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What is Biocultural Diversity?
2015/02/15
By : Terralingua - photos by Luisa Maffi, Cristina Mittermeier
What do you think of if you hear about the "web of life"? More likely than not, you think of the natural world: the millions of species of plants and animals that have evolved on Earth, interconnected with one another and with the ecosystems in which they live.

But now think again. For millennia, people have been part of nature and have coevolved with it. Over time, we have adapted to the natural environment, while drawing material and spiritual sustenance from it. By interacting closely with one another and with nature, we have developed thousands of different cultures and languages-distinctive ways of seeing, knowing, doing, and speaking. For millennia, local cultures and languages have been intimately, some say inextricably, linked with the landscapes in which people have lived generation after generation.

This is the "true" web of life: the interlinked diversity of nature and culture. We call it "biocultural diversity"-the multi-faceted expression of the beauty and potential of life. Diversity in both nature and culture confers vitality and resilience to this planet, our home, for present and future generations.

Biocultural diversity is a precious gift to cherish and protect-yet, we are squandering this irreplaceable gift. Global economic, political, and social forces are rapidly eroding the health of the world's ecosystems and cultures, and silencing the voices of the world's languages. It is a "converging extinction crisis" of diversity in all its forms. The very fabric of life in nature and culture is coming unraveled, leaving our biocultural world increasingly fragile and the outlook for humans and all other species increasingly uncertain. We are foolishly cutting the grass under our own feet.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are affected most directly by the loss of biocultural diversity, but nobody is immune. The effort to restore and sustain the diversity of life in nature and culture is a cause that we all share, no matter who we are and where and how we live. Life is not expendable.

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.

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. 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.

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).
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