Biocultural Stewardship: A Framework for Engaging Indigenous Cultures

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It is important to cultivate a respectful and engaging approach to developing and maintaining relationships with indigenous cultures. I propose that two fields of inquiry, bioculturalism and stewardship, be considered together as biocultural stewardship in order to strengthen both. My main premise is that the dominant culture of a country or region bears more responsibility for creating relationships with indigenous cultures because of inherent power differentials, as well as histories of oppression and marginalization. However, it is arguably a matter of necessity at this point in human existence to move past the perceived barriers of culture toward more open and respectful relationships. It is critical to consider the complex and daunting challenges associated with sustainability issues from a variety of perspectives, including those of indigenous cultures.[1] Biocultural stewardship provides a perspective on land use practices and governance that is culturally relevant to indigenous cultures and illuminates pathways for Western cultures to recognize the interdependence of people and nature. It fosters conditions for creating relationships with indigenous cultures to promote biological and cultural conservation and relearn indigenous understandings of alternative ways for humans to relate with the natural world.

Relating to the Environment

Human beings are a product of evolution and experience the environment somatically, psychologically, cognitively, socially, and spiritually. According to Kellert, people respond to the environment from a blend of nine value stances.[2] During the evolution of our species, these values developed in response to environmental conditions and reflect our ability to adapt to different stressors and stimuli.

Depending on circumstances, Kellert argues that people relate to the natural world from any blend of these value stances. However, people may tend to favor one or two value stances as their primary preference and base decisions and actions accordingly. These value responses, individually and collectively expressed, play out through such behaviors.

Taking a co-evolutionary approach, Evanoff shifts the ethical focus from the human treatment of individual, static objects in nature to the causal relationships between interconnected events unfolding over time.[3] Any event can have far-reaching implications throughout its associated complex of interacting events. Applying this approach to humans and nature, Evanoff “recognize[es] the extent to which cultural practices and natural processes interact with and co-adapt themselves to each other.[4] The co-evolutionary approach posits that nature and human interaction form a complex and fluid dynamic. Evanoff points out that “the implication for this view for human-nature interactions is that ethics must concern itself not simply with individual actions but rather with how these actions affect the relations individuals have with the larger biological systems with which they co-evolve.[5] The perception of humans as superior in worth and function is transformed in the co-evolutionary approach to one in which all members of the biotic community—human, organic, and inorganic—are valued because of their intricate relationships. The co-evolutionary approach is analogous to Leopold’s land ethic as “it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.[6] Value is based upon the interaction between diverse members within the biotic community rather than economic or moral value.

Adoption of the co-evolutionary approach may be hampered by the perceived distance from nature that many modern humans maintain, which is exacerbated through technology. Humankind’s psychological distancing is thought to have originated with the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, which began around ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.[7] This transition was the establishment within the human psyche of domesticated and wild. According to Glendinning, “this was the purposeful separation of human existence from the rest of life: the domestication of the human species.[8] The shift to agriculture and animal husbandry transformed the human relationship to land. While nomadic hunter-gatherer societies relied on a direct and intimate interaction with nature, agrarian societies shifted their perspective of the land to an “other” to be worked for food yield in the domesticated realms or feared in the wild realms. The effects of the human capacity for “othering” ripple throughout human relationships with both the environment and people. Othering is used as justification for domination of the land, as well as people, often simultaneously. Colonialism, slavery, ethnic genocide, and highly destructive extraction practices are but a few examples of such othering at a cultural level.

According to Glendinning, Western culture is founded on the duality of tame verses wild. While this approach has enabled humanity to multiply, it assumes and relies on a position of dominance over both the environment and people. This shift is thought to have occurred gradually over the last ten thousand years and has been perpetuated by the hegemonies of Western culture, religion, and politics. As Glendinning states, “the human relationship to the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination.[9] In contrast to the Western approach, there are many indigenous cultures that retain a closer relationship with the land physically, psychologically, and spiritually. For example, the Mapuche of what is now Chile and Argentina and the Maori of what is now New Zealand both retain their cultural, physical, psychological, and spiritual connections with the land.

Despite culturally and religiously influenced distancing from nature within many Western cultures, many people maintained a fundamental relationship with nature through agrarian practices.[10] People lived in close proximity to wildness and nature as daily existence was influenced by weather, direct access to water, growing or collecting food, and reliance upon animals for food, transportation, and labor. Nash refers to this as living in the wilderness condition, in which struggles for existence outweigh any consideration of the effects of human influence.[11] While this condition is still the case for people at an elemental level, those living in developed countries may not perceive of such a direct connection with nature.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, people in developed countries began to move into larger cities and both literally and metaphorically farther away from their natural state. For example, in the United States in 1900, 60 percent of the population lived in rural areas. By 1990, this number had shifted to 25 percent, with the trend continuing downward to 21 percent in 2000 and 16 percent in 2013.[12] It became less necessary to look to nature as the direct source of sustenance or to deal directly with nature’s threats as more effective tools to control and manipulate the environment were developed. In post-modern societies, most people no longer hunt or grow food. For many, gardens are considered hobbies and hunting a sport. Protected from the elements, people in developed countries usually are only confronted by extremes that damage what has been built and controlled by people.

Physical distancing associated with the shift to agriculture and animal husbandry, along with the spiritual and cultural distancing encouraged by many Christian and secular leaders, contributed to a perversion of the psychological relationship that modern humans have with nature. The deep interconnection with the natural world that facilitates human participation as active members of the biotic community has been largely forgotten by modern people. Ecopsychology informs that this sense of “forgotteness” is the root of the generalized anxiety prevalent in developed countries.[13]

The lack of perceived connection with the natural world in modern Western thought promotes the expression of maladaptive biophilic expressions of extreme utilitarian, domineering, and negativistic values of nature. Many modern humans have forgotten the necessary interdependence with nature for life and as a result, have also forgotten how to be stewards of communities, especially with other-than-human members. Until post-modern people reconcile this disconnect between humans and nature, their relationship with the environment will continue to be marked by exploitive, extractive, and destructive practices.

In order reconcile the human versus nature dichotomy, it is necessary for Western thought to embrace Leopold’s conceptualization of community. For Leopold, human interconnection with nature is an essential aspect of the larger biotic community. Given the current disconnection of modern people from nature, it is necessary to first recognize the human interconnection with nature, and then go beyond recognition to embody it. Recognizing implies that interconnection is an abstract, intellectual experience requiring little or no responsibility to maintain. Conceptualized as such, recognition dissipates over time because it is not grounded in direct, lived experience. Embodying implies a deep, experiential understanding of interconnection as a constant state of being. Experienced in this way, interconnectedness becomes the norm.

Reconciliation and Biculturalism

Reconciliation comes through realignment of the values and ethics practiced by policy-makers, land owners, land management agencies, and individuals alike. Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” is recognized as a key philosophical underpinning of Western environmental ethics and therefore is foundational to this realignment. The land ethic extends the concept of community to include the natural world by widening the scope of ethics to include the land itself. Prior to Leopold, the study of ethics in Western philosophy mainly considered the limits of community—and, therefore, moral consideration—to extend only to humans. The land ethic fundamentally challenged the Western perspective of the role of humans within the landscape, shifting that role “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community.[14] Leopold states:

This extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequence may be described in ecological as well as in philosophic terms. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls this symbiosis. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content.[15]

By considering ecological principles alongside philosophical ethics, the land ethic demonstrates the role of humans as members of a larger biotic community. In contrast, throughout Western history, some members and leaders within Western cultures and religions have maintained that humans are the masters of the earth, thus leading to the expectation for humankind to exploit nature simply as a resource and a dumpsite.[16] Leopold’s extension of ethics to include the biotic community presents a paradigm shift in Western thought. The application of ethics expands beyond the limits of humankind to include the natural world, thus establishing nature as morally considerable.[17] The land ethic establishes a philosophical base to argue for the conservation and appropriate interaction with land based on intrinsic and other values beyond simply the economic benefits to humanity.

Western people’s perceived distancing from nature contributes to the dichotomous view of humans and the environment. Although there has been movement in Western thought toward a more holistic view of humanity’s relationship to nature as articulated by Leopold, Evanoff, and others, there is the question of how to actualize these ideals in a practical way. Biocultural stewardship may provide the necessary framework.

In contrast to the dichotomies outlined above, many indigenous people still live in close association with nature. Engaging with indigenous people may provide insight into alternative ways of co-existing with the environment that may be applied to modern cultures to help facilitate reconnection and embodied interconnection with nature. Equally important, conservation of biodiversity on native lands may be aided by understanding the nuances of indigenous communities’ interactions with the land.

Drawing on multiple generations of accumulated knowledge, indigenous people still claim a strong connection to land, possess a keen awareness of the local environment, and maintain the ability to adapt to changes within their environment.[18] This intimate connection between people and land is foundational to indigenous communities. It is through culture that land and nature traditions are transmitted and given meaning to successive generations. Therefore, indigenous culture may be viewed as the repository for traditional ecological knowledge or the accumulated knowledge, practices, and beliefs of indigenous people that, combined, represent and determine a culture’s relationship to nature. As Berkes argues:

Purely ecological aspects of tradition cannot be divorced from the social and spiritual. Stories and legends are part of culture and indigenous knowledge because they signify meaning. Such meaning and values are rooted in the land and closely related to a ‘sense of place.[19]

It is important to avoid romanticizing indigenous cultures as made up of “ecologically noble savages” who interact with the natural world in harmony and balance. Evidence indicates that the social and cultural norms associated with living sustainably rely on low population density, abundant land, and the absence of a market economy. When these conditions are threatened, these groups often adapt unsustainable practices in order to survive. Further, the image of the ecologically noble savage has largely been applied by outsiders who hold these cultures up as examples of what civilized people have “lost” in exchange for the technology and comforts of the modern world. Both the ideal of wilderness without human influence and the ecologically noble savage have been challenged in recent years as relying on a static, romanticized perception of either wilderness or indigenous people.[20] Grande claims the image of noble savage is often called upon as a way of legitimizing the messages of some non-indigenous groups. Doing so further marginalizes indigenous people, especially when they do not live up to the romanticized ideal.

Indigenous ecological knowledge must not be viewed as a panacea to the wide range of eco-social issues encapsulated in the field of sustainability. Maragia contends that many pre-colonial indigenous cultures were plagued with a variety of social issues—such as gender inequality—and ecological issues—such as highly destructive farming methods—that are not, in fact, sustainable, ecologically or culturally.[21] Such cultural and environmental practices persisted because of a widely dispersed human population.

Even in light of such criticism, traditional ecological knowledge retains much value in addressing the complex issues associated with sustainability. In a study commissioned by the United Nations, researchers found that in four different countries in Africa, “where indigenous knowledge was ignored there has been a deterioration of the environment, leading to poverty.[22] The indigenous systems of transferring ecological knowledge across generations effectively influenced communally managed land within these communities and the broader region. Recognizing the limitations of indigenous cultures, traditional ecological knowledge contributes to a broader understanding of the relationship of humans with nature and to shifting our collective eco-social ethic.

Many indigenous cultures are marginalized and discounted as potential contributors to addressing the issues that often times affect them most directly.[23] But from the fringes emerge opportunities.

Fringe Potential

Ecologists have long argued that biological diversity is critical for the health of an ecosystem. Biological diversity maintains that natural ecosystems are more resilient and healthy when comprised of a multitude of interdependent species. Such diversity aids in maintaining an ecosystem, regardless of scale, by promoting interspecies niche development to perform the various eco-services needed within the biotic community. These ecological poly-cultures tend to make more efficient use of scarce resources through partitioning created through interspecies spatial differentiation.[24] For example, the stratification of plant species within an area into canopy, understory, shrub, grasses, mosses, and lichens effectively captures energy from the sun by filling many of the possible niches. Meanwhile, nutrient cycles are structured to use and reuse limited resources, such as minerals and water, as different plants rely on different resources while releasing bound-up nutrients that are then reused.

Since humankind is an expression of nature, this dynamic is repeated in human systems both physiologically and culturally. Physiologically, illnesses get passed around quickly within areas of dense population such as colleges, cities, and office buildings, as does a smile or a positive attitude. Culture, the expression of the cumulative values and norms of a people, is therefore the sociological library of the collective wisdom of society. It is through culture that the filters through which we interpret the world are established and maintained. It is also through exposure to other cultures that we broaden our worldview by removing or reframing these filters. Additionally, cultural diversity ensures the full spectrum of human experience, and knowledge is maintained because “any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of our species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw.[25]

In contrast, human created monocultures may not promote ecological or cultural health or abundance. For example, in the United States, monoculture food choices represented by fast food establishments dominate the urban landscapes. Consumers can find the same products distributed in cloned environments designed to provide a consistent experience. This is also reflected in farming techniques comprised of large-scale, monoculture-based agribusinesses and meat factories requiring high levels of petroleum-based inputs in order to maintain production levels and transportation to distant markets.[26] Meanwhile, local restaurants serving unique and local fare are often off the beaten path, and organic farming techniques are considered fringe, although they are growing in popularity, supposedly because of the quality of the food.

It is within the fringes that diversity takes root. Fringes, in ecological terms, are the margin between one ecosystem and another. In these edges biodiversity flourishes because of the blending effect between multiple ecosystems produces niche opportunities for species that cannot thrive in the bordering ecosystems. This is also where the greatest density of fruit tends to occur in part due to the increased efficiency of resource use.[27] Consider the bank of a mountain stream. Two distinct ecosystems interact at the edge: the aquatic and the terrestrial. But there is also a third ecosystem that only exists at the interface of the two. Mosses and ferns along with a host of other plants and animals exist in this narrow zone. Such margins attract animals seeking both water and food. As the animals move away from the stream, they take with them energy stores and genetic material for further distribution.

Cultural edges may function in much the same way. It is here that knowledge, technology, and beliefs may be shared, resulting in an increased resiliency, flexibility, and adaptive capacity for those participating. It is important to note that cultural edges are more complex than the defined boundaries of a mountain stream. Instead, they are better viewed as “processes of interchange” that may involve community gatherings or social media based on interests and perspectives, rather than geographic proximity. When successful, these zones promote interaction between various individuals and groups in which new ways of being and knowing may be considered by seemingly disparate individuals and groups.

In the post-modern world, indigenous cultures may occupy such an edge. Either the indigenous people are so marginalized as to only exist on the edge, or the communities are insular except where they bump up against the dominant culture. Either way, an opportunity exists in the overlap between the indigenous and dominant communities. Industrialization and urbanization, often imposed through political and corporate colonialism, are more likely to promote homogenization of perspectives toward a monoculture of humanity, rather than the poly-cultures needed to maintain cultural diversity. Indigenous cultures and their rich linguistic tapestry have suffered along with the biological communities with which they co-evolved. Maffi points out that “all three diversities [cultural, linguistic, and biological] are under threat by some of the same forces . . . that loss of diversity at all levels spells dramatic consequences for humanity and the earth.[28] Indeed, these cultures are largely marginalized and exploited while possibly contributing unique perspectives on many global challenges that humanity faces.


Stewardship fosters an intimate connection to both nature and community. “It is about the exercise of moral and civic responsibility to protect, restore, conserve, and prudently use the earth’s ecosystems and all that they sustain.[29] The essence of stewardship maintains that humankind must be responsible caretakers of the earth. Whether divinely mandated or issue-based, the stewardship approach requires a conservative approach to extraction and use of resources in order to maintain natural systems in a healthy, resilient state.[30] Stewardship recognizes human interdependence upon natural systems and seeks to care for resources to promote abundance for societal needs as well as the natural systems upon which society depends. Leopold clearly states this imperative when he states “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.[31] Changing the word biotic to biocultural may reflect the current direction of thought regarding this dimension of environmental ethics because it better articulates the broader application of community Leopold conceptualized in the land ethic.

Moving toward a stewardship frame of reference in regard to both the environment and culture could be considered a viable means of healing the wounds we have inflicted upon ourselves and nature because it embodies the environment and the cultures nested within. It is a way of interacting with the natural and cultural environments that respects members of both communities and values the co-evolutional aspect of their interaction. In relation to the environment, this may include restrictions on the use of natural resources. Relative to culture, this includes resisting the propensity to homogenize or destroy other cultures, instead promoting engagement with these cultures in meaningfully beneficial ways. Finally, it includes valuing and balancing traditional ecological knowledge with scientific knowledge and inquiry.

Biocultural Stewardship

Connecting bioculturalism and stewardship strengthens both. Biocultural stewardship is based upon the intricate and intangible connection between culture and environment. It is an ethically based interaction with the natural and cultural environment that respects all members of both communities and values the co-evolutional aspect of their interaction. Stewardship is an ancient concept based either on religious or spiritual beliefs or on societal norms and expectations.[32] Bioculturalism is a fairly recent bridge between biological and cultural diversity issues that focuses on exploring the intricate dance between culture and land.[33]

Blending these two concepts provokes some interesting questions. Who stewards a particular biocultural hotspot? Is it purely internal to the indigenous culture that occupies and embodies the land, or is it necessary to impose stewardship from without? Is it a collaborative function between multiple levels of government, non-governmental organizations, and indigenous cultures? Are traditional practices that are not sustainable overlooked because of their place within a culture, or is it appropriate to prescribe changes to tradition? Of critical importance in each of these questions is how knowledge is developed and utilized.

The Western approach is to use the scientific method, in which a problem is approached mechanistically, while indigenous cultures tend to rely on knowledge accumulated through direct, intimate interaction with the natural world held in a more holistic way. The application of scientific knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge need not be mutually exclusive approaches.[34] The primary differences between these two approaches to attainment of knowledge are the timeline and intimacy with that which is being contemplated. Whereas scientific study may last several years, traditional ecological knowledge is passed to successive generations as a method of ensuring the success of a given people in relation to their land—the ultimate longitudinal study. Scientific study is intentionally designed to keep the researcher distant from the subject in order to take apart a problem and analyze the component pieces. Building traditional ecological knowledge is a much more intimate, multigenerational relationship, relying on environmental consciousness in the experience of everyday living and direct interaction. Neither way of knowing is “better” than the other. Both have value in constructing knowledge and informing decisions regarding how best to interact with the environment and community. As Leopold established in his land ethic, in order to manage the land toward health and resiliency, we must know the land intimately and scientifically.

Combining scientific knowledge with traditional ecological knowledge through stewardship may be a bridge that acknowledges the value of both. Biocultural stewardship provides a framework to guide actions when engaging with indigenous cultures and nature. It is founded on a commitment by all stakeholders to actively participate in the process by integrating new and ancient ways of learning and knowing to address issues that challenge both indigenous and post-modern cultures. Maintaining the ecological health of bioregions to promote abundance is accomplished by engaging with the knowledge of those most intimately connected with an environment. In relation to culture, it means recognizing and respecting the rights and integrity of indigenous cultures to develop through their respective stages and to allow the necessary access to nature needed to sustain them. It also includes engaging in fair practices with indigenous cultures regarding traditional ecological knowledge that may be used for commercial purposes. Biocultural stewardship includes the valuation of traditional ecological knowledge balanced with scientific knowledge. It requires that the indigenous culture engage with outsiders and integrate scientifically based knowledge into its traditional practices. In such cases, indigenous peoples must be willing to integrate such findings into their environmental practices.

Biocultural Stewardship in Practice

In 2005 Loh and Harmon created the Index of Biocultural Diversity (IBCD) by combining calculations of biodiversity with calculations of cultural diversity into one model.[35] The IBCD model calculates biocultural diversity by country and takes into account both land area and population. The results of this process identified three major areas of the world with the highest biocultural diversity: the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, and Indomalayasia. It also identified the four most bioculturally diverse countries as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Cameroon, and Columbia. This model could be applied within countries as well to identify specific regions that are threatened and in need of biocultural stewardship. Such areas could be considered biocultural hotspots containing high densities of both biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Who stewards biocultural hotspots? Does it rest solely on indigenous cultures, or is it necessary to institute policies at a variety of levels to ensure protection? Due to the marginalization of many of these indigenous cultures, it is not practical for them to exercise power to achieve recognition, much less policy change. In order to support biocultural stewardship, it is necessary to bolster support for these regions though a variety of political, educational, and non-governmental methods. To understand more clearly how biocultural stewardship may contribute to the sustainability of an eco-social community, compare the experiences of the Mapuche in Chile with that of the Maori in New Zealand. These two indigenous cultures are generalized in order to highlight the characteristics of biocultural stewardship. By generalizing, I recognize that voices within these communities would disagree with my basic analysis. This is not an attempt to essentialize these cultures; rather, it is necessary to draw attention to specific aspects of biocultural stewardship.

The Mapuche people of Chile are the largest indigenous tribe, representing 95 percent of the indigenous population and comprising 4.7 percent of the overall population. From 1530-1810, as their lands became more settled by progressive waves of Spanish conquistadors, they were marginalized, assimilated, or destroyed. Since the creation of what is now Chile in 1820, the Mapuche have continued to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and driven from their homelands. This began to change in 1993 with the signing of the Indigenous Peoples Act, which recognized the rights of indigenous peoples and signaled within the Chilean government the intention to enter into a new relationship with the Mapuche. However, this new relationship has been more difficult in practice than on paper and has had only marginal success. This recognition has only recently gained momentum with the ratification of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization by the Chilean government in 2008. At its core, this international convention supports the rights of indigenous people to consultation, property, and self-determination.[36]

The modern history of the Mapuche has been and continues to be a constant struggle for recognition of land rights granted by the Chilean government in principle but not supported in practice. A land governance policy that is particularly antithetical to this endeavor is the designation of Private Protected Areas (PPAs). Most PPAs are managed by international or national forestry interests or  mineral interests, while some PPAs are managed by NGOs concerned with the conservation of biodiversity in a pristine wilderness state. The result is the creation of huge tracts of land that are inaccessible to the Mapuche regardless of their traditional subsistence uses and cultural significance. PPAs have created a patchwork of accessible and inaccessible lands. While it is feasible for the Mapuche to create their own indigenous parks under the PPA regulations, typically they do not have the financial resources to create them, much less to support them long term. Additionally, the Mapuche are intentionally and consistently isolated from the political and decision-making processes that ultimately result in further marginalization. The outcome is a tense and volatile relationship between companies, government officials, non-indigenous farmers, squatters, and the Mapuche.[37] In this case, biocultural stewardship is not possible due to the lack of support, trust, or cooperation at any level.

Contrast this with the experiences of the Maori in New Zealand who, at multiple levels within New Zealand’s government, possess influence that defends and supports their way of life. This is based upon a strong, internally created vision of the future of this culture and a commitment to creating programs and opportunities for the Maori people to maintain pride in their culture while recognizing the influence of the rising “Westernizing” tide. These include the creation of community- and regional-level strategic plans that seek to validate and celebrate Maori culture, use of traditional Maori knowledge in research, and the capture of Maori knowledge utilizing forms traditional to Maori culture, as well as more contemporary scientific and technological approaches such as GIS mapping and the use of environmental indicators based on Maori knowledge to assess environmental change. This is a good example of the use of traditional ecological knowledge paired with scientific knowledge to address local and regional issues. The success of these programs relies on the recognition that indigenous groups must work within the confines of a system they did not create, balanced in a way that assures their cultural identity is not compromised as they fight to preserve it. In these ways, the Maori have teamed up with the globalized government of New Zealand, rather than fighting against it.[38] In this case, biocultural stewardship is evident at a multitude of levels.

Characteristics of Biocultural Stewardship

Comparing the Mapuche and the Maori brings into stark relief three critical aspects of biocultural stewardship: cultural self-determination, blended knowledge, and political engagement. While discussed independently, these three characteristics are recognized as being highly entangled. First, an indigenous group must have the capacity for self-determination or articulating the identity of the group in relationship to their land and other cultures. Both the Mapuche and the Maori articulate their cultural identities; however, the Maori have integrated their story with the dominant culture, while the Mapuche identity is articulated in spite of the dominant culture. The result is little public or political support for the Mapuche, while the Maori are more integrated into the system and attempt to work within that framework while providing value to the larger culture.

A second aspect is blended knowledge or the integration of old and new ways of creating and utilizing knowledge. While the Mapuche are severely excluded from this process, the Maori are contributing to the broader society by offering their particular experience and expertise to the issues. This is especially prevalent in the integration of Maori concepts into the study of environmental indicators to track larger climate change issues. Being able to tap into the longer timeline of the Maori in examining these changes provides a much broader understanding of the issue and, equally important, an alternative view on how to address these challenges.

Third, the ability to navigate and engage with the political environment in order to be heard is critical. Simply put, the Mapuche are voiceless and have no representation at any level of government. The Maori, on the other hand, are empowered by their ability to engage with and contribute to the system they live within. This took effort on the part of the Maori people as well as the local and national governments.

As braided rope is stronger than each of the individual strands, biocultural stewardship is strengthened by the intermingling of cultural self-determination, blended knowledge, and political engagement. Each of these concepts is important in its own way but limited when operating independently. However, when considered in concert, their strength is unified and amplified because each informs and bolsters the others.

The comparison of the Mapuche and Maori experiences reveals that an indigenous culture’s struggle to engage with the dominant culture oftentimes is mired in violence. The Mapuche are a good example of this situation. As they struggle to assert their identity and claim their associated rights, they are consistently met with resistance culturally and politically, prompting violence from both sides.[39] Until the question of legitimacy claimed by the Mapuche is addressed, violence will likely continue to occur and possibly escalate. Biocultural stewardship seeks to engage in dialogue and community action before reaching the threshold of violence.

A similar model exists on the international stage. The value of biocultural diversity is articulated in a variety of international agreements ranging from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992, Agenda 21, the Earth Charter, and the United Nations Environment Programme. However, these statements of support for bioculturalism do not necessarily translate to local, regional, or national support or policies. To address this gap, the United Nations Environment Programme established the Biocultural Community Protocols in 2009. The protocol process is intended to create culturally specific rules for engaging with indigenous people, moving toward the objective of maintaining biocultural diversity. It also provides a process for supporting development in conjunction with external stakeholders where appropriate. The intent of the biocultural community protocols is to further amplify the call from indigenous peoples and local communities to be affirmed with international and national legal frameworks as custodians of their landscapes and to enjoy secure rights to manage their territories, natural resources, and traditional knowledge, innovations, and practices according to their values and customary laws.[40]

As indicated in Figure 2, biocultural stewardship reduces these components to three interrelated aspects: self-determination, blended knowledge, and political engagement.

The biocultural community protocols appear to be a highly prescriptive process imposed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the indigenous cultures with whom they work. This may be necessary in order to translate cultural norms into the legal terminology needed to engage in the international political arena. While it is recognized that the dominant culture must be involved and may actually need to initiate such a process, the ultimate product must be held and valued by the indigenous culture.


In order for modern people to live more sustainably, it is necessary for their relationship to the natural world to shift from a perspective of being separate from and superior to nature to one of being in an embodied interconnection with nature. Equally important, it is necessary to conserve the remaining biocultural hotspots of the world in order to maintain both biological diversity and cultural diversity. Biocultural stewardship may facilitate both.

A fundamental assumption in the worldview of contemporary Western ethics holds that nature is subservient to humans. Thus, moral consideration does not extend beyond humans, allowing the perception that humans are separate from and superior to nature. The perception of distance from the environment permits and in some ways encourages maladaptive responses to nature that may be used to justify destructive practices. Such practices will continue until the paradigm of separateness is recognized as flawed and a deeply embodied interrelationship with the biotic community is fostered and embraced.

Leopold’s land ethic is rooted in his understanding of an expanded concept of community that includes all life and all things that support life. The land ethic is fundamental to biocultural stewardship because Leopold argues for the extension of moral consideration to include the natural environment and seeks to reorient human interaction to that of a member of the biotic community rather than master of the environment. Biocultural stewardship may facilitate the needed healing for the transmutation in Western thought to more fully occur by providing insight into alternative ways of interacting with nature that are grounded in embodied interconnection with nature.

Biocultural stewardship aids indigenous people by exploring and establishing culturally relevant land governance practices that recognize and support preserving biocultural diversity. It  serves as a template for engaging with indigenous cultures in respectful and meaningful ways. Cultural self-determination, blended knowledge, and political engagement play equally important roles in creating biocultural stewardship. Biological stewardship considers the interplay between the economic, ecological, and cultural dimensions and provides a method to involve both traditional ecological knowledge and scientific knowledge in the pursuit of viable, practical, and sustainable solutions to the complex problems that indigenous and post-modern cultures now face.

[1]. C.L. Beckford, C. Jacobs, N. Williams, and R. Nahdee, “Aboriginal Environmental Wisdom, Stewardship, and Sustainability: Lessons from the Walpole Island First Nations, Ontario, Canada,” Journal of Environmental Education, 41, no. 4 (2010): 239-48; F. Berkes, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management (Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis, 1999); J. Jamieson, “The Role of Indigenous Communities in the Pursuit of Sustainability,” New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law 14 (2010):161-96; W. Sachs and T. Santarius, eds., Fair Future: Resource Conflicts, Security and Global Justice , P. Camiller, trans. (New York: Zed Books, 2007).

[2]. S.R. Kellert, The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society (Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1996);. S.R. Kellert, Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997).

[3]. R. Evanoff, “A Coevolutionary Framework for Environmental Ethics,” Environmental Philosophy 6, no. 1 (2009): 57-76.

[4]. Ibid., 57.

[5]. Ibid., 59-60.

[6]. A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 204.

[7]. C. Glendinning, My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994); D. Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).

[8]. Glendenning, My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, 71.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. W. Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. N. Wirzba (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002).

[11]. R.F. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind , 4th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967).

[12]. M.F. Riche, “America’s Diversity and Growth: Signposts for the 21st Century,” Population Bulletin 55, no. 2 (2000): 1-43; 2010 Census, “Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria,” at; C. Doering, “As More Move to the City, Does Rural America Still Matter?” USA Today,January 13, 2013.

[13]. T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes, and A.D. Kanner, Ecopsychology : Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995).

[14]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, 204.

[15]. Ibid., 202.

[16]. J. Garreau, “Environmentalism as Religion,” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, 28 (2010): 61-74.

[17]. The Wilderness Society and K. Warren, “Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic,” in Encyclopedia of Earth (Washington, DC: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment, 2008), at

[18]. A. Baer, “Maintaining Biocultural Diversity,” Conservation Biology 3, no. 1 (1989): 97-98; Beckford, Jacobs, Williams, and Nahdee, “Aboriginal Environmental Wisdom, Stewardship, and Sustainability”; Berkes, Sacred Ecology; Jamieson, “The Role of Indigenous Communities in the Pursuit of Sustainability.”

[19]. Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 6.

[20]. J.B. Callicott and M.P. Nelson, The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness from John Muir to Gary Snyder (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998); S. Grande, “Beyond the Ecologically Noble Savage: Deconstructing the White Man’s Indian,” Environmental Ethics 21, no. 3 (1999): 307-320; K. Redford, “The Ecologically Noble Savage,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1991): 46-48.

[21]. B. Maragia, “The Indigenous Sustainability Paradox and the Quest for Sustainability in Post-Colonial Societies: Is Indigenous Knowledge All That Is Needed?” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 18 (2006): 197-248.

[22]. P. Mwaura, Indigenous Knowledge in Disaster Management in Africa (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment Programme, 2008), 9.

[23]. W. Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Toronto, ON, Canada: House of Anansi Press, 2009).

[24]. M.E.S. Bracken, “Monocultures versus Polycultures,” S.E. Jørgensen and B.D. Fath, eds., Encyclopedia of Ecology, vol. 3 (Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 2008), 2446-49.

[25]. P. Muhlhausler, “The Interdependence of Linguistic and Biological Diversity,” in D. Myers, ed., The Politics of Multiculturalism in the Asia/Pacific (Darwin, Australia: Northern Territory University Press, 1995), 603.

[26]. V. Shiva, Earth Democracy : Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005).

[27]. N.J. Turner, I. Davidson-Hunt, and M. O’Flaherty, “Living on the Edge: Ecological and Cultural Edges as Sources of Diversity for Social-Ecological Resilience,” Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal 31, no. 3 (2003): 439-61.

[28]. L. Maffi, “Linguistic, Cultural, and Biological Diversity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 599-617; see also L. Maffi, “Biocultural Diversity and Sustainability,” in J. Pretty, A. Ball, T. Benton, et al., eds., The SAGE Handbook of Environment and Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, 2007), 267-77.

[29]. B.L. Ack, C. Daly, Y. Everett, et al., “The Practice of Stewardship: Caring for and Healing Ecosystems and Communities,” Journal of Sustainable Forestry 12, nos. 3 and 4 (2001): 117-42.

[30]. A. Biel and A. Nilsson, “Religious Values and Environmental Concern: Harmony and Detachment,” Social Science Quarterly 86, no. 1 (2005): 178-91; U. King, “One Planet, One Spirit: Searching for an Ecologically Balanced Spirituality,” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature and the Environment 10, no. 1 (2005) 66-87; A.M. Smith and M. Pulver, “Ethics-Based Environmentalism in Practice: Religious-Environmental Organizations in the United States,” Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion 13, no. 2 (2009): 145-79. L. Pinoniemi, “Taking the Measure of Environmental Stewardship,” Parks and Recreation 44, no. 5 (2009): 45-50.

[31]. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, 225.

[32]. A. Al-Damkhi, “Environmental Ethics in Islam: Principles, Violations, and Future Perspectives,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 65, no. 1 (2008): 11-31; D.L. Feldman and L. Moseley, “Faith-Based Environmental Initiatives in Appalachia: Connecting Faith, Environmental Concern and Reform,” Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion 7, no. 3 (2003): 227-52.; M. Immergut, “Adamah (Earth): Searching for and Constructing a Jewish Relationship to Nature,” Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion 12, no. 1 (2008): 1-24; King, “One Planet, One Spirit”; M.N. Peterson and J. Liu, “Impacts of Religion on Environmental Worldviews: The Teton Valley Case,” Society and Natural Resources 21, no. 8 (2008): 704-718; J. Warburton and M. Gooch, “Stewardship Volunteering by Older Australians: The Generative Response,” Local Environment 12, no. 1 (2007): 43-55.

[33]. J. Pretty, B. Adams, F. Berkes, et al., “The Intersections of Biological Diversity and Cultural Diversity: Towards Integration,” Conservation and Society, 7, no. 2 (2009): 100-112.

[34]. A. Agrawal, “Dismantling the Divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge,” Development and Change 26, no. 3 (1995): 413-39.

[35]. J. Loh and D. Harmon, “A Global Index of Biocultural Diversity,” Ecological Indicators 5, no. 3 (2005): 231-41.

[36]. “Indigenous Peoples in Chile,” 2011, at

[37]. “Mapuche Struggle Heats Up,” NACLA Report on the Americas 34, no. 5 (2001) 2;. L.E. Meza, “Mapuche Struggles for Land and the Role of Private Protected Areas in Chile,” Journal of Latin American Geography 8, no. 1 (2009): 149-63; N. Dean, “Ancestral Land Rights – A People Hungry for Change,” June 10, 2011, at

[38]. G. Harmsworth, “Indigenous Concepts, Value and Knowledge for Sustainable Development: New Zealand Case Studies,” paper presented at the 7th Joint Conference of the School of Maori and Pacific Development, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, and the International Centre for Cultural Studies, Nagpur, India, “Preservation of Ancient Cultures and the Globalization Scenario,” at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, November 22-24, 2002; P.A. Memon and N. Kirk, “Role of Indigenous Maori People in Collaborative Water Governance in Aotearoa/New Zealand,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 55, no. 7: 941-59.

[39]. G.M. Waldman, “Historical Memory and Present-Day Oblivion: The Mapuche Conflict in Post-Dictatorial Chile,” Time and Society 21, no. 1 (2012): 55-70.

[40]. K. Bavikatte and H. Jonas, eds., Bio-Cultural Community Protocols: A Community Approach to Ensuring the Integrity of Environmental Law and Policy (Cape Town, South Africa: United Nations Environment Programme and Natural Justice, 2009), 68.

  • Daniel Caston

    Daniel Caston is Instructor of Recreational Leadership and Coordinator of the Ferrum Outdoors Program at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia.

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