Is culture missing from conservation? Scientists take cues from indigenous peoples.

We typically think of conservation as removing humans from the ecosystem to return it to its 'natural' state. But the practices of many indigenous cultures offer a different way to view humanity's relationship with the natural world.

Olivia Harris/Reuters/File
A member of Malaysia's indigenous Mah Meri tribe takes part in the 'Puja Pantai,' a thanksgiving ritual to appease the spirits of the seas, in the village of Pulau Carey, outside Kuala Lumpur, in 2015. Researchers are increasingly integrating the ecological outlook of indigenous communties into conservation strategies.

When you hear the word “ecosystem,” what do you imagine? Maybe you picture a grizzly bear pawing at salmon breaching a frigid stream, or a kaleidoscopic seascape of fish and coral. But you may have missed one critical element of the natural world: humans.

But not everyone draws such a clear line between humans and the natural world. Many indigenous peoples, for instance, view humans as vital components of thriving ecosystems. Drawing from that approach, some researchers suggest that a “biocultural” strategy – one that bridges science, community, and culture – might produce better long-term conservation and sustainability outcomes. But first, some experts say, we may need to rethink humanity’s relationship with nature.

Conservationists have long relied on public education to influence legislation and to encourage individuals to make more sustainable lifestyle choices. That approach hinges on the hope that properly informing people will prompt them to change their personal behaviors. But a recent study in the journal Biological Conservation suggests that environmental knowledge, though important, may play a smaller role than previously thought in promoting sustainable behavior.

The researchers began by identifying behaviors that have a significant environmental impact. Installing solar panels or going meatless, for example, might reduce one’s carbon footprint, but flying or having children would increase it. They collected data on those behaviors by surveying 734 participants from three groups: economists, medical professionals, and conservation scientists.

It wasn’t the landslide you might expect. Researchers found that conservationists lived only slightly “greener” lives than the other two groups: although they did eat less meat and recycle more than economists or medics, they still flew about nine times per year and owned more pets.

“These behaviors that we measured are not collinear,” says co-author Brendan Fisher, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. “Just because I eat less meat doesn’t mean I fly less. What that shows is that people make decisions based on ... a whole bunch of heuristics, cost-benefit analyses, and rationalizations. In some cases, those decisions align with our eco-mentality, and in other cases, they don’t.”

In other words, researchers say, knowledge alone won’t make people live more sustainably. Dr. Fisher and colleagues say their findings present an opportunity for conservationists to consider new approaches, such as “nudging” – offering subtle positive reinforcements for environmentally sustainable choices – or expanding affordable public transportation. But others say an even deeper retrofit is in order, one that challenges the prevailing narrative of American conservation.

Does humanity stop at the forest’s edge?

Though humans have always interacted with the natural world, not all cultures have viewed that relationship the same way. The ancient Hawaiians, for example, believed in a spiritual connectedness between nature and humanity. They applied that paradigm to a model for sustainable resource management, the ahupua'a system, designed more than 500 years ago to prevent overfishing and deforestation. Many Native American communities arrived at a similar concept of connectedness, and used it to develop careful hunting and land-use practices.

Western philosophy tends to depict nature and humanity as separate and conflicting forces, says Kawika Winter, director of the Limahuli Garden and Preserve in Kauaʻi. As a result, many Americans automatically associate healthy ecosystems with human absence and environmental destruction with human activity.

“The preconceived notion is that humans are separate from nature,” says Dr. Winter. “So whenever you’re talking about ecosystems, people [assume] that it means places without humans.”

That kind of adversarial thinking favors “put-a-fence-around-it” conservation projects over sustainable use, says Winter, and often makes individual environmental action seem futile.

“I think there’s a cultural foundation that talks about humanity as a problem, and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that,” he says. “What I’m disagreeing with is the presentation. When you raise kids to think that their existence on the planet is inevitably going to be bad, then why should they even do anything? You don’t see yourself as the solution.”

New approaches to conservation, however, could help combat environmental defeatism. Winter’s research focus is social-ecological system resilience, an interdisciplinary framework that considers human well-being – physical, social, and emotional – within the greater context of ecosystem health.

“These problems don’t exist in vacuums,” he says. “They’re interconnected to other parts of the system. It’s mind-bogglingly complex, but you’re never going to get to the solution by pretending that it’s an isolated problem.”

Thinking in terms of social-ecological systems applies old philosophies to current conservation issues, Winter says. By validating the presence of people and prioritizing co-existence, he says, conservationists could empower individual action.

“In our botanical gardens, we use a different narrative,” says Winter. “We talk about people as the solution. It’s kind of a way of interpreting a Hawaiian worldview in a way that’s a little bit more palatable to the American diet, so to speak. And if we can make that shift culturally from a very young age – and this is not a silver bullet, this is an intergenerational approach – then I think we have a better chance of getting to where we need to be.”

But Fisher warns that there’s more to the issue than culture. Humans make decisions based on “a slew of cognitive idiosyncrasies,” he says, and many people change or reprioritize their values throughout the day. Put simply, human behavior is weird. It’s also difficult to predict, Fisher says, which is why it’s important for conservationists to appeal to our more selfish instincts.

“Lots of Western foundations, government divisions, and academic institutions are starting to focus on the health benefits of nature, such as reducing vector-borne diseases, improving cognition, or relieving stress,” says Fisher. “And maybe, just maybe, that becomes a cultural norm in those typically antagonistic cultures.”

Empowerment through conservation

None of this is to say that “scholarly” conservation work is unimportant, Winter reassures. But some researchers believe that a cooperative effort – one that combines the explicit, “that” knowledge of professional conservationists with the tacit, “how” knowledge of indigenous peoples – could produce healthier social-ecological systems in the long run.

“The good news is that there are cultures [that] have coexisted with forests for thousands of years and thrived,” Winter says. “So what can we learn from that? How can we translate those philosophies and worldviews into something that would be acceptable by Americans and other cultures who are engaging with nature in this way?”

In many cases, says Winter, sweeping protective measures fail to consider the customary fishing, hunting, and horticultural practices of local communities. As a result, those communities are less likely to cooperate or support future efforts. Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, observed the same tensions among rural populations in the Peruvian Amazon, where intact forests and high biodiversity attract conservation initiatives.

“If you’re not going to engage the local people, what happens? You put up fences around the protected area, you displace people, and it becomes a very tense and hostile situation between the conservation protection efforts and the local people,” says Dr. Wali. “What we’ve tried to do is show that it doesn’t [have to] be that way – that the local people can be allies for conservation.”

In a study published October in the journal Ecology and Society, Wali and colleagues found that Amazonian communities already had a deep knowledge of natural resources and sophisticated management practices. To maintain healthy river ecosystems, they fish only for particular species in certain oxbow lakes at determined times of year. They also avoid certain parts of the rainforest altogether, ensuring that wildlife have refuge areas where they can reproduce.

Ancient, tried-and-true systems such as these could have a prominent place in modern conservation, researchers say. A recent study, co-authored by Winter and published in the journal Pacific Science, concluded that foresting elements of ahupua'a could be integrated into Kauaʻi’s bureaucratic land use system.

Both studies were exercises in what’s called biocultural conservation, says Ashwin Ravikumar, an environmental social scientist at the Field Museum and co-author of the Ecology and Society study. Biocultural conservation is a relatively new term which “recognizes the central importance of cultural traditions, practices, and knowledge in maintaining biodiversity and carrying out conservation initiatives more broadly.”

After mapping various ecological and social assets, Dr. Ravikumar and colleagues worked with Amazonian community members to develop quality-of-life plans. Researchers found that those who had the opportunity to engage with local conservation efforts were more willing to support future initiatives and participate in the management of existing protected areas. Environmental stewardship could also mean political empowerment for indigenous communities who have been historically taken advantage of by governments and commercial interests.

“By taking stock of the ways that people have historically lived in sustainable ways, we can elevate and validate those approaches,” says Ravikumar. “We can give communities pathways to insist, to government actors and folks who are trying to work in their landscape, that they are good stewards of natural resources.”

Staff reporter Eva Botkin-Kowacki contributed reporting to this story from Kauaʻi, Hawaii.

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