Fostering Diversities

Extraordinary places thrive because of super-diversity: they are diverse in biological terms, but also culturally diverse—and the diversities are not just correlated, they actually drive each other. It isn’t too surprising to learn that biologically diverse landscapes such as the Himalayan mountains or the California central valley generate culturally diversity. Where multiple endangered or indigenous languages, alternative medical systems, or different ritual or religious traditions all overlap and intersect, we now know this diversity is a crucial—but fragile—driver for biological diversity. We call this entangled biological and cultural diversity biocultural diversity. Biocultural diversity as a label for this complex diversity was first proposed as a term by David Harmon and then developed by Maffi, Stepp and others. (There’s a bibliography at the bottom of the page).

The cultural diversity within biocultural diversity includes linguistic diversity but also diversity of world views, ontologies, understandings of health and personhood, and other radical conceptual and behavioural differences. Theorists of science such as Sandra Harding are now acknowledging that there is no single or unbiased perspective from which we investigate or understand our shared world. The laboratory culture, language, criteria for success and results of a California microbiology team differ profoundly from that of a Shanghai disease ecology team, or a team of Tlah-o-quiat fisheries economists, or a team of Tahitian astronomical navigators. All of them are scientists and their conversations are fruitful, but the underlying assumptions about who actually knows, and how they know, can differ in ways that overwhelm frameworks for management rooted in one particular worldview.

The challenge of biocultural diversity in extraordinary places, then, is that just where the diversity is greatest it is also more difficult to analyse and steward. Our specialism is handling multiple orders of diversity in a non-reductive, participatory and empowering way: good governance can be applied and funding programmes can meet their objectives.


Cocks, Michelle. 2006. ‘Biocultural Diversity: Moving Beyond the Realm of “Indigenous” and “Local” People’. Human Ecology 34 (2): 185–200.
———. 2010. ‘What Is Biocultural Diversity? A Theoretical Review’. In Human Ecology, 67–77. Boston, MA: Springer US.
Ens, Emilie J., Petina Pert, Philip A. Clarke, Marita Budden, Lilian Clubb, Bruce Doran, Cheryl Douras, et al. 2015. ‘Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge in Ecosystem Science and Management: Review and Insight from Australia’. Biological Conservation 181 (January): 133–49. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2014.11.008.
Harmon, David. 1998. ‘Sameness and Silence: Language Extinctions and the Dawning of a Biocultural Approach to Diversity’. Global Biodiversity 8 (3): 2–10.
Harmon, David, and Jonathan Loh. 2002. ‘Draft Framework for an Index of Biocultural Diversity’. Washington, DC Terralingua.
Kassam, Karim-Aly S. 2009. Biocultural Diversity and Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Human Ecology in the Arctic. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
Loh, Jonathan, and David Harmon. 2014. ‘Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages’. WWF Netherlands, Zeist, The Netherlands 1.
Maffi, Luisa. 2001. On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ormsby, A. 2012. ‘Cultural and Conservation Values of Sacred Forests in Ghana’. Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Pungetti, Gloria. 2013. ‘Biocultural Diversity for Sustainable Ecological, Cultural and Sacred Landscapes: The Biocultural Landscape Approach’. In Landscape Ecology for Sustainable Environment and Culture, 55–76. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Rothenberg, D. 2004. ‘On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment.’ Environmental Ethics 26 (1): 97–99.
Stepp, John Richard, Hector Castaneda, and Sarah Cervone. 2005. ‘Mountains and Biocultural Diversity’. Mountain Research and Development 25 (3): 223–27.
Verschuuren, Bas, and Robert Wild, eds. 2012. Sacred Natural Sites: Sources of Biocultural Diversity. Langscape.