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Blog Post - March 2021

Biocultural Heritage: Preserving Indigenous knowledge and food sources

Agriculture is one of the primary drivers of deforestation and displacement of Indigenous communities worldwide, but do all agricultural practices have such negative effects? Globally, Indigenous communities have begun protecting traditional food sources through biocultural heritage territories.


In the 5th episode of Save Our Planet Podcast, Krystyna Swiderska - an expert in traditional knowledge and biocultural heritage of Indigenous peoples and local communities at the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied)- explains this groundbreaking initiative. 


What is biocultural heritage?


Biocultural heritage is the biological and cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples and local communities. It includes biodiversity, domesticated agroecosystems, and ancestral territories, as well as Indigenous knowledge, cultural and spiritual values, and customary laws. All these different components are interlinked and interdependent, which is in line with Indigenous peoples’ holistic worldviews.



What is the difference between biocultural heritage and conservation?


Biocultural heritage recognizes the inextricable links between biodiversity and people, and the critical role of Indigenous peoples in conserving nature. In contrast to Western conservation approaches that often assume that people have to be separated from nature in order to protect it, biocultural heritage puts people at the center of conservation.


The term “heritage” reflects the ancestral rights of Indigenous peoples over the biodiversity they have conserved for generations, and the responsibility to continue to conserve biodiversity for future generations. It fosters strong community ownership, a bottom-up approach to conservation, that reflects the Indigenous peoples’ own holistic worldviews. While the term “conservation” has emerged from conservation biology in Western science, “heritage” has emerged from traditional knowledge.


In the  first episode of Save the Planet Podcast, we discussed the Batwa Peoples of Uganda, who were evicted from their forests in the name of conservation. So this people-centered approach in biocultural heritage is a very powerful alternative to conservation with its potential negative side-effects.



What is an example of biocultural heritage in practice?


One of the best examples of biocultural heritage initiatives is the Potato Park in the Peruvian Andes, which was established with the support of a Peruvian NGO called Asociacion ANDES (Association for Nature and Sustainable Development).


The park involves six Quechua communities, comprising thousands of people, who sustainably manage almost 10 thousand hectares of land. Together, they’ve been able to conserve about 1400 different varieties of native potato, thanks to traditional knowledge and Indigenous cultural values and beliefs. The Indigenous, cultural values of solidarity, reciprocity, and balance with nature, which underpin their efforts to conserve biodiversity, have been fundamental to these successes.


For these communities, the goal isn’t economic development, but the well-being of both people and nature. And this well-being requires balance between the human, the sacred and the natural worlds.


The Quechua Peoples have worked in partnership with scientists, in order to link traditional knowledge and science, establishing a community seed bank and several micro-enterprises that sustain biocultural heritage.


The foundation of the Potato Park was driven by a combination of three threats:

1. The external threat posed by mining.

2. The disappearing native potato diversity in the region.

3. The erosion of local culture.


The area where the Potato Park was founded is of incredible importance, in terms of global food security. Traditionally, it offers very rich native potato diversity - it’s a globally important center of origin for potatoes. The exceptional cultural values of local communities made it a more enabling context for a biocultural heritage-centered conservation initiative.



Based on the success of the potato park, how can this biocultural heritage approach be adapted to other regions of the world?

The Potato Park has had multiple impacts:

  • It has revitalized biodiversity and culture;

  • It has protected land rights against mining for 20 years now;

  • It has strengthened livelihoods and enhanced food security;

  • It has strengthened resilience to climate change.


The key to the success and the self-sustainability of the Potato Park has been decolonizing the action research process. Over time, it has strengthened the capacity of local communities, empowered them, and fostered strong local ownership and strong, local, collective organizations.


For this biocultural heritage approach to be successful in other regions of the world, such as Kenya, India or China, this decolonizing action research approach needs to be replicated and adapted in these other contexts, which are not only different culturally and ecologically, but also politically, which makes it quite challenging at times.


What challenges has the biocultural heritage territory model faced when adapting to different parts of the world?


The main challenge in the context of working in Kenya, India, or in China, is that the Indigenous culture, values, and beliefs have weakened as the communities have become more modernized.


For example, in the Mijikenda communities in the coastal area in Kenya, the elders protect Kaya Forests, but other members, particularly the youth, are becoming less and less interested in the traditional knowledge and culture, as well as the Kaya Forests conservation. What is more, there have been a lot of Western development projects in the region. Because different actors in the communities have different views on their biocultural heritage, it is more difficult to introduce a biocultural heritage initiative.


In China, a loss of traditional culture results in similar obstacles. However, in this context, there is also a challenge of centralized government control, which makes it more difficult to support the emergence of autonomous, local institutions, which are at the heart of biocultural heritage territories.


Similarly, in India, apart from a loss of culture, the challenges result from multiethnicity in the area, the restricted access to forest, traditional uses and traditional livelihoods, due to protected areas, and the promotion of modern agriculture. In comparison to Kenya, China, and India, in Peru, the cultural challenges aren’t quite so acute.


The following video, captured by the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied), features Indigenous and ethnic minority farmers from Bhutan and China who visited the Potato Park in Peru for a learning exchange on how to cope with climate change.

Despite the challenges, what successes have there been so far?


In China, four communities along the Yangtze river have established a network. It’s quite a large area, and this biocultural heritage network has revitalized a lot of lost crops. The communities got together to strengthen their biocultural heritage, which is in this sort of critical transition point. In Kenya and India, we are seeing a revival. Communities are getting together, but it’s going to take a bit longer to see results than in the other contexts, like Peru.


What is the perception of biocultural heritage among the Indigenous communities? What kind of changes would they like to see moving forward?


Many of the Indigenous communities are trying to ensure that their traditional knowledge, cultural values, and well-being concepts are revitalized. In Peru, the Potato Farm has shown the importance of “Ayllu,” a concept where well-being requires balance between the realms of nature, sacredness, and economic development. In other contexts, the communities are looking to the elders, in order to understand, reestablish, and strengthen their own development philosophies and cultural values, such as reciprocity, solidarity and balance with nature. These values are still present in their culture, as the elders remember them. The challenge is transmitting them to the youth. 


By supporting the decolonizing action-research processes, we’re supporting the efforts of these communities to pass on traditional knowledge to future generations before it’s lost. Alongside that, we’re supporting development of micro-enterprises to increase incomes among the youth, preventing them from relocating to the cities. 


Cultural losses are the greatest challenges to the biocultural heritage model. Is there something that could change in governmental development policy in order to support this model? 


First of all, there is an urgent need to integrate traditional knowledge, culture, and biodiversity across various development sectors. This includes agriculture, education, health, nutrition, and economic development policies. So far, the governmental policies have been promoting the opposite - the erosion of traditional knowledge, culture and biodiversity through modernization. The goal shouldn’t be unlimited growth at the expense of natural resources, but rather a perpetual balance with nature and limits to growth. 


Secondly, there is a need to democratize decision-making in terms of policies, to include the marginalized voices of Indigenous peoples. This has to happen on local, regional, national and international levels, in order to achieve this integration of traditional knowledge, culture and biodiversity across development and conservation sectors.



What are the implications of the biocultural heritage model for the agriculture industry at large?


Biocultural heritage is really about food sovereignty - it’s about local control over farming systems, crops and markets. Biocultural heritage territories are reviving traditional crops for nutrition, climate resilience and food sovereignty. It empowers Indigenous peoples and local communities to be the ones who decide over which farming practices to use, which crops to use, and which foods to consume. They are increasingly rejecting modern industrial farming models that are pushed by governments and industry, which have led to worsening health and arising non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, as well as increased vulnerability to climate change. Biocultural heritage makes it more difficult for the agricultural industry to extend their model and their market for products, such as fertilizers, agrochemicals and seeds, into Indigenous territories. 


A final message from Krystyna Swiderska. 


''We have to remember that we are facing a double extinction crisis – biological and cultural. Indigenous languages are disappearing really fast, so biocultural heritage is really critical for us to protect nature and culture, to achieve multiple sustainable development goals, and to ensure that the negative impacts of development and conservation on the poorest people, like Indigenous peoples, are avoided. It’s really essential for equitable and effective conservation and human rights to be respected, both in development and conservation spheres.''

Learn more about the Potato Park in Peru 

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