Preserving the biodiversity we have left is not only of extreme importance for the species we are rapidly losing, but for our own health and well-being. It has long been a goal of nature lovers and conservationists all over the world.
But while this aspiration and intention is certainly meritorious, it may be missing a crucial component. It turns out that nature’s biodiversity and human cultural diversity—as indicated by linguistic multiplicities—are linked, and their connection may be a way to preserve both natural environments and indigenous populations worldwide.
That, too, would be a win for all of us, because not only would we protect the beautiful variety of human cultures across the planet, additional new research shows that indigenous peoples and local communities provide the best long-term outcomes for conservation.
It’s a continuous loop of hope.
Where there are more languages, there is greater biodiversity
Recently, researchers looked at 48 localities in Africa that have been designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Natural World Heritage sites. UNESCO describes such places as those that host “globally important natural or combined natural and cultural resources.” In a paper that was published in the October 2021 issue of the science journal Conservation Biology, the scientists reported that after analyzing geographic information data on indigenous languages in these areas, they found that 147 languages overlapped with the 48 chosen UNESCO sites. Indigenous languages occurred in all but one—the Namib Sand Sea desert in Namibia—of the Natural World Heritage sites examined.
In all the other 47 Natural World Heritage sites in continental Africa and on nearby islands, indigenous peoples not only live, but, to some extent, manage their environments and have been doing so for a long time. This adds to the increasing evidence that cultural diversity and biodiversity are interrelated, and such findings hold down to even a very small geographic scale. That makes a strong argument for including indigenous peoples in ecosystem management in the sites where they live.
For their language data, the team used Ethnologue, a linguistic database originally established to translate the Bible and the only global dataset for languages with detailed geographic information. For the species data, the researchers employed the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which includes species range information. They looked at amphibians, mammals, reptiles and a collection of freshwater species. They also used facts from BirdLife International and the Handbook of the Birds of the World.
What’s really fascinating to me is the correlation between the number of human languages found in these sites and the number of animal species living in them. Indigenous languages overlapped with the ranges of more than 8,200 species in the groups considered. It could be that more natural complexity generates more cultural intricacies, but the scientists couldn’t say for sure.
However, that relationship could be a warning for the future. If indigenous groups are continually displaced or somehow have their influence on managing these localities marginalized, a reduction in biodiversity in these globally important African sites might follow. In terms of a management approach when there is more than one linguistic group associated with a specific site, one strategy is to let the people most closely associated with an individual area deal with that section. The researchers hope that their study will help in figuring out how to reconsider and redesign management plans and how to get indigenous people more involved in the shared governance of conservation efforts—in Africa and beyond.
Where there are more indigenous peoples, there is better conservation of nature
After examining 169 conservation projects around the world—primarily across Africa, Asia and Latin America—a scientific team has discovered that conservation led by indigenous peoples and local communities, based on their own knowledge and tenure systems, is far more likely to deliver positive results for nature.
From restoring community gardens in Nepal to protecting national forests in Taiwan, from repairing watersheds in the Congo to preserving wetlands in Ghana, and from competently operating fisheries in Norway to sustainably managing game in Zambia, the team investigated how governance—the arrangements and the decision-making behind climate and conservation efforts—affects both nature and the well-being of indigenous peoples and local communities.
Notably, the authors found that 56 percent of the conservation efforts under “local control” benefited both conservation and human well-being. For “externally controlled” conservation projects, only 16 percent were advantageous, and more than a third ended in ineffective conservation or with negative social outcomes, in large part due to conflicts that arose with local communities.
Further, according to this study, which was published in the journal Ecology and Society on September 2, 2021, conservation programs very often failed because they excluded and undervalued local knowledge, often infringing on cultural diversity and rights along the way.
However, guaranteeing conservation success isn’t quite as simple as granting control to local communities. Local institutions are every bit as complex as the ecosystems they govern, and several factors must align to realize good stewardship.
Community cohesion, effective leadership, legitimate authority, shared knowledge and values, and social inclusion are important ingredients that are often disrupted by globalization, modernization or insecurity; and, if lost, they can take many years to reestablish.
Additionally, factors beyond the local community can greatly impede good stewardship, such as laws and policies that discriminate against local customs and systems in favor of commercial activities.
Where there is more need for conservation efforts, there is added urgency for a shift in approach
The takeaway from these studies is that if you’re interested in conserving biological diversity, excluding the indigenous peoples who likely helped create that diversity in the first place may be a really bad idea. Whether it’s for coastal communities in Brazil, tiger reserves in India or wildflower meadows in Britain, the evidence shows that to achieve successful conservation, indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ knowledge systems and actions should be considered. Currently, this is not the way mainstream conservation efforts work.
Indigenous peoples and locals need to be at the helm of conservation efforts, with appropriate support from the outside, including policies and laws that recognize their knowledge systems. It’s imperative that we shift to this approach without delay. Otherwise, we risk setting in stone another decade of well-meaning conservation practices that result in both ecological decline and social harms.
We need—now—to tap into and bolster that “circle of life”; that continuous loop that leads from human cultural diversity to the rich biodiversity still found in the natural world.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,