In Defense of Difference

Feature / by Maywa Montenegro & Terry Glavin /

Scientists offer new insight into what to protect of the world's rapidly vanishing languages, cultures, and species.

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The tether between linguistic, cultural, and biological extinction is, however, far more complex than its common, top-down driver of globalization. Once set in motion, the extinctions themselves also become drivers, creating a dense network of positive feedback loops. That we are beginning to understand the intricacies of these relationships is due in no small measure to the work of Italian-born anthropologist and linguist Luisa Maffi. Thirty years ago, fresh out of the University of Rome, Maffi was doing fieldwork in Somalia when she first began to surmise a connection between language and ecology. She moved to the University of California at Berkeley and began working toward a PhD in anthropology doing research on ethnomedicine in Chiapas, Mexico. It was in Chiapas that Maffi had a kind of epiphany.

The way Maffi tells the story, she was interviewing Tzeltal Mayan people waiting in line at a medical clinic in the village of Tenejapa when she met a man who had walked for hours, carrying his two-year-old daughter, who was suffering from diarrhea. It turned out that the man had only a dim memory of the “grasshopper leg herb” that was once well known as a perfectly effective diarrhea remedy in the Tzeltal ethnomedical pharmacopeia. Because he’d nearly forgotten the words for the herb, he’d lost almost any trace of the herb’s utility, or even of its existence.

This is when the full impact of current global trends dawned on her, Maffi recalls. It’s not just species or languages that are vanishing from the world. The world is losing knowledge, too, of the most useful and precious kinds. If the world was losing local knowledge, what else was slipping away?

Maffi began to cast her net broadly, reaching out to indigenous leaders, academics in the natural and social sciences, development experts, and, of course, linguists. In 1996 she and her colleagues organized a pivotal conference at Berkeley, “Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments,” and one year later, Maffi founded Terralingua, an international organization dedicated to research, education, and advocacy for “linguistic human rights.” Thanks in large part to Maffi, the term “biocultural diversity” started showing up with increasing frequency in the lexicon of a wide variety of scientists and academics concerned with the phenomenon of extinction.

The biocultural perspective is now gaining a high profile on the international scene. Last October, when United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its Global Outlook 4 report, reiterating the scientific consensus that, ultimately, humans are to blame for current global extinctions, UNEP for the first time made an explicit connection between the ongoing collapse of biological diversity and the rapid, global-scale withering of cultural and linguistic diversity: “Global social and economic change is driving the loss of biodiversity and disrupting local ways of life by promoting cultural assimilation and homogenization,” the report noted. “Cultural change, such as loss of cultural and spiritual values, languages, and traditional knowledge and practices, is a driver that can cause increasing pressures on biodiversity…In turn, these pressures impact human well-being.”

A second major milestone — arguably even more significant — came earlier this year, when more than 300 leading thinkers in nature conservation, linguistics, anthropology, and biology gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for a symposium entitled “Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World: Lessons for Global Policy.” Co-organized by the museum’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation, Maffi’s Terralingua, and a handful of other groups, the symposium was an attempt to begin rectifying what those involved identified as two gaping handicaps: a “mutual isolation” between the natural and social sciences and a “limited appreciation of the relevance of the vast variety of approaches to human-environment relationships that have developed across the world’s diverse cultures.” Through four days of panels, presentations, and informal “ubuntu” sessions (in the spirit of the African “humanity towards others” ethic), the forum highlighted a renewed interest in transdisciplinary fields such as enthnolinguistics, ethnozoology, ethnobotany, ethnobiology, and ethnoecology — all of which focus on documenting, describing, and understanding how other peoples perceive, use, and manage their environments.

The symposium ended on a firm and high note: a formal resolution to be put before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) when it convenes this October in Barcelona, Spain. The resolution calls on the IUCN — which until now has focused solely on nonhuman aspects of conservation — to begin integrating into its policies and programs efforts to preserve cultural diversity.

“If it all happens the way we want, this would be a really huge shift,” says Eleanor Sterling, director of the Center for Biodiversity Conservation. “It would mean a focus not just on biodiversity, but also on how people have traditionally shaped the land. It would be a major shift in the way the world thinks about what it is we’re trying to conserve.”

Maffi agrees that if the Barcelona resolution is adopted, it will completely change the way the IUCN operates. A key contributor to the biodiversity sections of last year’s UNEP Global Outlook report, Maffi says the concept of biocultural diversity appears to have finally hit its stride. “When I think about where we were 12 years ago,” Maffi says, “this sort of thing just wasn’t what people were talking about. It was difficult to open a clearing for these discussions to take place. But now we are getting to this important understanding that nature and culture are one thing. It’s gone from being a really obscure issue to having an important place in international forums.”

We are now getting to this important understanding that nature and culture are one thing.

It is one thing, of course, to recognize on paper that culture and nature, language and landscape, are intimately connected. Discerning what those relationships are, in a rigorous manner, is infinitely more challenging, and it’s the sort of research that Maffi and others are just delving into. Some patterns, however, have already emerged — the most remarkable being a striking geographic overlap: Epicenters of global biodiversity, it turns out, tend to be situated in exactly the same places as the epicenters of high cultural, linguistic, and food-crop diversity. One of these so-called “megadiversity” hotspots sits on the borderlands of Burma, India, and China, in the tropical forests of the Eastern Himalayas. In just one small corner of the region, more than 30 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken; in the gardens of just three small villages within one tribal district, more than 150 domesticated food-plant varieties are under cultivation.

Indeed, if it were possible for a person to hover over the Earth and to somehow detect biocultural richness, they would see, on every continent save Antarctica, regions where nature and culture seem to have spilled all their riches in concentrated drops. Why this overlap exists, however, makes for an ongoing riddle, for the lines of cause and effect can — and often do — run in many directions. Habitat loss through deforestation, for example, is widely known to result in language death and mass extinction of animal and plant species. But sometimes, as in the case of Canada’s pine forests, the causality is inverted. Over the past decade, mountain pine beetles have killed off about 7 million hectares of British Columbia’s forests — an area roughly equal in size to the state of New York. But the story really begins with smallpox, which swept through the interior about 150 years ago, decimating tribal communities that had for thousands of years regularly burned the forests in order to regulate berry production and deer abundance. When that management scheme came to an end, the result was a landscape of dense forests and even-aged stands of pine. A government policy of fire suppression, coupled with fewer winter cold snaps, and the pine forests became increasingly susceptible to insect infestations and massive fires.

That the Earth is becoming more homogeneous — less of a patchwork quilt and more of a melting pot — is only partly due to the extinction of regionally unique languages or life forms. The greater contributing factor is invasiveness. According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, as rapidly as regionally unique species are dying out, rates of species introductions in most regions of the world actually far exceed current rates of extinction. Similarly, the spread of English, Spanish, and, to a lesser extent, Chinese, into all corners of the world easily dwarfs the rate of global language loss. This spread of opportunistic species and prodigal tongues thrives on today’s anthropogenic conduits of commerce and communications.

Bringing new organisms or new languages into a community nearly always results in an increase of global homogeneity. Its effect on diversity is, however, more complex, raising an important point about the very concept of diversity: It makes sense only as a matter of scale. If, for example, you introduce several weedy species to an African veldt, you will increase local biodiversity. Introduce English into a multidialect Alaskan community, and you will increase local linguistic diversity — you are, after all, just adding more to the mix. But gains in local diversity due to new introductions are likely to be short-lived. Just as languages often become overwhelmed by more dominant ones, invasive plants, animals, and microbes often eventually outcompete and replace native life. If even one native grass or one native dialect perishes as a result of these introductions — as is almost always the case — global biodiversity suffers. Thus, homogeneity, while not synonymous with extinction, reflects both extinctions in the past and ones likely to ensue.

But what, ultimately, is the value in diversity? What merits the colossal efforts required to preserve it? According to biologist E.O. Wilson’s often-cited “biophilia” hypothesis, humans have an innate attraction to other kinds of creatures and a desire to live in a world of diverse and abundant forms of life. Pose questions on the value of diversity to a group of people, and some will certainly emerge as biophiles, citing the intrinsic worth of other life forms and other ways of knowing, and therefore, their inherent right to exist. Others will take a more utilitarian tack, mentioning the carbon sink services of a forest or the role of local languages as records of human history. Still others will be hard-pressed to find any value at all. But amid the philosophical, the pragmatic, and the nonexistent, there’s a new paradigm emerging to describe the importance of diversity. For a small group of forward-thinking biologists, ecologists, physicists, and economists who assembled earlier this year in Stockholm, the answer is simple: It’s all about resilience.

Resilience theory, and the nascent field of resilience science associated with it, begins with the basic premise that human and natural systems act as strongly coupled, integrated systems. These so-called “social-ecological” systems are understood to be in constant flux and highly unpredictable. And unlike standard ecological theory, which holds that nature responds to gradual changes in a correspondingly steady fashion, resilience thinking holds that systems often respond to stochastic events — things like storms or fires — with dramatic shifts into completely different states from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Numerous studies of rangelands, coral reefs, forests, lakes, and even human political systems show this to be true: A clear lake, for instance, seems hardly affected by fertilizer runoff until a critical threshold is passed, at which point the pond abruptly turns murky. A reef dominated by hard coral can, in the aftermath of a hurricane, flip into a state dominated by algae. A democratic nation stricken by drought, disease, or stock market crashes can descend into political chaos.

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Tags biodiversity demographics development ethics globalization languages population

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