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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

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.