Communities cultural esteem for ecosystems boosts conservation


Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 20 December 2013

Intangible values for example, spiritual value can motivate communities to conserve ecosystems like wetlands even though alternative uses like conversion for agriculture may promise greater economic benefits.

“Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock” stated the renowned historian Simon Schama in his book ‘Landscape and memory’. The cultural values of ecosystems are highly prized by local communities.

These values are often intangible or non-material and relate to indigenous traditional knowledge, religious practices, spiritual significance and traditional belief systems. They play an important role in how people perceive and value nature. These intangible values can motivate communities to conserve ecosystems like wetlands even though alternative uses like conversion for agriculture may promise greater economic benefits. For example, spiritual value ensures that sacred natural sites are protected and ancestral practices provide continuity in terms of environmental management.

The TEEB for Water and Wetlands Report argues that in many cases traditionally evolved techniques of ecosystem management are better tailored to local conditions than external management approaches. They have the potential to serve as a blueprint for restoring and maintaining ecosystem functions while promoting a more inclusive approach to managing wetlands.

However, these intangible cultural values are seldom incorporated into wetland management and policies. They are often ignored or considered irrelevant. This lack of awareness of local belief systems can damage relationships with local communities and lead to conflict. Insensitive external intervention could ultimately  result in the erosion of ecological and cultural values of wetlands which in turn could have a negative impact on ecosystem functions and biodiversity values.

Cultural identity is an important value that people derive from ecosystems like wetlands. It is also something that is undoubtedly difficult to measure. Perhaps another way of framing the issue is to understand that the loss of wetlands does not only remove important resources, but also causes profound social damage to human communities. Ecosystems have become a part of the language, art, rituals, diet, social practices and festivals of local communities. For example, research has shown that Australian aborigines have over 12 words for “waves” and Amazon Indians have over 25 words for “green”. Linguistic diversity has long been regarded as an informal proxy indicator for biological diversity.

Promising attempts have been made to incorporate intangible cultural values into wetland policy making and management in many parts of the world. For example, in southern Australia  integrated river basin management of the Murray-Darling system has led to the development of what is called cultural flows.

Cultural flows are defined as “water entitlements” that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous Nations and are of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations.” Cultural values have also been recognised to be of importance by various international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s article 8j and the Convention on Intangible Heritage. UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission has created a “mixed” category of World Heritage Sites called cultural landscapes that removes the artificial barrier between culture and nature.

To assess the cultural importance of natural ecosystems, advancements in valuation-science are needed to account for the various cultural and belief systems that form the linkages between ecosystem performance and human well-being. It is worthwhile pursuit because assessment and valuation of cultural and spiritual values helps promote equitable decision making. This is possible only when all stakeholders have been involved in the assessment process and when their values are respected. Respect for local values in value assessment and day to day management processes therefore need to take all information and knowledge into the equation whether its is scientifically validated or not. After all, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Biodiversity Synthesis “Science can help ensure that decisions are made with the best available information, but ultimately the future of biodiversity will be determined by society.”

To learn more about the diverse values of wetlands, visit the TEEB for Water and Wetlands Report.

About the author
anandAnand Chandrasekhar, is based in Switzerland and has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, UK and a Bachelors in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. His experience extends to a wide range of environment issues including species conservation, environmental law and policy, natural resources governance, climate change and carbon markets. He now specializes in science and environment communications and enjoys developing thought-provoking content and challenging conventional thinking.


The views expressed in this blog are purely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of TEEB and should not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of TEEB.

Photo credits: Peter Prokosch

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