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Preservation Through Biocultural Diversity


Tackling endangered species and languages together may be an effective strategy.

Nature and culture are deeply intertwined; just think about the act of gardening which takes into account scientific elements like climate and human values like beauty. Biocultural diversity is a field of study that examines these sorts of linkages and has found a number of surprising parallels. One of these is in the relationship between endangered species and endangered languages. Species and languages both have long evolutionary histories, heavily influenced by geography. They can also be organized in a similar way with species as the key category in terms of biology and languages as a key representation of culture, with subspecies and dialects furthering the parallel.

In recent times, both nature and culture have also been dramatically affected by globalization which has caused habitat loss, climate change, and homogenization. Languages and species are now threatened in alarming numbers. In a report entitled “Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages,” researchers concluded that a minimum of 25 percent of the world’s languages are threatened along with 21 percent of the earth’s mammals. Looking further into these numbers, they created the Index of Language Diversity which surveyed the homogenization of languages. They then superimposed their findings with the Living Planet Index which measures biodiversity and found very similar trends between the two—between 1970 and 2009, both dropped approximately 30 percent. 

While the statistics convey an urgency for the survival of both species and languages, biocultural diversity, by combining the two fields, offers some guidance for strengthening conservation strategies, especially given that places where the environment is threatened is often also where indigenous communities are threatened. In a series of interviews conducted in Canada with tribal members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (whose Tlingit language is critically endangered), each were asked to come up with habitat models for the endangered woodland caribou. They compared these answers with ones gathered in a Western model and found that the tribe members had a better understanding of the animal’s habitat. Researchers David Harmon and Jonathon Loh conclude, “If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff.”

Photo by Patrick M., licensed under Creative Commons.