What are the links between biological and cultural diversity?

photo: Cristina Mittermeier

photo: Cristina Mittermeier

Since the dawn of human history, everywhere on Earth people have interacted closely with the natural environment as the source of all sustenance: the source of air, water, food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and all other material needs, as well as of physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.

Through this vital dependence on the environment, over time human societies have developed detailed local knowledge of plants, animals, and ecological processes. They have also developed cultural values and practices that stress respect for and reciprocity with nature—taking care of the natural environment that sustains us.

This diversity of local knowledge, values, and practices is expressed and transmitted in the thousands of different languages spoken on our planet—7000 different languages, to be more exact, the vast majority of them spoken by small indigenous and local communities.

Over half the world population speaks only one or another of a handful of languages. The rest of the population is divided between the estimated remaining 6975 languages. Credit: David Harmon and Jonathan Loh/Terralingua. Click image to enlarge.

This is how language, knowledge, and the environment are intimately, in fact inextricably, interrelated: in each place, the local environment sustains people; in turn, people sustain the local environment through the traditional wisdom and practices embedded in their cultures and their languages.

Language, Knowledge and Culture are intimately interlinked. Click image to enlarge.

Language, Knowledge and Culture are intimately interlinked. Credit: Terralingua. Click image to enlarge.

This interrelationship is still especially apparent in indigenous and local societies that maintain close material and spiritual ties with their environments. Traditional ecological knowledge and practices, accumulated over generations, often make indigenous peoples and local communities highly skilled and respectful stewards of the ecosystems in which they live. Indigenous and local languages store and transmit this knowledge and the related social behaviors, practices, and innovations.

Languages have evolved built over time through people's adaptation to the environment. Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

The local interdependence of language, knowledge, and the environment translates into strong correlations at the global level, between the total diversity of human cultures and languages (that is, cultural and linguistic diversity) and the total diversity of nature (that is, biodiversity). Maps produced by Terralingua and others show that there is a strong overlap in the geographic distribution of biodiversity and linguistic diversity worldwide.

Areas of high biodiversity also abound in linguistic diversity. Wherever one finds richness in biodiversity, it is possible to predict that one will also find a great variety of distinct languages (and, by implication, a great variety of distinct cultures).

Plant Diversity vs. Language Diversity. Rick Stepp/Terrallingua. click map to enlarge

This is what we mean by “the true web of life”: you can’t think of people as separate from nature, and you can’t think of the global biosphere as separate from the global network of languages and cultures that interact so deeply with the environment.

It’s our fundamental unity in biocultural diversity.

next: What’s happening with Biocultural Diversity? >>