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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder13. Diversity and human survival
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDocumenting diversity
View the documentResources for the future
View the documentDiversity of living systems
View the documentCauses and effects of the loss of natural diversity
View the documentDiversity and culture
View the documentRestoring what is lost
View the documentBiodiversity and research


In earlier chapters, we examined the widespread processes of environmental degradation that are taking place throughout the world and tried to understand their causes, past and present, as well as the effects that new trends will have on the environment in the years to come. The effects of human action have been profound and cumulative. Earth’s atmosphere is being modified, introducing uncertainties about potential consequences, which could be life threatening. Water is being contaminated on every continent, in coastal areas, and even in the open ocean. Simultaneously, the principal fish species are being exploited far beyond replacement levels, introducing profound disturbances in the main aquatic ecosystems. Elimination of vegetation is promoting widespread erosion, changes in hydrological regimes, and, frequently, floods and droughts in areas in which they were previously unknown. “Scars” that are often irreversible are being produced by mining operations, as well as by quarrying for building construction or engineering works such as highways or dams.

The combined effects of these processes are affecting many species of plants and animals, which are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a changing environment to which they have not had time to adapt. As a result of human activity, the equilibrium of ecosystems is being altered and widespread modifications of their species compositions and interspecific relations are taking place. A main consequence of the deterioration of the physical and biological support of ecosystems is the general loss of biodiversity - both number of species and varieties.

Along with this biological impoverishment, social and economic standardization are rapidly reducing the richness of the world’s hundreds of cultures and resulting in the loss of a huge volume of knowledge about nature that has been accumulated over many generations. Macroeconomic trends are forcing local communities into high-productivity, monospecific agriculture or raising animals for commercial purposes, replacing the enormous range of traditional crop and animal varieties by a few that meet the conditions for short-term competitiveness imposed by globalized international markets.

In much the same way in which species and varieties are becoming extinct, languages, beliefs, traditions, empirical knowledge, and whole environmental management systems are being wiped from the face of the Earth by a shortsighted, mainstream culture that does not offer appropriate substitutes for the sustainable long-term strategies that are often part of the older and more experienced cultures.

The human and biological diversity that is under attack represents the bulk of the planet’s natural and human resource base; reducing diversity will result in a gradual loss of options for the future, not only for the current generations, but also for the many to come.

Documenting diversity

In most cases, it is difficult to acquire precise knowledge about species diversity. Although it is possible to survey plants or animals living in restricted areas - a few square metres, for example - it is impossible to survey all plants and animals in larger ecosystems or to decipher the complex web of their interrelations. Usually, only the main (larger, more frequent) species and a few varieties are catalogued.

Entomologists believe that there are several million insect species, perhaps as many as 500 thousand species of Choleoptera. The number of varieties of these species can run to a hundred million or more.

High-diversity ecosystems, such as the rain forests and coral reefs, are poorly understood. There are often more than 100 species of trees in I hectare of Amazon or New Guinea rain forest and perhaps as many as 200 species of molluscs in 1 square kilometre of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The task of the taxonomist is a slow and difficult one, and it will take centuries before a significant portion of the Earth’s biota can be identified and described. By then, however, it may be too late.

Another factor adding to the difficulty of identifying biological species, in addition to their sheer numbers, is the fact that they are not fixed components of the biosphere, but rather a continuously evolving complex, difficult to keep “updated” at any given moment. Species are only a small step in the evolutionary ladder, and an adequate understanding would require not only a description of the organism, but also of its previous evolutionary path and the trends for its future. The knowledge and resources are not available to allow this to be done with sufficient detail.

In dealing with cultural diversity, the problems are similar. It is possible to inventory languages. If they are not written, scripts can be invented, dictionaries can be assembled, and pronunciations and accents can be recorded. Once the language speakers are gone, however, they take with them not only the deep semantic code, which no recording can preserve, but also the basic elements that make a language - its dynamism, its changes, its role as a potential tool for social learning and innovation. Because languages are also windows to a whole imaginary universe, language extinction represents an irreversible ideological loss.

Many other elements of knowledge are being lost in the rush toward standardization and homogenization: local knowledge about plants, animals, appropriate technology, environmental and social strategies, the organization of societies and their survival in the diverse planetary environments, and spiritual approaches to nature.

Resources for the future

Although we have only incomplete knowledge about current diversities, both biological and cultural, we do know that some will become resources in the future. Perhaps the flower of a certain plant contains a substance that can be used to produce a drug to treat a serious disease that does not even exist yet. Maybe the shamans of a micronation in the Amazon know about a plant that produces a glue that is 100 times stronger than anything now known. Maybe this traditional group has a logical approach to environmental management of its particular ecosystem that can be applied elsewhere. The possibilities are infinite.

All species have the potential to become resources; all present resources were part of diverse assortments in the past. We cannot know which elements are going to become resources. Societies possess a range of potential resources today, but are experiencing a number of pressures - some of them of a productive nature - that are having the effect of destroying these resources.

How can we protect our future resources? There is only one way: by protecting today’s diversities. Highly diverse environments are full of potential resources that must be protected. Although low-diversity environments probably have fewer potential resources, they must also be protected because we do not know their nature and potential. In other words, all diversities must be protected. The overriding aim should be to ensure not only the well-being of today’s societies, but also that the wealth of the future is not depleted.

Diversity of living systems

Diversity is the main resource of life. The future of living systems is a result of multiple current options. Diversity provides flexibility. It ensures that, even if some roads are blocked here and there, there will be alternative ways for life to continue. Uniformity is anti-life. Uniformity imparts vulnerability by not allowing other options. It can only be sustained with great investment and effort and, in the end, leads to extinction. Diversity is life; uniformity is death.

Living systems base their survival on continuous, selective adjustments resulting from small biological variations, genetic mutation, changes in relations in their ecosystems, and the behaviour of species, societies, and individuals. Living systems evolve in a subtly coordinated, dynamic equilibrium among thousands of diverse organisms with diverse functions that ensure the sustainability of the systems.

The elimination or modification of any component of a living system, inorganic or organic, produces changes that require a general readjustment of the system. In practice, it is difficult to know what changes will take place when one species disappears or a physical component varies; however, we do know for certain that changes will occur. Change is intrinsic to all processes and systems.

Because of the complexity of natural ecosystems, it is practically impossible to inventory all their components and still more difficult to define precisely their relations. However, although we do not know exactly how any system works, we can safely state that the strength and stability of any living system depends on the depth of its diversities and on its degree of diversity. Depth of diversity is the history that generated and allowed the development of the system’s diversities, and degree of diversity is the level of differentiation or dissimilarity developed by a given system compared with others, both locally and globally. The natural tendency of local systems is to maintain their degree of diversity and to increase their depth or historical richness.

Causes and effects of the loss of natural diversity

Before industrial times, social insertion into natural complexes resulted in the use of natural diversities with only secondary negative effects. In most cases, social action adapted to the natural environments and when it did not, the societies at fault suffered the effects of their damaging actions. After the industrial revolution, societies began to use natural resources and the environment without regard for the need to sustain its productive and natural support base. The damage caused by these forces has affected not only the natural environment, but also social and cultural environments.

The impoverishment of natural systems has a more serious and widespread effect than is obvious at first. In the last decades and even now, rich, stable ecosystems with many thousands of species are being replaced with monospecific plantations that require a large investment of energy and resources to be sustained.

Plantations are essentially unstable. They are systematically invaded by “pioneers” (the agronomists call them “weeds”) from neighbouring ecosystems, both plants and animals. These organisms - arriving on their own without the natural control of their predators - grow, feed, and reproduce in the new niche provided by the crop, affecting its productivity and health. In practice, there is interference between the crop and the surrounding ecosystems affecting both the ecosystems and the plantation itself. The latter functions as a new, artificial, highly unstable ecosystem.

In addition to the local organisms that adapt to the new system, plantations bring their own flora and fauna, including various plants and animals transported with the seeds or with expansion of the plantation. Crops also constantly develop diseases promoted by the concentration of individuals or seeds of a single species in reduced spaces. Viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and various parasites reproduce and thrive in the monospecific crop. Such crops require repeated treatments to prevent or cure their frequent diseases.

Pesticides are a set of toxic substances required by monospecific agriculture to eradicate undesirable biological interference. They represent one of the main tools of biological uniformity. The ideal pesticide kills everything but the crop species and, perhaps, allies, such as pollinators. As a result of their toxicity, the effects of pesticides reach far beyond the crop zone to other terrestrial and aquatic environments. For this reason, when plantations are established, a huge reduction in the diversity of all natural local systems takes place.

The forest of Misiones in South America, with tens of thousands of species, has been replaced by ecosystems based on two or three species of trees and some other species that have adapted to the change. The grasslands of Uruguay contain over 2 thousand species in each local area; the eucalyptus and pine plantations that have been introduced in prairie grasslands only contain the planted species and a few “intruders” that succeed in nesting or adapting to the new niche.

Generally speaking, when multispecific ecosystems are transformed into monospecific artificial systems, the species that manage to adapt to the new environment do so in an unbalanced manner. In some cases, without natural predators or constraints, uncontrolled growth may take place. The result is a decrease in effective and potential resources.

Diversity and culture

The concept of biodiversity includes both the range of living beings and their relations among themselves and with the physical environment. This biodiversity is dynamic, changing continuously in cycles and by evolution. Human societies are not isolated from the natural environment. They are closely interconnected with it and derive their means of existence from it. Every social group uses elements of its surrounding environment in some way. In many cases, this utilization has given rise to complex management systems that have frequently developed through long processes of trial and error. These management systems, which are based on indigenous knowledge, are often well adapted to the dynamics of natural ecosystems.

On the other hand, ecosystems are complex; they comprise innumerable relations between physical, chemical, biological, and anthropogenic factors. Traditional and popular knowledge provide some empirical indications of how the system must be treated to ensure its future health, but are often insufficient to provide the elements that are required when unexpected phenomena or unpredictable changes occur.

To ensure the sustainability of systems, scientific knowledge must also be sought (see discussion on “biodiversity and research”). However, this scientific knowledge is often more effective when is draws upon the richness of existing traditional and popular know-how. Understanding, protecting, and using biosystems in a sustainable way requires an approach that incorporates both types of knowledge. Using this approach, social groups are able to increase their pool of resources and, indirectly, their quality of life. Through this type of “empowerment through knowledge” the issue of biodiversity can be addressed to produce the most profound and positive impact on human societies.

Local cultures

Local cultures are defined by the interactions of their members with their natural environment and social history. The result is a complex web of beliefs, mythologies, and ways of looking at life, as well as multiple productive, social, and religious activities. In addition, local cultures are also a result of the successive impacts (at the local level) of successive waves of globalization, such as colonialism, at different times in history. Recently, the homogenizing influences of the communications media and transnational economic complexes are attacking the diversity of many societies. These influences operate through relatively uniform transnational cultures, taking different forms in each epoch, but widening and deepening their effects with the expansion of globalization.

Where do the elements of this transnational, standardized culture come from? Indications suggest that it is a skewed syncretism of the stronger cultures that feed on the large information and entertainment enterprises. A small number of European cultures (mainly, but not exclusively, the winners of the wars) and the large mainstream North American culture have acquired a disproportionate weight in the potpourri of world culture. Some cultures, although defeated in war, have gained a place in the mainstream through commercial or financial successes. Others have joined the international ideological complex as a result of their proximity to the cinematographic or television production sites (Mexico, for example, is close to California’s film and television industry). Other peripheral and dependent cultures, removed from the international mainstream, are systematically ignored, although here and there some ideas, creations, or costumes may shyly make inroads at the edges of the transcultural global kingdom.

Uniformity against culture

On one hand, there is a steady stream of messages through the media about people with different beliefs, mores, ideologies, and behaviours that are depicted as “desirable” models; on the other, there are more and more contacts with people behaving in much the same way. As a result, small local cultures are strongly influenced by one or two external cultures in a skewed manner, leading to a frequently irreversible degradation of many valuable cultural elements. Like many other globalization processes, the result is a growing deformation of local cultures, with their members convinced that it is better to imitate the central cultures, reinforcing the trend toward homogeneity. If we believe that the main resources of any society are its natural and cultural diversities, we must conclude that uncontrolled and indiscriminate cultural encroachment may be a central element of social impoverishment.

Other factors worsen the situation. The central culture is not presensed accurately. The elements of it that are communicated are selected in an unbalanced manner, stereotyping the central societies and frequently conveying an exaggerated idea of some positive aspects (such as widespread prosperity) or sometimes promoting undesirable, negative aspects (such as exaggerated violence).

As a result, the globalizing influence tends to undermine local cultural diversity, through the imposition of stereotypes that increase the prestige of the foreign culture and devalue the local culture.

Defending local cultures

The defence of local cultures is only possible if a social framework that includes awareness of their long-term value is ensured. The richest local cultures are normally those that were locally born and nourished, that do not exist elsewhere, and are felt to be part of the authentic local heritage. It is at the traditional level that, in many places of the world, most of the richest cultures survive, frequently as valuable remnants. There is potential to consolidate within them the strength of local heritages.

Native cultures are often the result of the local and popular brassage of many elements, some internal, some external, producing unique, richly diverse results. The richer “elites” promote uniformity based on their economic power and their access to technology and intellectual monopolies, which have a tendency to act as factors of alienation and standardization. Poorer social sectors, on the other hand, are limited in their cultural expression to local resources, which vary from place to place and are less restricted by fashion. As a result, they often develop their own, more spontaneous and authentic cultural elements and forms of expression.

In summary, the greatest sources of diversity lie in the daily practices of their cultures by the poor and traditional communities. In most cases, these are undervalued by the “powers that be” in favour of external cultures and, for this reason, the authorities may not be the best administrators of these social resources. Consequently, a good strategy for cultural management of resources should include the training of people without this bias, who are predisposed to value popular and authentic creations, without constantly comparing them with the standards of the mainstream global culture.

To slow or stop the continuing loss of cultural diversity, it will be necessary to search, investigate, resuscitate, and revalue the elements of local heritage that have been lost in the past. Once they have been identified, a strategy for their rescue and recuperation will have to be implemented. Finally, for any such strategy to be formulated, a creative attitude must be adopted, with less concern for the exotic or folkloric nature of diversity, and more effort on developing it, daring to imagine new forms and combinations that will enrich the social wealth.

Restoring what is lost

If we agree to merely conserve diversities, we would ensure their loss. Macroeconomic forces advance effectively and with great momentum. Slowing or stopping the processes of degradation may take too long; most global diversities might be gone, along with the flexibility necessary for human survival. Therefore, we must develop more ambitious strategies, allowing not only conservation but also reconstruction of lost diversities.

In some cases, only small surviving testimonies or isolated species remain; in others, most elements are still present. There are cases of lost ecosystems, where most of the component species are still alive. In the case of cultures, there may be documents, oral traditions, or rituals integrated into the new standardizing cultures. Because ecosystems and cultures do not exist separately, the task must be undertaken in a holistic manner. To reconstruct a local diversity, it is necessary to restore not only the species and their relations, but also the associated culture.

Consequently, the most difficult task, but surely the most rewarding one, will be to rebuild ecocultural systems in which all the restored elements can be managed with revived cultural patterns in a recovered ideological framework, including some cultural elements of the present that, finally, will also play a role in making the survival of the recuperated systems possible.

Using the past to build the future

Rebuilding ecocultural systems presents many difficulties and challenges. First, the remnants of lost diversities may be so scarce that accurate reconstruction is impossible. Second, many reconstructed elements may interfere with elements in current complexes. Finally, reestablishing old diversities may endanger others, both old and new, that may be particularly valued by local or traditional societies.

Gaps in information about lost systems will require some imagination to design the “missing links.” The new systems will certainly have new elements, including some that never existed before. However, this can be minimized by focusing on a coherent philosophical framework compatible with the system that is being restored.

Old and new visions, beliefs, myths, rituals, and feelings of populations may provide the needed elements to ensure integration and conceptual coherence of the systems. In many cases, it may be necessary to delve into every aspect of a culture to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzle are integrated harmoniously in a new complex to ensure the viability of the project.

Restoration of past diversities is a complex ecocultural process that forces choices between species, cultural patterns, and sometimes between aspects of ecology and culture. Not all options will be possible. Life is full of options, however; in each personal or collective decision, we are forced to select among several alternatives. The concept of liberty is about the opportunity to make choices among the largest number of options without interfering with others’ rights to have their own range of options. In this sense, the restoration of old diversities can become a new dimension of freedom.

We have some idea of how to go about restoring diversity, but in practice, we do not know how effectively this exercise can be carried out. Common sense indicates that finding appropriate methods will not be easy. There are huge material, social, natural, historical, and ethical limitations and many reasons for not proceeding. However, the task is possible and desirable and, in the near future perhaps, we may find that it is unavoidable for survival.

The challenge is huge. So many valuable diversities have been lost. How are we to select between them? How are we to decide how much energy and resources can be dedicated to restoring an ecosystem, culture, or ecocultural complex? In many cases, the decision will be made on the basis of ethics; it will be necessary to define some values that society has ignored for a long time. We may need to restore a larger dimension of solidarity that has been forgotten in human rights declarations solidarity with our ancestors who lost their lives and identities through ecocultural aggression and genocide and with the billions who are not yet born, but have the right to inherit not only the richest diversities of the present but also all ancient diversities.

Biodiversity and research

Despite its relevant and intrinsic values, indigenous knowledge may have important limitations, particularly in dealing with issues that span cultures or ecosystems or situations that are rapidly and unexpectedly changing. In many cases. it may be fragmented and its effectiveness significantly reduced. For these reasons, it is necessary to rescue and document the many elements of this knowledge for easy retrieval and appropriate utilization.

It is also necessary to ensure that efforts put into developing this indigenous knowledge are not simply aimed at saving it for the future. Returns from its application must go to the communities or social groups who developed the knowledge.

First, knowledge of the components and potential of existing systems must be developed using a multidisciplinary approach. Second, the identification and use of relevant traditional and popular knowledge relating to biodiversity issues must also be encouraged and supported. The focus must be on rescuing, organizing, and applying the elements of indigenous knowledge that could serve as a basis for socially and environmentally sustainable approaches to development.

Some of the issues requiring special attention include research on ecosystems, their dynamics, and components through the development of multidisciplinary teams that integrate the various mainstream scientific disciplines with the relevant elements of traditional or popular knowledge. Emphasis should be placed on holistic analysis of natural and anthropogenic systems and their specific components using an interdisciplinary and a cross-cultural approach. Development of new methods to “map” existing resources appropriately and participative design of new, imaginative models for sustainable development represent key issues that must be addressed (Table 9).

· Aquatic biodiversity - Special attention should be paid to the field of aquatic biodiversity because aquatic systems are currently under attack by environmentally unfriendly hydroelectric projects and other interventions. These issues should be addressed through a combined approach based on the points of view and knowledge of local groups and communities, scientific and academic elements, and resources at the national and international levels within the framework of an equitable and sustainable approach to development.

· Valuing natural products from indigenous and local ecosystems - Methods must be developed to assist in the identification,

Table 9. Suggested research topics in the field of biodiversity.


Ecosystems, their dynamics and components

· Development of interdisciplinary and transcultural teams

· Methods for ecosystem evaluation

· Methods for inventory, analysis, modeling, resource evaluation, and conservation aspects of indigenous ecosystems

· Methods and strategies for ecosystem management

· Rescue, organization, and improvement of traditional, innovative, and indigenous management methods and strategies

· Development or adaptation of other ecosystem-management methods and strategies (and integration with indigenous methods and strategies where relevant)

· Development of methods and strategies for the protection of unique ecosystems, species, varieties, etc.


Management of aquatic ecosystems

· Management of fluvial ecosystems

· Impact of hydroelectric works on aquatic systems

· Management of estuarine and coastal ecosystems


Technologies aimed at valuing natural products

· Methods for identifying, preparing inventories for, protecting, and managing potential or actual sources of natural products

· Technological development

· Methods for marketing natural products


Preserving the cultural and genetic basis for agricultural biodiversity

· Preservation of the germplasm of cultivated crops

· Development of methods and strategies for rescuing and organizing indigenous agricultural knowledge


Protecting intellectual and property rights for indigenous knowledge

· Protection of indigenous property and intellectual rights of new resources, products, technologies, and ideas

· Restoration of indigenous property and intellectual rights where they have not been recognized