endangered diversity conference

Luisa Maffi maffi at cogsci.Berkeley.EDU
Sun Dec 15 11:22:46 UTC 1996

I am posting this report on a conference I recently
organized. It may be of interest to people on this list.

Luisa Maffi

By Luisa Maffi (U California, Berkeley)

[Report on the working conference "Endangered Languages,
Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments", held at U
California at Berkeley, October 25-27, 1996. To appear in
"Conference Call" column, Anthropology Newsletter,
February 1997.]

On October 25-27, 1996, an international group of scholars,
professionals, and activists came together at U California, Berkeley
for the working conference "Endangered Languages, Endangered
Knowledge, Endangered Environments". This event was the first
joint meeting of experts from an array of disciplines in the social,
behavioral, and biological sciences ranging from linguistics to
anthropology, ethnobiology, cultural geography, economics,
cognitive psychology, biology, and ecology, along with natural
resource conservationists, cultural advocates, and representatives of
indigenous peoples. The meeting was called to explore the complex
connections between cultural and biological diversity, the
interrelated causes and consequences of loss of both forms of
diversity, and the role of indigenous and minority languages and of
traditional knowledge in biocultural diversity maintenance and the
promotion of sustainable human-environment relationships.
Participants also discussed plans for integrated research, training,
and action in this domain.

Diversity Loss on Earth
In their respective fields, these various communities of researchers
and activists have been calling attention to the dramatic effects of
rapidly occurring global processes of socioeconomic and ecological
change on the very objects of their concerns: human cultural and
linguistic groups and their traditional knowledge; biological species;
and the world's environments. An ever-growing body of literature
on endangered languages, vanishing cultures, biodiversity loss,
and ecosystems at risk is accumulating, attesting to the perceived
gravity and urgency of such issues. Underlying these concerns is a
common interest in the future of humanity and of life on earth.
However, communication all across these fields of endeavor has
been slow in developing. The conference was conceived to begin to
fill this gap.

Links Between Biological and Cultural Diversity
Conference participants first established theoretical common ground
by considering notions of biological diversity and diversification,
on the one hand, and linguistic and cultural diversity and
diversification, on the other, and outlining analogies and
discrepancies between these different manifestations of the diversity
of life. They heard reports about the comparable magnitude and
pace of the current extinction crises affecting biological species and
human languages, and examined evidence of remarkable overlaps
between global mappings of the world's areas of biological
megadiversity and areas of high linguistic diversity. The possible
factors accounting for these correlations were discussed in light of
issues of human-environment coevolution and in terms of various
ways that have been proposed by ethnobiologists and human
ecologists in which cultural diversity might enhance biodiversity or
vice versa. In this perspective, the need to address the foreseeable
consequences of massive disruption of such long-standing
interactions was stressed, and the converse correlation between
low-diversity cultural systems and low biodiversity was noted.

The notion of endemism emerged as of particular relevance in
talking about both biological and linguistic diversity, from the point
of view of the especially threatened status of species or languages
endemic to a single region--or even worse, a single country,
making them extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of national
sociopolitical and economic processes. Linking the two forms of
endemism, a notion of "ethnobiological endemism" was proposed,
underscoring the local nature of traditional environmental
knowledge and its comparable vulnerability by those same
processes. Also centrally relevant to the conference's perspective
was evidence concerning indigenous and local peoples' knowledge
not only about natural kinds, but also about ecological relations.
The need to systematically and comparatively study this ecological
knowledge and how it correlates with reasoning about and action
vis-a-vis the environment (as in the extraction and use of natural
resources) was affirmed.

In describing the structural and functional deterioration that
characterizes processes of language loss, linguists pointed to the
various levels at which such processes can and do affect the
maintenance of traditional environmental knowledge--from loss of
biosystematic lexicon to loss of traditional stories and other forms
and contexts of communication. The role of various factors of
cultural change and acculturation, such as schooling and migration,
were explored. Cognitive psychologists provided new evidence
about processes of folkbiological knowledge devolution in societies
that have moved away from direct contact with nature, although
such processes were shown to be less straightforward than earlier
studies had suggested.

Numerous case studies were presented on issues of language and
knowledge loss and the interactions between cultural and biological
diversity, spanning Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, and
covering both indigenous and other local groups, such as migrants,
and exemplifying a variety of linguistic stocks and of modes of
subsistence, from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Several
presentations also illustrated patterns of cultural and linguistic
resistence and knowledge persistence, as well as efforts to revitalize
languages and cultures that had gone extinct, with a special focus
on maintaining or recovering and newly applying knowledge about
traditional resource management practices. Finally, a set of
presentations was devoted to both grassroots and international
initiatives aimed at biocultural conservation, as well as to issues of
indigenous land rights and traditional resource rights, that were
seen as inextricably linked to the viability of local communities and
their languages and cultures. Issues of common property resources
were discussed in this connection. New economic models, based on a
coevolutionary social and ecological framework, were proposed as
the context in which humanity at the end of the millennium could
strive to achieve sustainability and maintain biological and cultural

Future Directions
While participants agreed in recognizing the interconnectedness of
biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, a shared need was felt
for better, more fine-grained ways to define and identify diversity,
especially linguistic and cultural diversity. As measured in broad
outline, as is traditionally done in the mapping of the languages and
culture areas of the world, the two forms of diversity do not yield a
good fit, although linguistic diversity is often used as a proxy for
cultural diversity. Contradictory results are thus arrived at when
biological diversity is cross-mapped onto one or the other. The
consensus was that a much higher level of resolution, at the level of
individual communities, or even subsections of communities, is
required to identify cultural variation relevant to the study of
biocultural diversity correlations, i.e., variation reflecting specific
local adaptations; and that comparable detailed work needs to be
done on linguistic variation. The crucial importance of working in
close contact with other colleagues in interdisciplinary teams was
stressed, as was the need for interdisciplinary teaching and training.
Issues of funding for interdisciplinary research, as well as for
applied work aimed at returning the results of research to local
communities and at fostering grassroots biocultural conservation
efforts, were also discussed. A "white paper", containing
conference participants' recommendations at these various levels, is
in preparation, as are one or more publications based on the
conference, and an informational/educational video (in collaboration
with documentary filmmaker Steve Bartz). An extensive set of
background readings, prepared by the conference organizer, is also
available upon request.

[The conference was organized by Luisa Maffi (Institute of
Cognitive Studies, U California, Berkeley), and funded by the
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the
UNESCO/WWF-I/Kew Gardens "People and Plants Initiative",
and UC Berkeley's Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research,
Office of the Deans of Letters and Sciences, and Institute of
Cognitive Studies. It was sponsored by the NGO "Terralingua:
Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological Diversity",
and co-sponsored and hosted by UC Berkeley's Department
of Integrative Biology and University and Jepson Herbaria.
Participants were: Scott Atran, William Balee, Herman
Batibo, Benjamin Blount, Stephen Brush, Ignacio Chapela,
Greville Corbett, Alejandro de Avila, Margaret Florey,
David Harmon, Jane Hill, Leanne Hinton, Eugene Hunn,
Dominique Irvine, Willett Kempton, Manuel Lizarralde,
Ian Saem Majnep, L. Frank Manriquez, Gary Martin,
Douglas Medin, Katharine Milton, Brent Mishler, Felipe Molina,
Denny Moore, Gary Nabhan, James Nations, Johanna Nichols,
Richard Norgaard, Christine Padoch, Andrew Pawley, Mark
Poffenberger, Darrell Posey, Eric Smith, D. Michael Warren,
Stanford Zent. The participant's affiliations, biographical
sketches, and conference abstracts, as well as other information
about the conference, can be found at the following two WWW sites:



For additional information, please contact Dr. Luisa Maffi,
Institute of Cognitive Studies, 608 Barrows Hall, U California,
Berkeley, CA 94720; phone: (510) 643-1728; fax: (510) 6435688;
e-mail: maffi at cogsci.berkeley.edu.]
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