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  • Rich D'Amaru

Biocultural diversity of life: an argument from Amazon

Thiago Cardoso And Marilena Altenfelder

In a previous text we offered the reader the argument that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon contribute to the production of biodiversity and its conservation. In another we argued about the role of these people for the climate and for agrobiodiversity. To that end, we have even identified a working group in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to study these contributions. Something evident in the immense Amazonian biota. Now we are going to talk about the concept of bioculturality[i] that emerges from this relation of the people with the forest and it amazing diversity of life.

Biocultural diversity is the qualitative variety exhibited by the world’s natural-cultural systems. It may be thought of as the world’s diferences and relationthips, no matter what their origin. It includes the entanglement of biological diversity at all its levels and cultural diversity in all its manifestations (the abiotic or geophysical diversity of the earth, including that of its landforms and geological processes, meteorology, and all other inorganic components and processes (e.g., chemical regimes) that provide the setting for life; and, importantly, the interactions among all of these.

That the Amazon Rainforest is abundant in life and that there nowhere in the world are more species of animals and plants is the most widely publicized information about the great forest and the importance of its conservation. The estimates suggest a fauna of approximately two million different species, many of which are unique to this region - more than 1.300 species of birds and 300 mammals, together with a flora whose estimate varies between five and thirty million.

Now that the set of indigenous peoples and other peoples (rubber tappers, nut collectors, riverside peoples, etc.) contribute to a cultural richness and even to the construction and management of local biodiversity is already a less obvious issue.  The Amazon takes (or took) the fame of being a territory untouched by man. Recent studies have shown the influence of man on the vegetation cover in the Amazon and the importance of the indigenous populations and their respective management systems, which to a large extent contributed and contribute to the formation of differentiated ecosystems[ii].

For example, the wide variety of cultivars managed by the Yanomami Indians is about fifty species among which banana has a prominent place in terms of diversity, the rubber tappers of the Extractive Reserve of the Upper Juruá count on about 75 cultivars and also in a multiethnic context, the Amerindian women farmers of the Upper Rio Negro who cultivate and collect about a hundred varieties of cassava in the field of 177 cultivars. A great variety when it is thought that in the world there are approximately 30 thousand species of cultivated plants, but only 30 crops are responsible for providing 95% of the food consumed by humans the most consumed being rice, wheat and maize.

There is clear evidence of overlap between the mapping of high biodiversity areas and those with a high diversity of languages. The abundance of plants used by the Indians suggests that many species have developed in the southwest of the Amazon, where important linguistic families also have emerged. This biodiversity includes a number of different species (for example, açaí-do-mato, Brazil nut and rubber trees as well as different species of cultivated plants such as maize, rice, pumpkin, tomato etc.), genetic diversity (for example, different varieties of maize, beans, etc.), and the diversity of agricultural or cultivated ecosystems (for example, traditional farming systems, also known as coivara, agroforestry systems, terraced crops and flooded land etc.).

In this way it is possible to affirm that biological diversity and cultural diversity have always walked together in a way that diversity has been (and is being) created by the relationships between people, plants and the environment, who are always dealing with new contexts and in search of new ways. Conservation biology points to a mutually reinforcing relationship between cultural and biological diversity[iii], indicating that the livelihoods of traditional populations have contributed significantly to the genetic diversification of species. In contrast, biodiversity contributes effectively to the production of cultural diversity, since for different traditional peoples each plant, group of animals, soil and landscape corresponds to a linguistic variety, categories of knowledge, practical uses and distinct religious meanings.

This set of traditional knowledge, specific practices and symbolic values are constituent parts of traditional knowledge and how to relate to what we call nature, with more affection and less monoculture, and contribute to the generation and maintenance of diversity[iv]. Maintaining these practices requires a socio-economic and cultural context that guarantees the conditions of perpetuation of these ways of life. Traditional populations are often excluded from deliberative processes and face difficulties in accessing public policies. However, it is also important to take into account that many of these communities are far from miserable. As David Yanomami says: "We indigenous people are rich, rich in wood, in water, in animals, gold, diamonds, in good soil ... Gold diggers have tried to tempt me to use gold, but the only thing I want is that my people live well. Money is a disease".

If the environmental and economic devastation lurks among the peoples of the Amazon and their socio-bio-diversity, first of all, it is due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the advance of commercial fishing, logging and mining, as well as policies for progress whose energy matrix expels the population from their lands. Respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the Amazon and their territories, taking into account cultural and biological diversity, is a global strategy to face biodiversity conservation and climate change.

[ii] BALÉE, William. Contingent diversity on anthropic landscapes. Diversity, v. 2, n. 2, p. 163-181, 2010.

[iii] LOH, Jonathan; HARMON, David. A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological indicators, v. 5, n. 3, p. 231-241, 2005. MAFFI, Luisa; WOODLEY, Ellen. Biocultural diversity conservation: a global sourcebook. Routledge, 2012.

[iv] HECKENBERGER, Michael. Biocultural diversity in the southern Amazon. Diversity, v. 2, n. 1, p. 1-16, 2009.

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