Naive West pats itself on back

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity - Hotspots
April 6, 2001

One of the most striking sights at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was M rio Jurana, a chief of the Xavante people of Amazonia, already known throughout Brazil as a champion of the rights of indigenous Indians. Standing before the world's leaders and leading environmentalists with a large panther skin on his shoulders, he condemned them for passing resolutions that would drive indigenous peoples from their native soil in the supposed cause of rare animal preservation and ecotourism.

The tension between those who believe that native peoples are an integral part of natural ecosystems, and those who find them a potentially destructive inconvenience has run through western environmentalism for much of the 20th century - and is reflected in these two books about biodiversity.

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity constitutes the most powerful plea ever made for people to be seen as integral to the conservation of natural variety. Compiled by the late Darrell Addison Posey, a renowned authority on Amazonian ethno-science and indigenous people's rights, and including contributions from 350 scholars whose work was scrutinised by 50 peer reviewers and assembled by 12 authors into 13 chapters, its 700 pages are a testament to the value of the diversity that they espouse. The book was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme as a supplement to the even more voluminous Global Biodiversity Assessment, published in 1995.

Contrary to what one usually expects from a multi-author collaboration, Posey has managed to weave different contributions without losing the passion the authors feel for their subject, and the rich insights of their thousands of years of accumulated experience. In the opening section, Posey points out that indigenous peoples are not merely observers and users of the components of biological diversity, but an integral part of it. For them, nature is an extension of society itself, with the creatures that share life with them being the manifestations of past and future generations their own flesh and blood. His argument against the patenting of life is that nature is not a commodity to be bought, sold, patented or preserved apart from society, precisely because nature is what defines humanity. Our recent obsession with information technology and our potential escapes into virtual reality, will never, he concludes, change the universal truth espoused by indigenous peoples, "that the earth is their (our) mother".

The underpinning definition of biodiversity that lies behind the book is one that includes people, their many languages, and all their relations - human and non-human, cultivated and non-cultivated. Posey describes how indigenous peoples have come to oppose the use of "wilderness" and "wild" to refer to regions in which they now or once lived, because the terms imply that these landscapes and resources are purely the result of nature and as such are the common heritage of mankind - free for others to take. Much of the exploitation and destruction of areas inhabited by indigenous peoples has been the product of this de-humanising logic.

Despite the focus of the Earth Summit and the much-heralded Convention on Biological Diversity (biological diversity being defined as the loss of species of animals, plants and fungi), the custodians of this diversity - the indigenous peoples who are the often-wise interpreters of their potential uses to the rest of us - have been exterminated far faster than non-humans. More than 2,000 of the world's 5,000 or so surviving languages are in immediate danger of extinction, while a much larger number are losing the ecological contexts that keep them vibrant. With each language lost, humanity loses an inextricable part of its cultural, spiritual and biological wealth.

Among the wide-ranging contributions that make Posey's collection essential reading for anyone studying biology, ecology, anthropology or development, is a fascinating review of global linguistic diversity by Luisa Maffi, and a landmark synthesis of ethno-science, traditional ecological knowledge, and their contribution to sustainable agriculture. There are also sections looking at the value of biodiversity for traditional medicines, agriculture and soil management, as well as reviews based on types of ecosystems - mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and seas. Finally, there are two excellent chapters on ethical and religious aspects, human and intellectual property rights, and an agenda for action - though these themes are present in every chapter. For this reason, the book should be required reading for any of those in positions of power, be they in the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, United Nations bodies or national and local governments. I cannot think of another example of such a wide range of authors coming to a unified and powerful conclusion.

Whereas Posey's book is an encyclopedia of scholarship, insight and information, Hotspots is a coffee-table book that avoids and fudges difficult issues rather than tackling them, from its foreword by Harrison Ford to its acknowledgement to the transnational cement company Cemex for funding, and its complete lack of a list of contents or index. It succeeds as a photo album, but not as a serious study.

Its plea - for the prioritisation of the conservation of the wild places defined by research biologists - is the exact opposite to the conclusion of Posey's volume. But rather than tackle the conflict highlighted by M rio Jurana in 1992, it prefers to ignore it, perhaps hoping that if the "wild" species are saved, the indigenous people will look after themselves, whereas the experiences of before and since the Earth Summit show that if the perspectives of indigenous peoples are ignored in conservation plans, both they and their biodiversity will be lost.

Hotspots is a luxuriously illustrated attempt by its authors to sustain their ten-year-old argument that certain parts of the planet are centres of endemism for birds and large vertebrates and therefore are particularly in need of protection from humans. Its picture of rare animals, and the occasional plant, are organised by geographical region. Yet the whole concept of Hotspots risks pitting endangered species against local people who, as one of the authors (Norman Myers) has stated elsewhere, should be forcibly transferred to cities so that nature can be left in peace.

Given that the main audience for this picture book, which is the size of a paving stone and about as heavy, is likely to be in the drawing rooms of the rich and famous, as well as the occasional well-resourced library, the captions that go with the pictures speak even more loudly than the pages of text. Next to photos of habitat destruction, lie captions suggesting that this is due to over-population. Pictures of ecotourists, despite their high-resource-use lifestyles being the world's primary force for habitat destruction and global warming, receive approving captions heralding them as the saviours of species.

Although Hotspots is being distributed by a respected university press, it should be used only by those teachers who require a case study of the uglier face of the post-Rio biodiversity bandwagon, and juxtaposed with Posey's remarkable volume, which opens up a new trans-disciplinary field and should be required reading for every undergraduate and postgraduate course.

Tom Wakeford is at the Institute for Development Studies, Sussex, and is the author of Liaisons of Life .

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity

Author - Darrell Addison Posey
ISBN - 1 85338 3940
Publisher - Intermediate Technology / UN Environment Programme
Price - £35.00
Pages - 731

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