ALN logo; link to Arid Lands NewsletterHome page No. 48, November/December 2000
Linkages between Cultural Diversity and Biodiversity

On the importance of defining terms

by Katherine Waser


"Cultural diversity."

Weighty and serious terms, yet tossed around as "buzzwords" with seemingly complete abandon by everyone from eminent government ministers to not-so-eminent newsletter editors.

To expect that everyone using these terms understands them in the same way is unrealistic. Thus, some definitions are in order, within the context of this issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter. What exactly are we talking about here, anyway?

First, as it turns out, we are not exactly talking about biodiversity, at least not in its broadest sense. In that sense, biodiversity encompasses every living organism on our planet--animal, plant, or microorganism, down even to the level of genes--and the ecosystems of which they are a part. In that same context, whether these organisms are of any interest to humans is immaterial. The importance of biodiversity in this, its broadest scope, cannot be underestimated. (1) Indeed, many cultures and religions acknowledge the sanctity and importance of all living organisms, no matter what their size or their degree of obvious importance to humans.

But humans are also practical creatures, driven by the need to survive. In terms of a society's daily and seasonal activities, humans tend to focus on those organisms that ARE perceived as relevant to their own survival. That is, any given human culture tends to be most interested in a subset of biodiversity consisting of organisms and ecosystems that positively or negatively affect that culture's ability to feed (and also clothe and house) its members--in other words, that affect agriculture in its broadest sense. Thus, when considering biodiversity in the context of its importance to humans, what's often meant is this subset of biodiversity, or "agrobiodiversity;" and the articles in this issue of ALN are in fact dealing with "linkages between agrobiodiversity and cultural diversity."

But "cultural diversity" turns out to be a somewhat "fuzzy" term, too. A review of articles and online documents about cultural diversity indicates that when many people use this term, they are referring specifically to "indigenous cultures," defined by the World Council of Indigenous Peoples as "population groups who from ancient times have inhabited the lands where they live, who are aware of having a character of their own, with social traditions as a fundamental criterion for determining to whom its provisions should apply." (2)

By this definition, some cultural groups are clearly and unambiguously indigenous. The Berbers are one such group: they are descended from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, speak their own language, and have their own strong cultural identity. And, as the article by Yorgos Moussouris and Alan Pierce makes clear, rural Berber culture in southwestern Morocco is integrally linked to maintenance and exploitation of a silvo-pastoral system based on two indigenous, non-cultivated tree species. This system is one in which an indigenous culture historically achieved balance with its environment, but which is coming under increasing pressure that may result in degradation of the ecosystem and disappearance of the culture and lifestyle that is bound up with it.

In other cases, the definition of "indigenous" may not be so clear. For example, how ancient is "ancient"? How clear a sense of cultural identity and social traditions do people need in order to be considered "indigenous"? These questions are becoming increasingly problematic, particularly as more and more transnational corporations are seeing potential for profit in biodiversity and as arguments over who should "own" these profits become more acrimonious. The whole issue of intellectual property rights vs. farmers' rights, and of the rights of local communities to share in the profits from commodities derived from the surrounding ecosystems, is hotly debated and far from resolved. In the meantime, at least some corporations, organizations and projects are working to try to ensure that local communities do receive benefits from these activities. One such project is "Bioactive Agents from Dryland Biodiversity of Latin America," begun in 1993 with funding from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group. The "Bio-D" project, working in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, has several mechanisms in place for returning benefits to the local communities where the project is active. The article by Barbara Hutchinson et al. details many of the conservation activities undertaken by this project.

Another problematical aspect of focusing strictly on indigenous peoples is that the percentage of people in the world who can truly call themselves "indigenous" is relatively small. Perhaps more typical are populations that, while not strictly indigenous (often being descendents of a mix of indigenous peoples with their colonizers), have long lived on the land and have a strong stake in maintaining its biodiversity. As Marsha Hanzi points out in her article, this is the situation that pertains in the semi-arid Sertão region of northeastern Brazil. Farmers in the Sertão are perfectly capable of being good stewards of their land, given the proper techniques for doing so.

Indeed, the importance of proper tools cannot be overemphasized. One extremely important means of maintaining cultural and biological diversity is to foster local control over and management of resources. However, before such control can be implemented, there has to be a good understanding of what these resources are. One tool that helps to arrive at such an understanding is participatory mapping. Working in Africa, the NGO Innovative Resources Management, Inc., has been strongly involved in developing an overall resource management program based on such tools. The article by Michael Brown and Christin Hutchinson outlines IRM's emphasis on the use of geo-referenced mapping, driven and owned by local communities, with a suite of other tools to enable local management of natural resources.

None of these articles focuses on the role, in all of this, that is being and can be played by those of us who live in industrialized and/or Western nations. However, that role cannot and should not be minimized. First of all, a main driver of globalization is the need for transnational corporations to make profits; their need to make profits is in turn driven in large part by the desire of their shareholders to make profits. Thus, anyone who is participating in the stock market has a responsibility to think about how these profits are being made. If they are being made at the expense of local ecosystems and/or cultures, then shareholders can pressure the company or companies in question to engage in fair trade practices. Furthermore, every time we go to the store we can have either a positive or a negative impact on global biodiversity and cultural diversity depending on how we choose to spend our money. If we understand the external costs that go into manufacturing a product (such as degradation of the environment or exploitation of local populations), then we can choose to spend a little more cash for a product that has a lower total cost to the environment. The point is that those of us in the industrialized world can no longer act as if our purchases and our investments are made in a vacuum. We are all consumers. We are all stewards of the planet. We are all responsible, and we must act accordingly.

On a far more mundane scale, the terminology used to describe each issue of the Arid Lands Newsletter is changing again. Long-time readers know that this publication has not always been published on a regular schedule. Some years there was only one issue, and occasionally there were three. Publication months varied widely. Starting with the publication of ALN no. 25, the situation became more regularized. Two issues per year were published, designated the fall/winter issue and the spring/summer issue. This was useful to whomever was the editor, because producing the ALN has always been a one-person job--and that person has other projects to work on, as well.

However, the description of issues as "fall/winter" or "spring/summer" has bothered me ever since I became editor, because the designation has only been accurate for the Northern Hemisphere. Given that many of the world's drylands are located in the Southern Hemisphere, this seemed like another, albeit small, example of Northern arrogance. With the publication of ALN No. 47, I decided to change the designation back to the month of the year in which ALN is published. Theoretically, this happens in May and November. But, as stated above, there is no publication "team" for ALN. Bluntly put, what this means is that sometimes I get the journal published in the "target month," and sometimes I don't (in the case of this issue, I didn't).

That is why, from now on, each issue will be designated as either the "May/June issue" or the "November/December issue." I thank all regular ALN readers for your patience with this slightly erratic publishing schedule, and if anyone has a suggestion for a better wording, please let me know.


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(1) In fact, only a very small proportion of all living beings on this planet have ever been described--perhaps even less than 5%. How can we adequately protect (or sustainably use) the biodiversity that is our most fundamental capital, when we don't even know what that biodiversity consists of? Readers who are bothered by this question, as I am, may want to visit the "All Species Inventory" web site at, or contact the All Species organization by email at This ambitious project aims to do nothing less than to record and genetically sample every living species of life on earth, within the life span of our own generation. Readers without Internet access can contact All Species at 727A Liggett Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94129, USA, or by telephone +1 (415) 776-1555.(back to text)

(2) Source: "Protecting indigenous rights," anonymous author, on the Latin American Alliance Network web site at ARE INDIGENOUS.(back to text)

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