Biocultural approach to nature conservation

An article published in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) presents a biocultural approach. This is a measure to determine the “biocultural status” of a species, including an analysis of its extinction risk and the cultural status of human populations that they consider important to their identity.

Renowned CONICET researcher Sandra Díaz is one of the authors of the article, which also presents the most complete list to date of species that play an important role in maintaining human cultural identity.

In addition to campaigns like “Save the whales“ and other initiatives to protect animal and plant species whose numbers are decreasing so quickly that they are threatened with extinction, in the field of nature conservation the need to take anthropological aspects into account in traditional environmental criteria is becoming ever stronger. The ultimate goal is to balance biological conservation with the culture, knowledge and priorities of indigenous peoples and local communities.

When cultural references to a plant or animal are lost, whether because the human group disappears or experiences acculturation, a whole range of values ​​and knowledge about that species is also lost. Even if the organism itself does not cease to exist and therefore there is no immediate loss of biodiversity, our relationship to the rest of nature is impoverished.“ explained Sandra Díaz, CONICET senior researcher at the Multidisciplinary Institute of Plant Biology (IMBIV) of CONICET and the National University of Córdoba (UNC).

Díaz is a world leader in community and ecosystem ecology and is one of the co-authors of an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which lists the most complete species designated as culturally important (ECI) today. In addition, a measure of “biocultural status” to analyze the threat of a species in two dimensions: biological risk is determined based on its category in the IUCN World Red Book; and their cultural status, using as an indicator the degree of vulnerability of the people’s language that they consider important to their cultural identity.

ECIs are organizations that play a recognized role in preserving the cultural identity of a nation or group of nations and make a significant contribution to religion, spirituality and social cohesion. Time brings with it a sense of belonging, territory and collective purpose.

Biocultural approach

Main instrument, the biocultural approach

The ECI list created by the researchers includes 385 species from around the world (mainly plants, but also animals and fungi); Some of them live in Argentina and illustrate different combinations of biological and cultural status. Among them, Díaz mentioned the Pehuén (Araucaria araucana), the mission pine (Araucaria angustifolia), yerba mate (ilex paraguarensis), the Andean cat (Leopardus Jacobite), The Jaguar (Panthera onca), the Corzuela (Mazama gouazoubira) and the lipped peccary (TAyassu pecari).

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The pehuén, the mission pine and the Andean cat have been classified as threatened from a biocultural perspective because they meet the criteria of biological and cultural risk. At the other extreme are Yerba Mate and Corzuela, which do not pose a direct threat in any respect. There are examples of species that are not biologically threatened but are threatened because of their associated cultural heritage and vice versa. Each of these categories requires a different approach to conservation and sustainable use.“said Díaz, who received the Princess of Asturias Prize in 2019 for scientific and technological research to combat climate change through the use of plants.

The article, written by Victoria Reyes García of the Center for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) in Catalonia, Spain, is part of a broader initiative that Díaz is leading together with Benjamín Halpern of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, United States, committed to addressing global environmental priorities.

We recognized that a classification based largely on the ecological vulnerability of species does not take into account their cultural importance. By failing to recognize the connection between them and the local groups who traditionally use them, we lose very important aspects of conservation, hence the importance of this biocultural approach“, emphasized Díaz.

An important finding is that a significant proportion of species recognized as culturally important have not yet been formally assessed by international organizations that monitor their conservation status, such as the IUCN Red List. This reflects a lack of interaction between conservation movements and local communities, and between the natural and social sciences.“.

With this proposal for a biocultural approach, we wanted to show a possible way to bring these areas together to achieve more sustainable and inclusive models of conservation and use.“, concluded the Argentine scientist.

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