by Ashbindu Singh Ph.D. Chief, Early Warning Branch UNEP Division of Early Warning& Assessment and Regional Coordinator UNEP Division of Early Warning & Assessment- North America
Since 2001, we have developed a comprehensive program of work to support, maintain and promote biocultural diversity on all levels through:
- fostering the development of policies that recognize the vital importance of the diversity of life in nature and culture, and promoting actions to implement that policy at the international and national levels
- mapping of the geographic distribution of biocultural diversity
- the development of key indicators to detect changes in traditional ecological knowledge, linguistic and biocultural diversity over time
- collaborating with schools to develop an integrative BCD educational curriculum
- forging a global network of biocultural diversity conservation practitioners and projects
- establishing partnerships with Indigenous Groups to document Oral Literatures
How do we bring about favorable change for biocultural diversity? The way in which we work for this is by engaging in educational efforts aimed at the general public and the media. Our first educational project was in collaboration with UNESCO, for which we wrote the educational booklet Sharing a World of Difference: The Earth’s Linguistic, Cultural, and Biological Diversity. Currently, we are focused on the development of a school curriculum in collaboration with elementary and high school students and teachers.
Biocultural diversity is the true web of life. It’s the planetary network made up of the world’s languages, cultures, and ecosystems: the millions of species of plants and animals that have evolved on earth, and the thousands of human cultures and languages that have co-evolved with the natural environment. People are but a part of the web of life. But how many of us think of it this way? We tend to believe we’re separate from nature and dominant over it. This way of thinking is the main source of our global problems. We need a profound change in values, and it begins with young minds! We are linking up with schools to introduce the idea of biocultural diversity in the curriculum, and to foster students’ curiosity and caring for the diversity of life in nature and culture.
Terralingua’s Voices of the Earth project supports Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to document and revitalize their oral traditions. Keeping oral traditions alive contributes to strengthening indigenous identities and helps ensure that indigenous worldviews, values, beliefs, knowledge, and practices are transmitted to the younger generations. Gathering these traditions also enables indigenous communities to record their historic presence on the land and their cultural and spiritual connections with it. In many cases, this record can support Indigenous Peoples’ attempts to uphold their rights when facing development pressures that might radically alter their natural environments and their ways of life.
In the initial stages of the Voices of the Earth project, we are partnering with two Canadian First Nations, the Saanich (W̱SÁNEĆ) People of Coastal British Columbia (BC) and the Chilcotin (Tsilhqot’in) People of the BC Interior. We are providing small start-up grants to enable them to develop their own oral literature documentation projects. The resulting materials will contribute to their language and culture revitalization programs, educational curriculum, reconnection to the land and ancestral ways of life, and affirmation of their identity and rights. We will also provide training assistance as needed, and work with them for the long-term sustainability of these efforts. Over time, we expect to establish further partnerships of this kind with Indigenous Peoples in other parts of the world.
How do we conserve global biocultural diversity? Innumerable on-the-ground efforts are underway to maintain and restore biocultural diversity, but most fall “under the radar” for lack of visibility, and the lessons from these projects cannot easily be learned. We wrote down the lessons we learned from studying 45 biocultural diversity conservation projects from all over the world, and have published them in the book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (L. Maffi and E. Woodley, Earthscan, 2010), which make these lessons available to all those who want to learn more about these efforts and their global significance. We also created the companion portal Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Community of Practice, hosted on our website, which is helping forge a global network of biocultural diversity conservation practitioners, by “connecting the dots” among people on all continents who are involved in biocultural diversity conservation.
How do we know what is happening with global biocultural diversity, and particularly with the world’s languages and stores of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK)? How do the trends in persistence or loss of languages and TEK compare with the trends in biodiversity? To answer these critical questions, we first developed a global Index of Biocultural Diversity and then an Index of Linguistic Diversity and a Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge. Together, these tools allow for an assessment of the state of biocultural diversity at different scales, from the local to the national to the global. These tools provide critical information for biocultural-friendly policy making and conservation, and can assist local efforts at biocultural revitalization. We are continuing to expand and strengthen these tools through collaborations with research institutions and international organizations, as well as by means of field pilot projects.
How do we bring about favorable change for biocultural diversity? The first way in which we work for this is by fostering the development of policies that recognize the vital importance of the diversity of life in nature and culture, and promoting action to implement that recognition at international and national levels. Most recently, as a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Terralingua had a significant presence at IUCN’s 4th World Conservation Congress, held in Barcelona in October 2008, where issues of cultural diversity as relevant for the conservation of biodiversity were on the agenda. We co-sponsored three resolutions: “Integrating Culture and Cultural Diversity into IUCN’s Policy and Programme”; “IUCN Adoption of Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”; and “Recognition and Conservation of Sacred Natural Sites in Protected Areas”, all of which were adopted by the IUCN Members’ Assembly. We continue to work with IUCN on the follow-up to these resolutions, and in the lead-up to the celebration of the 2010 Year of Biodiversity.
What is the geographic distribution of biocultural diversity? Through our research, which we initiated through a collaboration with WWF-International and have continued through a partnership with the University of Florida, we have mapped the overlaps in the global distributions of biodiversity and cultural diversity, and have identified “core areas” of biocultural diversity: regions that are highly diverse in both nature and culture.