In Langscape Magazine Articles

Flourishing at Twenty-Five: On Context and Foundations in the Rise of the Concept of Biocultural Diversity

May 05, 2021

K. B. Wilson

In his essay “Biocultural Diversity: Reason, Ethics, and Emotion” (this issue of Langscape), David Harmon traces the emergence of the field of biocultural diversity as a call for an engagement with the beautifully rich complexity of life. In my own take on biocultural diversity, I ponder the rise of the concept (and field) from the perspective of the history of ideas and idea-making. To my mind, the concept took off when it did, flowering and bridging to the mainstream so rapidly after centuries of marginalization, because of deeper global intellectual and political changes underway that suddenly embraced diversity and complexity.

The concept of biocultural diversity took off when it did . . . because of deeper global intellectual and political changes underway that suddenly embraced diversity and complexity.

Let’s start in the 1960s. Western thought had been captivated for centuries by the Cartesian separation of “nature” and “culture” and Newtonian physics of linear causation. Although Indigenous and other more holistic ways of knowing were still entirely marginalized, it was in the 1960s that systems thinking, interdisciplinary explorations, and of course ecology emerged in the Western canon, opening the door to complexity and diversity. This was all wrapped up with how the 1960s brought about independence for most of the remaining European colonies, civil rights in the USA, feminism, and global student movements that rejected a top-down hierarchical and mechanistic world.

It was a time when discussions of cultural difference began to elicit more listening by the mainstream. When intercontinental connections emerged among Indigenous movements. When a generation emerged globally that embraced freedom and pluralism. We still live in the wake of the 1960s. Indeed, the 1970s were mostly spent arguing about what all this meant politically and culturally as the gap grew between leftist intellectuals and leftist governments. Meanwhile, and on an infinitely finer scale, some wayward intellectuals wandered into human ecology and ethnobotany and pointed out that Indigenous knowledge was very significant.

Wilson Biocultural Diversity

Sungai community fish trap on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah (Borneo). One of the main ways that activist scholars were awakened to the concept of biocultural diversity was in their encounter with Indigenous ecological knowledge. Not only did such communities have extraordinary knowledge of fish diversity and ecology, but also their knowledge was grounded in their own languages, cultural values, and institutions and was expressed in ways that were crafted to be beautiful. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2013

Then came the 1980s and the explosion of new thinking that had been seeded in the 1960s. Lovelock had proclaimed the contemporary concept of Gaia in 1979, and the term “biodiversity” was coined in 1980. Indeed, the early 1980s saw an astonishing flowering of attention to such areas as environmental history, Indigenous knowledge, landscape ecology, community-based resource management/forestry, common property theory, conservation biology, ecosystem health, agroecology, eco-agriculture, organic food, and so forth. In fact, except for explicit reference to “biocultural diversity” itself, the 1980s seem to have generated all the themes in contemporary struggles around diversity and most of the terminology.

Biocultural Diversity

Sacred site in a forest in Bhutan. Sacred sites in culturally managed landscapes proved to be a particularly powerful way to convey the biocultural diversity concept to new audiences, in particular because numerous field studies showed how they contained higher biodiversity. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2014

I was part of that movement, and we certainly intended it to be deeply subversive of the Western academic canon and neo-colonial global development practice. People like me who were caught up in the academy fought for these ideas because of human connections we had with grassroots struggles and Indigenous Peoples. Radicalism had the same personal roots among practitioners: indeed, it was at this time that “participatory” and community-based approaches emerged as the “alternative” approach to development and resource management.

Biocultural Diversity

MaiJabu, leading member of the Muonde Trust, at a community workshop under a muonde (fig) tree atop a granite outcrop at the home of Trust Chairman Takura Moyo in south-central Zimbabwe. Across the planet, community institutions like Muonde have found much benefit in deploying the concept of the biocultural. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2016

At the end of the decade, two themes then suddenly overwhelmed the public mind: globalization with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and climate change propelled to attention by the summer of 1988. For many, that year Chico Mendes became archetypal of the connection between the bottom-up struggles that motivated us and the increasingly visible planetary environmental crisis. It was only later that more of us heard about the founding of the International Society for Ethnobiology and the “inextricable link” between cultural and biological diversity framed by the Declaration of Belém.

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Director of the Muonde Trust, Abraham Ndhlovu (right) provides the son of Chief Mapanzure (left) a digital copy of a video of the installation ceremony of his ancestor taken by colonial administrator J. D. White. As part of his nearly forty-year association with the communities of south-central Zimbabwe, Ken Wilson continues to bring social and ecological history back into the hands of the community. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2016

From 40,000 feet, the decade of the 1990s appears as one of “win-win” and “stakeholders” rather than radical ideas—a time dominated by the birthing of the Internet, biotechnology, and massive global economic expansion and integration under neo-liberalism. But while all that was happening, the new thinking of the 1980s flowed unstoppably towards describing a different world.

To explore this, Yang Tan, then a volunteer with The Christensen Fund, helped me search keywords in the abstracts of the Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE)—1900 to present; the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI)—1956 to present; and the Arts & Humanities Citation Index (A&HCI)—1975 to present. Most striking is how 1990 emerges as the pivotal year for academic articles with keywords for every kind of “diversity”—a whole decade after the coining of “biodiversity” and thirty years after “cultural diversity” entered the lexicon. Some terms are far more prominent than others: biodiversity (and its cognate biological diversity) is present one to three orders of magnitude more frequently in these journal articles than any of the terms associated with biocultural diversity. Yet, when we plot the rates of expansion in the use of these terms (see graph), we find a further astonishing result: namely, that they all show a very similar and unstoppable exponential growth starting in 1990.

The rate of growth of journal articles citing biocultural diversity and other related concepts since 1960, as charted by Yang Tan for The Christensen Fund (TCF). Source: TCF, 2009

Furthermore, when looking from underneath, it turns out that it was in the 1990s that most of the institutional structure that now underlies our field emerged, symbolized perhaps by the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development and the achievement of Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity, with its reference to the importance of traditional knowledge. The work done in the 1990s becomes especially evident when we look at the emergence of institutions working at the interface of Indigenous, environmental, and human rights. Examining a sample of such institutions worldwide (Indigenous NGOs and their allies) from the then online Wiser Earth database, I found that a full quarter had their roots in the years 1990–94, with nearly as many forming in the next five years. And this does not vary as much as we might expect by region of the world.

The decade of the 1990s was also when the first stirrings of power became apparent. “Fortress conservation” took a wobble; the Indigenous movement went global; and sacred places were first discussed in official venues as places of significant biodiversity importance. All this reflected the growing capacity of social movements to organize and take on the establishment, and how the cacophony of ideas generated in the 1980s was honed and deployed to create a discourse the mainstream could understand. Integral to this was how Indigenous intellectuals increased in number and found ways to be heard. Across the world, Indigenous Peoples won landmark land rights struggles in the 1990s, from Mabo in Australia to the San people in South Africa.

The decade of the 1990s was also when the first stirrings of power became apparent. ‘Fortress conservation’ took a wobble; the Indigenous movement went global; and sacred places were first discussed in official venues as places of significant biodiversity importance.

From my perch then at the Ford Foundation, I witnessed closely how it was in the 1990s that all these struggles and their potential to succeed began to find traction with philanthropic, private, and even bilateral government funding. Most important of all, individuals, mostly North Americans of wealth, increasingly came to back these communities and their advocates. Most of these radical donors had come of age in the 1960s and embraced the integrated and transformational. They were less afraid of complexity and were ready to back the intangible, the beautiful, the spiritual, and the knowledge of the hand and heart and not just of the head; in short, the things long marginalized as trivially “feminine.” Josh Mailman, one of them, once pointed to a major factor in this transition: the “rise of the female donor”—the beginning of the era when women got their hands on significant philanthropic moneys for the first time. Alongside these donors, I too began to see in the 1990s the impact made by the intellectuals who had come of age in the 1980s, and who by the 1990s had begun to influence how things worked.

Women’s group

Women’s group in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan cooking a traditional noodle dish. The connections between foodways, agro-biodiversity, and traditional agricultural landscapes not only powerfully illuminated the concept of biocultural diversity, but also linked the concept with the mushrooming food movements across the planet. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2015

It is hardly surprising, then, that the different threads we needed to name “biocultural diversity” came together in the 1990s (and not earlier or later), albeit with the alignment of the right mavericks and with the dogged creative energy of Luisa Maffi. I see these threads as being the maturing of multiple parallel academic fields that valued diversity; the recognition of transdisciplinary connections and holism; an ever-stronger voice for Indigenous ways of knowing; and a constituency ready and able to ground a multiple-syllable concept in the messy daily reality of peoples’ lives and struggles. I believe such countercyclical thinking is often most potent when the mainstream is most overconfident, as was 1990s neo-liberalism. But was there a real possibility that the deliciousness of biocultural diversity and related thinking could take on the global cultural and financial juggernaut?

Through the 2000s, biocultural ideas pressed forward relentlessly from the margins, leveraging every new bit of institutional support.

Through the 2000s, these biocultural ideas pressed forward relentlessly from the margins, leveraging every new bit of institutional support. What had been in the 1980s mere workshops, direct actions, and wish lists became in the 2000s mainstream conferences, international treaties, academic recognition, and university programs. Eleanor Ostrom even won a Nobel Prize for attention to the commons. The United Nations (UN) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues was launched and in 2007 achieved the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after decades of grueling struggle. Biocultural diversity and its associated values started to appear regularly in the declarations of UN agencies and at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), especially in the second half of the decade. Soon we ran out of places to get it declared and had to turn to the harder task of getting things implemented.

In my experience, the pioneers of the biocultural paradigm were glorious curmudgeons, many of them coming from the margins suspicious and even contemptuous of the mainstream’s insensitivities. They were an unlikely group to make the strategic shift from protest, creative disruption, and quiet labors of love, toward strategies that could facilitate a “storming of the citadel” as opportunities for recognition and mainstreaming arose. Part of the way in which that evolution of strategy happened was the engagement of social justice funders who knew something about building institutions and movements and who could resource strategic change.

Again, this is a story I know because I lived it. Indeed, it was while I was still at the Ford Foundation in 2001 that I learned about Terralingua from linguist Michael Krauss, while exploring a funding initiative around Indigenous language revitalization. That was actually the first time I registered the term “biocultural diversity,” despite it having stalked me all my life—and a rather surprised Luisa Maffi received a fateful phone call. Then in 2002, by which time I was involved with The Christensen Fund, the Board agreed to make the concept fundamental to its mission and in so doing unleash new levels of support to the nascent field.

The rise in funding for biocultural work was intimately connected to increasing recognition of Indigenous Peoples and the value of supporting them on their terms.

In the 2000s, a growing number of funders allied with the passionate struggles of place-based peoples began taking on the Homogecene and Anthropocene. The rise in funding for biocultural work was intimately connected to increasing recognition of Indigenous Peoples and the value of supporting them on their terms. It was in 1999 that International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) was founded in a gathering of just a dozen people; by 2009, IFIP had 51 members, and hundreds would attend its conferences. Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, foundation-giving to Indigenous causes domestically and internationally probably increased tenfold over that decade, especially at the intersection of environmental and Indigenous work. As funders, we did not cause this global shift, rooted as it was in the unfolding of the 1960s, but it would be hard to argue that we did not accelerate and deepen change. It is also clear that we helped close gaps and build relationships between the intellectuals and policymakers and the grassroots activists and community stewards. Bioculturalism was a powerful connecting concept.

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“Preserving biodiversity and our cultural heritage”: the WIAD Conservation Area in Papua New Guinea. While the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas movement had diverse roots in the Indigenous, environmental justice, and community-based natural resource management areas, the concept of biocultural diversity added potency to that enormously important development over the last ten to fifteen years. Photo: K. B. Wilson, 2015

Biocultural Diversity is, of course, not ‘at twenty-five’; it is as old as the peopled hills, and is a concept fundamental to the values of most if not all pre- (or non-) Cartesian cultures. But, at the same time, viewed as a formal idea, a mantra, or a rallying cry, it is clearly very much ‘at twenty-five.’

Biocultural Diversity is, of course, not “at twenty-five”; it is as old as the peopled hills, and is a concept fundamental to the values of most if not all pre- (or non-) Cartesian cultures. But, at the same time, viewed as a formal idea, a mantra, or a rallying cry, it is clearly very much “at twenty-five.” It is still so young because it needed three decades from the explosive freedom of the 1960s to build the foundations that could carry it—intellectual, cultural, political, and institutional. It also still feels “at twenty-five”: just see how it flourishes so beautiful, lithe, hopeful and invincible. Too insignificant as yet to have been fully tested by the powers that be, but old enough to be the determined and beguiling idea of the future. And the only optimistic framework within which to prepare for the re-organization, restoration, and revitalization that will follow the collapse and crises that are bound to dominate the twenty-first century. As one of the many individuals apparently fated to throw my life into loving this golden child, and in the spirit of my retirement, I commend him and her to you with all my love. Take the dance.


KB WilsonDr. Ken Wilson grew up absorbed by both the cultural diversity and the biological diversity of Central Africa, and committed to integrating them despite an excess of English education. He enjoyed trying that at Oxford, the Ford Foundation, and The Christensen Fund. Retiring to Borneo in 2015, he remains involved with the African villages of his youth.