The North American Dialogue on Biocultural Diversity, held in Montreal in May 2019, brought together more than 120 Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants to:
- explore links between biological and cultural diversity
- assess what is driving diversity loss
- identify solutions for global problems like climate change and unsustainable development
Overall, the goal was to encourage the 196 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to think about:
- the links between biological and cultural diversity
- the concept of biocultural diversity in the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework
But what is “biocultural diversity”?
Biocultural diversity refers to the diversity of life in all aspects — meaning not only the biological diversity (as we might normally think about it), but also cultural and linguistic diversity.
Try thinking about it in terms of how people and the natural world have evolved together over time. Over thousands of years, populations have developed cultures, languages, and knowledge and belief systems by interacting not only with each other, but with the plants, animals and landscapes around them.
As a result, the values, beliefs and worldviews they now hold on biodiversity tend to be intertwined with things like ecosystem health, sustainable resource use, human well-being, traditional and/or local livelihoods, and opportunities for environmental stewardship.
We know that biological diversity makes ecosystems more resilient. Taking this idea a step further, it’s clear that it will be easier for societies to be more resilient — to adapt to threats like climate change and severe weather — if we support diverse knowledge and resource management systems. These are the cultural parts of biocultural diversity.
To accomplish this, we need integrated approaches to research, policy and management. This is challenging because there has long been an institutional disconnect between nature and culture. In other words, our policies, tools and frameworks have tended to address biological diversity and cultural diversity separately instead of seeing them as indivisible. This has led to conflicting agendas and approaches.
Fortunately, this is changing (slowly) as we begin to recognize that to fix today’s complex environmental and social problems, we need to adopt approaches and perspectives that respect and build on the connections between humans and nature.
It’s important to acknowledge that the Earth’s richest biodiversity often exists on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. We must respect, protect and promote their perspectives, knowledge, innovations and ways of life. Our future depends on it.
Why is there so much interest in biocultural diversity now?
International activities have thrust biocultural diversity into the spotlight recently. One is the Conference of the Parties (COP) 15 meeting of the CBD coming up next year in Kunming, China. The CBD first came into force in 1993. It has three main goals:
- To conserve biological diversity (meaning all ecosystems, species and genetic resources)
- To use the components of biological diversity sustainably
- To share the benefits of genetic resources equitably, especially those meant for commercial use
Back in 2010, participating states adopted an updated Strategic Plan for Biodiversity for 2011 to 2020. COP 15 is expected to update that plan and adopt a post-2020 framework as a step toward its 2050 vision of “living in harmony with nature.”
Other developments have boosted biocultural diversity’s profile as well. For example, in August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the Special Report on Climate Change and Land. It recognized that Indigenous and local knowledge, secure community land rights, and Indigenous and local community involvement are critical to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.
And of course, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Many people and organizations have been reinforcing the message that Indigenous Peoples are environmental leaders, and that their languages are integral to their cultures and represent complex systems of knowledge and communication.
Overview of the Regional Declaration on Biocultural Diversity
Against this backdrop, North American Dialogue participants adopted the North American Regional Declaration on Biocultural Diversity. The declaration contains principles and actions to make communities more resilient and strengthen the ties between biological and cultural diversity. It also recognizes the importance of Indigenous languages, knowledge and management systems in preserving biocultural diversity. It stresses the importance of respecting Indigenous rights.
The Declaration’s recommendations include support for:
- Indigenous stewardship and sustainable use of traditional territories, lands and waters
- Indigenous-led strategies to protect, revitalize and sustain Indigenous languages and knowledge systems
- Making sure Indigenous youth are exposed to their cultures’ languages and traditional knowledge
The Declaration also recommends ensuring that Indigenous Peoples participate in all matters that are relevant to them. This includes helping to develop the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and implementing the CBD generally.
The Declaration is an important framework. It supports policies, programmes and projects that will respect, restore, promote and build on the strengths of biocultural diversity to address the most urgent socio-environmental challenges that we face as a global society.