Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Terralingua and Biocultural Diversity

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Dr Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of the nonprofit Terralingua, has worked tirelessly to bring the concept of biocultural diversity to the forefront of conservation, showing that there is a correlation between cultural diversity and biodiverse areas. Dr Maffi has published many works, ranging from traditional knowledge to linguistics, and continues to work to bring awareness to the relationships between culture, language and biological diversity.

Voices for Biodiversity Co-Director Nejma Belarbi interviewed Dr. Luisa Maffi in April 2018. To listen to the podcast, click here.

What is Terralingua? 

Terralingua is an international nonprofit organization devoted to protecting and sustaining the biocultural diversity of life, which is the diversity of life in nature, culture and languages. All three diversities are interconnected and interdependently sustain the web of life, which is made up of biodiversity, the diversity of human languages and cultures around the world, and the connection of people and the natural environment. That's what we've been doing since 1996 through an integrated program of research, policy, advocacy, education and outreach, as well as on-the-ground projects with Indigenous communities.  


What initiatives has Terralingua been involved in? 

We started at the global level because of this idea of the interconnectedness of the diversity of life. We had this assumption that biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are interconnected, but how to show that? So we started with a planetary perspective. 

Some of our first efforts were mapping projects, where we mapped the overlap between the distribution of global biodiversity and the diversity of languages, which we then used as a proxy for cultural diversity at large. 

From a practical point of view, there were no maps of the distribution of cultures, but there were maps of the distribution of languages, so it was possible to use those. It also makes sense because languages are a key part of cultural identity and convey cultural knowledge. So even if there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between languages and cultures, the map was a good proxy. 

That work was done early on, when we had just started Terralingua. It was a collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund— they had heard that we were involved in that kind of mapping work and asked us whether we would help, literally, to put people on the map of their ecosystem-based conservation. 

They had maps of the world's ecoregions, but there were no people on them. That’s a big gap, and we had this incredible opportunity to help fill it. Because of that collaboration, the map and the reports that we wrote to go along with it went a long way. In a sense, it launched the work that we've done since with Terralingua.

Other kinds of global-level projects were developed. We were thinking that languages and cultures are in a crisis — language endangerment, cultural endangerment— and there were no language or cultural indicators to correspond to the indicators that had been developed for the trends in biodiversity. We felt it was necessary to develop something equivalent in order to be able to provide evidence of what was happening. That was the work that Dave Harmon, co-founder of Terralingua, and Jonathan Loh took on. First, they developed an Index of Biocultural Diversity that compared data on the world's languages with data on biodiversity. From there, they decided to go deeper in terms of gathering trends on the state of the world's languages, and subsequently developed an Index of Linguistic Diversity. 

These were also total firsts, there was nothing done systematically like that before, just as there had been no maps of biocultural diversity. With these tools, we did a lot of policy work at the international level, participating in meetings of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and other large gatherings of conservationists to really push for this perspective, that you couldn't do biodiversity conservation without taking into account the people who actually live in those places of high biodiversity that you want to conserve. 

The maps helped to show that the so-called hotspots of biodiversity were also places of high cultural diversity. Of course, the interaction of the interdependence of people and the environment happens everywhere. There is a geographic pattern that shows more density of biodiversity and different peoples in tropical and equatorial regions. Distribution is most sparse in higher latitudes, but the interdependence and interconnectedness are the same whether you are Sami or an Indigenous person in the Amazon. 

Those were the beginnings, with a lot of research and policy and dissemination. We have moved from there to wanting to do more education and outreach to bring this perspective, not only to academics and policy people and conservationists, but also as part of a broader understanding among the general public, in schools and so on. That's what we're focusing on right now with our magazine, Langscape Magazine. It began as a simple organizational newsletter, and then started turning into an actual magazine with stories from all over the world about 10 years ago. It has now become a major tool for spreading ideas, thanks to social media. 


Over the next few months, we hope to develop systematic campaigns to raise awareness. Protecting biocultural diversity doesn't only happen on the ground, it happens in people’s minds — in fact, it starts there. It has to begin with a change in the way people think, and so that's what we specialize in. There’s a lot of work that happens and needs to happen on the ground, but you really have to start with awareness.  


What do you think is one of the most pressing issues in the world today? 

Sustaining life in all its manifestations — sustaining the life that sustains us. Lots of people these days are concerned about climate change, with all good reasons, but even if we could magically make climate change issues disappear, we would still have a lot of problems. We are chipping away at the sustainability of life in both nature and culture, not just little by little, but often by leaps and bounds. 

The moment we break down the connections that people have traditionally had with the natural environment in which they live, it breaks down the very understanding that we depend on the health of the environment, the health of nature, to sustain us. So the disconnect comes about that way, and is the single main obstacle to doing anything about it.  

You see governments wanting to create a balance between economic goals and environmental goals, but there is no such thing as “creating balance.” The economy has to be part of the environment, rather than the environment being a tool or a means for the economy. Until we change that perspective, we're not going to make any real progress. That's why I think that changing the way we think has to be first and foremost, and then a lot can follow from there. 

It’s interesting to look, not at a global-level map, which by necessity doesn’t have a lot of detail, but at regional maps. You can map the ecoregions of a place, and then look at the distribution of the Indigenous peoples of that same place. You get an almost perfect overlap because people did organize themselves by bioregions, and adaptations were obviously based on what kind of environment they were living in and the way people would range. That's why you get, for instance, higher concentrations of different peoples in tropical areas. Because those areas are extremely rich and lush, you don't need to range too far in order to provide for yourself. In northern regions or desert regions, you need a much wider territory over which to range. And that really determines your adaptations for your way of life. At the same time, you modify the environment for your needs, and those modifications have not traditionally been much greater than the modifications other species make in their environment to provide for themselves. 

There used to be so much more attunement to ecological limits, recognition that you can't take more than your environment can reproduce and that you take no more than you need. We have so completely forgotten these precepts, and now go in and extract as much as we can. We extract not just what we need, but also what we don’t — by clear-cut logging, by fishing methods where you catch everything and completely devastate the sea bottoms and so forth. There was nothing like that in traditional societies. The Saanich people of the Pacific Northwest, for example, practiced reef net fishing, where their nets had holes in the middle to let part of the salmon run escape so they could continue on their voyage. That ensured that there would be a next generation of salmon, that the cycle would continue.  

Take the case of Cape Town in South Africa, which may be the first city in the world to run out of water in just a few weeks. Yet the rich people in Cape Town are still lounging around their swimming pools and watering their lawns, while people in the poor areas of town are going to public fountains with buckets. If you are wealthy, you can still think that there is no problem, but ultimately it will come to harm everybody. Hopefully, there will be enough lessons coming up and people will learn before it’s too late.


When we talk about one of the most pressing issues in the world being loss of biodiversity and humanity’s lack of interconnection with nature, how do we remedy that beyond disseminating these stories? 

Unfortunately, I don't think that there is a remedy that doesn't happen through the majority of people, both the general public and the ones in power. We need to come to terms with the fact that we really got on the wrong track, a track that we’re already seeing is totally self-destructive. 

The level of denial can be tremendous, and you get people like Elon Musk wanting to explore the possibilities for bringing people to Mars because he thinks, we know this planet is going to get destroyed, so let's go somewhere else in the solar system. That is the utmost in denial! We should instead be thinking about what we have been doing wrong and how we can live in a different way on Earth.  

People need to realize that you can make radical changes and have a fulfilling life, that you can be happy even if your life is not filled with stuff. You can be fulfilled by relations with other people, by reconnecting with your natural surrounds, and by getting recognition for doing good things for society and for the planet, rather than by how much money you make and your extravagant way of life. 

Getting us to look at how we're living may seem like it’s never going to happen, but we've caused this mess, and we can also start getting out of this mess. It's just a matter of a little switch— it's just as big and as little as that. Changes that you thought could never possibly happen do happen, so it's not completely unimaginable. It’s waking up to something we used to know and have forgotten. 

This is one case where, in order to move forward, you may need to go back and dig deeper into our heritage as a species, to remember things that were absolutely crucial in making life possible. It may not have been as easy as we have it now, but it’s not about going back to living in caves. That being said, there are millions of people around the world who actually do live in caves today, and it's a very ecological way of living!

There's a lot that we need to remember, a kind of species memory almost, to realize that this change is possible and that it's not going to be a sacrifice. It requires big changes for sure, but it may be something that we can do joyously and to really enjoy life more. That’s what drives us here at Terralingua.

My partner in life and work, David Rapport, and I have been working on a book, and it’s not about doom and gloom, although you do have to face what is happening squarely. You can't hide away from that. The hope lies precisely in the fact that we can make the change, and that we can make it happily. 


I loved what you said about how we can re-forge our connection with nature. How do we change our perspectives, and how does biocultural diversity fit into that re-forging? 

At the core, it means recognizing that we are not separate. We are not out here and the environment is out there— we need to see ourselves as part of that web of life. We’ll have to give up our hubris. As humans, we think we are so smart, that we can dominate everything and use it to our benefit. We have been too smart for our own good, as we now can see. So that recognition is really at the core of biocultural diversity. 

Our disconnected thinking has allowed for the rampant exploitation of both nature and other people, and that needs to change. Again, it seems far-fetched when you see how far we've gone the opposite way, but I don't think it is impossible. We are part of the larger web of life, and we need to find our rightful place in it again.

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