the first place—that is, that it continues to thrive when it is still vital and resilient! When local cultures are alive and well, and people and their local environment are not threatened, biocultural diversity can be sustained in an implicit and spontaneous way, through the continued unfolding of traditional values, beliefs, knowledge and practices, as well as through the sustained use of local languages. And, indeed, there still are areas in the world where local cultures have maintained their vitality without imminent threats, or where they show resilience to such threats.

But the threats to biodiversity and cultural diversity are pervasive and far-reaching worldwide, and as a consequence the vitality and resilience of many local cultures and environments is rapidly eroding. In such cases, support for biocultural diversity often takes the form of explicit and conscious efforts at “revival”: that is, attempts to sustain cultures, languages and the environments when damage is imminent or has begun, or to restore them after they have already been damaged. Revival approaches are prevalent in the case studies included in our book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook and presented in the project gallery on this portal. This underscores the urgency of the situation and the need to understand what conditions need to be in place in order to address the threats and restore vitality and resilience to bioculturally diverse people and places.

The projects we analyzed in the Sourcebook exemplify a great diversity of approaches to this challenge.  Each project addresses aspects of a whole constellation of issues that are critical for the achievement of biocultural diversity conservation and global sustainability. Looking at the projects as a kaleidoscope of human ingenuity put to the service of confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our times serves to highlight their very diversity as the key feature, instead of singling out individual projects as examples of “best practices”. It is the collective dimension of these projects as a whole, rather than the features of any one “model project”, that reveals the variety and richness of “good practices” that are and can be deployed according to need and circumstances. The diversity of continue reading–>