Indigenous Cultural and Biological Diversity: Overlapping Values of Latin American Ecoregions

Indigenous Cultural and Biological Diversity: Overlapping Values of Latin. American Ecoregions

It is well known that the number of culturally distinct indigenous populations tends be high in tropical rain forests, the most biological rich and ecologically significant ecosystems in the world. Yet the overall correspondence of cultural diversity with globally significant biological values within and between ecosystems generally is less well known. We had the opportunity to measure this correspondence on the basis of two recently completed map-based data sets. A pioneering project backed by The World Bank and implemented by David Olson and Eric Dinerstein at World Wildlife Fund-US (the results of which are to be published early in `95) has produced a preliminary set of 218 ecoregions in Latin America. Meanwhile, a decade-long project to map indigenous groups in South America has been recently completed by Manual Lizarralde of the Department of Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, complementing Mac Chapin's Central American map (CSQ, Fall, 1992).

In parallel with the above developments, our group has been working on an operational framework for applying valuation concept based on ecological economics to the measurement of sustainability, in collaboration with the 2050 Project at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. This work involves employing the notion of "biological utility," or the beneficial role of ecosystem function and biodiversity in the sense of the "goods and services" provided by different kinds of natural ecosystems; forest and woodland, savanna/grassland, wetland, shrubland, scrubland and desert, and the many sub-types of these and other terrestrial ecosystems. Different ecosystems in general, and in different locations in particular, vary greatly in their biodiversity and ecological properties of utility to humans. For example, forest and woodland tend to support large numbers of species, especially trees, of enormous value as harvestable resources, along with genetic resources for the improvement of domesticated species. Wetlands, on the other hand, which generally have much lower levels of species and genetic diversity, are of higher values for the storage and cleansing of water resources and regulations of water flows. Yet both are the most important terrestrial ecosystems for the storage or accumulation of carbon, thus for the amelioration of global climate change.

Because an ecoregion is effectively an areas delineated on the basis of biotic features including the dominant ecosystem type, various measures of utility value can be attributed to a single ecoregion unit or a collective set constituting a larger biogeographic or geopolitical areas, or major ecosystem category (e.g., all of the tropical moist forest in Latin America). So, along with the measurement of indigenous cultural significance, utility value in terms of the contribution to globally significant functions, like maintenance of genetic resources or amelioration of global climate change, is mappable. The result can be an "accounting", which theoretically can be made at different aggregate geographic scales, of the value of different regions in terms of their contribution at least these aspects of global sustainability.


The linkage between indigenous cultural diversity and biological diversity has been shown to be as complex as it is inextricable by Madhav Gadgil of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and his collaborators. They have found, for example, that traditional endogamous groups in India, including tribal peoples, partition the biological resource base, exploiting different niches in a manner of speaking. Some groups specialize as honey gathers, others as shifting cultivators (traditional cultivators who clear forest plots, cultivate them for several years, then leave them fallow to be reclaimed by the forest while moving on to clear and cultivate a new plot), and so on. This obviously results in a greater efficiency of biological resource use than is possible when the economic production system is "industrialized", which basically involves "homogenizing" the resource base, reducing both cultural and biological diversity. Industrial development generally results in the transformation of environmentally heterogeneous landscapes into ones dominated by large blocks of state or privately controlled lands used for intensive agriculture, plantation forestry, parks, industrial activity, and urban settlements.

There presumably is much to be learned by societies engaged in industrial modes of production from cultures whose production systems are compatible with or may even enhance intrinsic levels of biodiversity. By "intrinsic levels" we mean amounts of habitat, species, and genetic diversity comparable to that which would exist in the absence of human activity. It has become a more or less accepted principle among ecologists that moderate levels of physical disturbance, such as often imposed by traditional forms of resource exploitation, enhances ecological complexity, landscape heterogeneity, and species diversity, thus promoting overall biodiversity. Also, empirical evidence exists showing indigenous cultivators' plantings of perennial species, for example, increases overall species diversity at a site. This had been shown by Dominique Irvine in her research on the Runa people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Based on these two lines of evidence and population biology and ecological theory in general, a strong argument can be made that traditional use of biological resources, even with a cautious mix of conventional land and resource use, could maintain and even enhance biodiversity. Yet despite this possibility, excessive rates of population growth in the South and consumption in the North are overwhelming the land and biological resource base globally. Gadgil provides an interesting slant on the distinction between indigenous and industrial cultural perspectives of biodiversity which as important consequences to global sustainability. He points out that convenient, although not always exclusive, dichotomy can be drawn between "ecosystem people" and "biosphere people". Ecosystem people derive their sustenance for biological and non-renewable resources form distant sources, often including the ecosystems in which indigenous people live. The distinction is not simply academic. People physically distant from the biological resources they consume tend to undervalue them, indirectly facilitating their over-exploitation and the degradation of the ecosystems producing them. By contrast, those with a direct stake in the biotic integrity of an ecosystem supplying their needs, tend to be conscious of their dependency. This is precisely the consciousness required by society at large for global sustainability.

The concept of biological utility may be one way to help build this consciousness. "Utility" is simply the notion that humans value things that provide them with some use or instrumental benefit. This contrasts to things we believe have value in their own right. It is often argued as dangerously anthropocentric to ascribe utility or economic value to things like biological or cultural diversity which clearly are inherently valuable regardless of any monetary or other quantitative measures. However, the measurement of utility value regardless of any monetary or other quantitative measures. However, the measurement of utility value provides a more objective means of identifying which components of nature or culture are considered more important than others. The alternative, which is to insist everything be valued equally, results in little value being ascribed to anything. In fact, as Brent Berlin of U.C. Berkeley (now at the University of Georgia) and others have shown, indigenous people classify biological diversity based on utility value. This contrasts the system of biological classification used in Western science.

In indigenous cultures, rational stewardship (conservation) of biological resources is effectively based on a knowledge of functioned utility and institutionalized in the form of taboos. For example, in many tropical forest ecosystems figs (Ficus spp.) act as keystone species, and this recognition by tribal cultures, in India is the basis of the reverence held for Ficus religious and the taboos against the cutting of such rational connections based on biological utility are less well developed among non-traditional and non-indigenous societies. Recognizing attributes of biodiversity first step toward benefits is an obvious first step towards the institutionalization (formal or informal) of modes or methods of sustainable resource use.


A through accounting of functional connections between human welfare, in terms of global sustainability and ecosystems, is both impossible and impractical. Not only is the number of scientifically demonstrated connections a small fraction of the total that may possibly exist, but the perception of utility is "user-dependent." The "direct output benefits" of ecosystem-tangible commodities represented by plants and animals consumed directly or marketed as food, fiber, forage, or chemically active compounds - generally overlap very little among traditional users of biological resources and industrial society. The other major class of utility values, represented by the so-called "indirect functional benefits" of ecosystems, tend to overlap more, and particularly so if "function" is considered on a larger scale-spatially and temporally. Fox example, the role of forests in the maintenance of global and regional climate benefits indigenous, and non-indigenous "bioshpere" people alike.

Unfortunately, despite such overlapping dependencies, the response to ecological degradation in many biodiversity rich areas tends toward the designation of natural areas as part, and protected enclaves from which indigenous control of resources is minimized or excluded. More than this, however, the focus on biodiversity by non-indigenous and non-ecosystem people has been on popular, charismatic and mythological elements, such as "endangered species" and "rain forests." Important utility benefits of ecosystems, essential to all people as well as the survival of charismatic elements of biodiversity, are often overlooked. These indirect functional benefits derive from ecological functions or processes, or other attributes related to physical structure in ecosystems, that do not necessarily correspond to high levels of globally unique biodiversity.

Some kind of ecosystems like rain forests apparently do have higher biological utility value, as well a high element diversity, measured in terms of the benefits for society at large, including indigenous people. However, it is important to know how these broader utility value very among different types of ecosystems as a means of assessing the social and economic impacts of deforestation and other pressures on ecosystems. Part of our research was conducted within USAID, Biodiversity Support Program (BSP), and was directed toward contributing a valuation framework for setting conservation investment priorities on a country basis. This effort, particularly the development of ecoregion maps by Oison and Dinestein afforded an opportunity to attack utility values to specific terrestrial ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The mapping of ecoregions and indigenous populations provided a unique opportunity to determine the extent to which measures of biological utility value, as perceived by society at large, and cultural diversity correspond. A high correspondence. A high correspondence would demonstrate, for example, that the ecosystems most important to maintaining indigenous cultural diversity are also the most important to maintaining global ecosystem functions such as the amelioration of global climate change, the maintenance of genetic, resources, and protective and productive functions of ecosystems. This would have implications beyond development agency investment priorities, by suggesting a reexamination of the perception of values and benefits society vis à vis those of indigenous people. .TX.-In our preliminary analysis reported here, 57 aggregated ecoregion units comprising the eleven Major Habitat Types in Latin America were scored land ranked according to the number of distinct linguistic/ethnic indigenous populations that occurred within their boundaries as well as their utility value. (In all, 218 base ecoregions currently are identified in the Olson and Dinerstein ecoregion scheme.) As indicators of utility value we used measures of carbon sequestration, genetic resources, and protective and productive benefits collectively associated with the ecoregions that constituted a Major Habitat Type. The scores were based on measured values drawn from the scientific literature, such as rates of biomass storage or accumulation. Where quantitative measures were unavailable, but clear qualitative differences exist, ecoregions were simply given scores based on their relative rank for a particular function. The first two utility scale on which they benefit humans. The amelioration of global climate change through the sequestering of carbon in plant matter; and the maintenance and continued evolution of gene pools necessary for the improvement of the World's economically most valuable crops and livestock. The third category captures and ecosystem's utility or functional value in two senses, its protective and productive capacity. The former refers to an ecosystem's buffering capacity against regional or local environmental change; drought, storms, floods, etc. Productive capacity refers to the rate of biomass production, which ecologists measures as "net primary production," and the "export" of nutrients or provision of fishery habitat upon which other (particularly aquatic and marine) ecosystems depend. The Vareza flood forests of the lower Amazon for example, and the mangroves that occur throughout coastal zones in the tropics are the ecological foundation for traditional and commercial fisheries. In a parallel sense, the Amazon Basin "exports" precipitation to surrounding regions, making possible rainfed crop and livestock production, as well as providing water resources for domestic and industrial use.


The biological utility, biodiversity, and cultural diversity indicator measures for Major Habitat Types are shown in the Table. The relative rankings of each Major Habitat Type for each of the three utility value categories are shown in Figure 1. A more detailed study presenting analysis at a higher level of resolution (i.e., the aggregate ecoregion and base ecoregion levels) is planned. Although not shown here, measures of biological utility value are generally correlated with those of element biodiversity, including estimated of species richness and endemism, which were made preliminarily by expert groups at the BSP biodiversity priority setting workshop in Miami in October. The data in the table allow further comparison of variables representing the three utility value categories, indigenous cultural diversity (number of distinct indigenous populations), and biodiversity in terms of habitat diversity within Major Habitat Types (Number of Base Ecoregions). The comparisons of most interest to us here, the relationships between the types of diversity - biological and cultural - and between cultural diversity and biological utility, show strong positive correlation (Figure 2). Mangroves are the only habitat type diverging markedly from this pattern by having far fewer indigenous populations than expected. This perhaps should not be surprising since the coastal location and inhabitability of mangroves makes their mapped distributions least likely to overlap with those of indigenous populations.

Behind these data, there are a number of interesting patterns for various smaller scale ecoregion units. For example, it is apparent that among ecoregions consisting of tropical moist forest, those of the Amazon Basin, in addition to being the most species rich, score highest in biological utility value while supporting the largest number of indigenous populations (with 334, or over two-thirds of the total diversity recorded for all of Latin America). Yet Tropical Dry Forests, which often are overlooked for their conservation value, are hardly lacking in cultural and biological diversity overall, or in interesting ecoregional patterns. In total, 89 indigenous groups were recorded for tropical dry forests in Latin America. While not having nearly as high value on the basis on indicators affected primarily by rainfall, such as carbon storage and net primary production, dry forests are nonetheless relatively rich in genetic resources. The aggregate ecoregion unit encompassed by Mexican dry forests is particularly noteworthy in this regard. This "ecosystem" not only supports a relatively high indigenous cultural diversity (about 30 distinct groups), albeit much of its assimilated or displaced, it also represents one of the world's most important repositories of genetic resources. Its forest tree genetic resources rival that of any tropical moist forest region. Even more significantly, its crop plant genetic resources, which include wild relatives of maize (Zea maize), cotton (Gossupium spp.) peppers (Capsicum spp.), and squash (Cucurbita spp.), are the basis of some of the world's most valuable commercial crops. Thus our results show that even within a major habitat type such as dry forests, biological diversity, both of utility and non-utility, and indigenous cultural diversity seems to be highly correlated. In this instance, protecting the integrity of ecosystems containing the biological diversity most important to the food security of present and future generations, could simultaneously maximize the protection of indigenous cultural diversity.

We were frankly surprised to find such a strong correlation between biological diversity utility value and cultural diversity, especially since our utility indicators are based on value from a global or regional, but not local use perspective. We will be continuing our research to see how these patterns hold up at a higher level of ecogeographic resolution. Certainly the occurrence of a large number of indigenous groups, whose use of biological diversity is probably as proportionately diverse, is an automatic expression of high utility value for an ecosystem. However, why should such ecosystem also rank high in utility measures based on an industrial society perspective?

Considering some basic ecological and co-evolutionary principles, the correspondence may not be so surprising. For cultures dependent entirely on biological resources the possibilities for diversification and coexistence should, in theory, be greatest where the resource base is richest. Biotic richness, in this regard has two major components, productivity, such as that measured by net primary production (essentially the rate of accumulation of plant biomass), and diversity, primarily in the form of the variety of biological resource of exploit. Thus as ecologists have found in studying the distribution and abundance of plants and animals, species diversity tends to increase with habitat diversity and increasing productivity or energy flow through an ecosystem. The theoretical explanation is that there are lower limits to population size and upper limits to niche overlap for species persistence. Therefore the higher the productivity and diversity of a habitat, the greater the opportunity for biological diversification; and the same may hold for indigenous cultures.

However, there is an additional explanation for these patterns. Stanford anthropologist William Durham, an expert on historical land use conflicts involving indigenous people, leans toward a cultural competitive exclusion explanation. Colonizing European population are likely to have displaced indigenous populations disproportionately from preferred "European-like" habitats (such as scrubland and savannah-woodland) - leaving rainforests to the last!

Whatever the causative agent, the results of our analysis show that contemporary industrial society and indigenous societies may be more interdependent than is often appreciated. If the results of this analysis hold up after further study, they will help confirm scientifically what perhaps most know intuitively: all societies are mutually interdependent with each other and on natural ecosystems, and this interdepdency crosses all spatial and temporal scales.

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