Spanning 12,500 hectares, the East Kolkata Wetlands in India serves multiple purposes, from fish farming, agriculture, and rice cultivation to functioning as the world’s largest wastewater-fed aquaculture system. By employing 60,000 farmers, supplying 15 percent of the city’s fish, providing a home to over 3,000 tribal families, and treating half of the sewage generated by a city of 15 million inhabitants, this human-engineered ecosystem—neither natural nor artificial (or maybe both)—demonstrates a form of social innovation that scholars have often failed to recognize and embrace, what we are calling “biocultural innovation.”
While commercial innovations can be classified as products, processes, or business models, biocultural innovation blurs the lines between extractive notions of innovation and biocultural approaches to conservation. Defined as the application of traditional knowledge to improve intergenerational well-being—while minimizing the depletion of biocultural assets—biocultural innovation begins with an appreciation for the knowledge systems of Indigenous, tribal, and other local communities. Often described as “place-based” knowledge, because it’s rooted in the natural ecosystems in which peoples have lived for centuries, it reflects a profound comprehension of the connections between people and their environment.
Consider these examples. In Australia, the Indigenous Grasslands for Grain project integrates the local knowledge of the Gomeroi people with modern agriculture technology to produce nutritionally superior native grains while regenerating local ecosystems. In the Andes mountains, the traditional floating homes of the Uros people are inspiring low-cost, eco-friendly construction techniques worldwide that can improve water quality and biodiversity. Focused on the Amazon, the Earth Bank of Codes is assembling a genomic library of every species to spur innovation—from new drugs to efficient manufacturing—while promising to share commercial windfalls with Indigenous peoples who care for this immense ecosystem.
While too often overlooked by scholars, biocultural innovation is neither small nor niche, and has grown into a global movement, earning recognition and support from policymakers, practitioners, and various sectors. The United Nations has incorporated biocultural diversity into its sustainable development agenda, IPBES acknowledges the critical importance of traditional knowledge in biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, and UNESCO has established a global network of biosphere reserves to find new approaches to sustainable economic development that foster biocultural diversity, what are essentially biocultural “innovation labs.”
Despite progress, the biocultural innovation movement has often been obscured by a multitude of overly narrow labels and fields of study that do not fully encapsulate the phenomenon, from specialized concepts (e.g., “biopiracy”) to more longwinded descriptors (e.g., “types and examples of Indigenous knowledge used for climate change adaptation”). Given the widespread and unique nature of biocultural innovation, which challenges conventional innovation typologies, we argue that it necessitates new frameworks, tools, and approaches for practitioners and policymakers to effectively harness.
At the heart of biocultural innovation is an appreciation for biocultural capital’s “fragile potentiality.” While economists tend to see the ethnosphere and biosphere as potential assets––value to be leveraged—these interconnected biocultural assets are under unprecedented threat. For policy makers, this means that to convert the value of biocultural capital to serve humanity, we must also conserve and construct this value so that it is not lost, the “3 Cs” of biocultural innovation.
Converting Biocultural Capital
The Kaani tribe in the Western Ghats area of Kerala, India, converted their traditional knowledge of the properties of trichopus zeylanicus into a drug that effectively treats fatigue and stress. By the same token, stevia was once an herb used by the Guaraní peoples for centuries, but has become a breakthrough sugar alternative worth $492 million annually. Efforts to unlock biocultural value can be seen across industries from agrochemicals and biofuels to functional foods, nutraceuticals, and cosmeceuticals.
Innovators, policy makers, and scholars should prioritize how to effectively implement and optimize new approaches, mechanisms, and partnerships aimed at converting biocultural potentiality into practical innovations––but do so in a manner that is fair and equitable to their Indigenous proprietors, “equitable diffusion.” For example, the latest Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreement (COP15) signed in Montreal offers a framework for utilizing digital sequence information (DSI), enabling the ethical conversion of value from the biosphere and ethnosphere for innovative solutions.
Conserving Biocultural Capital
Traditional knowledge systems can increase the efficiency of bioprospecting by over 400 percent, but these Rosetta stones for nature’s contributions to humanity are under threat. Protecting and preserving biocultural capital means ensuring its sustainable use and management for future generations. For example, smart contracts involving blockchain technologies are being developed and tested to financially support Indigenous communities in their crucial efforts to safeguard biodiversity and uphold their unique cultures. Similarly, a collaboration between NASA and Indigenous reindeer herders combines sophisticated Indigenous knowledge with advanced Geographic Information Systems to sustainably manage the Arctic.
Such biocultural innovations challenge traditional “fortress conservation” approaches to conservation that seek to ‘safeguard’ biodiversity by establishing ‘protected’ areas from which local inhabitants are excluded. Biocultural innovations, by contrast, emphasize the integral role that Indigenous peoples play as stewards of the biosphere. Thus biocultural innovations not only foster sustainable use and protection of biodiversity but also support the livelihoods, cultures, and self-determination of local Indigenous inhabitants. By doing so, they reduce the fragility of both the ethnosphere and biosphere, preserving their potentiality. With over one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, it is critical to protect biocultural assets. Because Indigenous peoples protect approximately 80 percent of remaining biodiversity, the latest CBD agreement (COP15) emphasizes the central role of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, rights, practices, worldviews, and innovations in achieving global conservation targets. In light of these developments, we urge innovators, policymakers, and scholars to contribute to understanding and enhancing the complex stakeholder interactions emerging to conserve biocultural assets.
Constructing Biocultural Capital
Beyond avoiding depletion, resources from the biosphere and ethnosphere can be utilized in a way that actively improves both. For example, cultural burning—a practice that necessitates an intricate understanding of geology, weather patterns, animal breeding cycles, and plant flowering cycles—can not only mitigate the devastating effects of recent bushfires but also enhance the health and productivity of the land and those who depend on it, including its Indigenous caretakers. By the same token, in 2018, Indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon joined forces to establish the Wampis Nation, an autonomous territorial government, with the aim of not only defending their culture and land from extractive industries but also restoring it through traditional land management, reforestation efforts, and sustainable farming practices. This one-of-a-kind biocultural innovation covers nearly an area the size of one-third of the Netherlands and involves more than 15,000 people.
The latest CBD agreement (COP15) aims to take urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, and put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of people and planet. The agreement sets a goal to restore at least 30 percent of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030 (30-by-30), with an emphasis on respecting Indigenous peoples and fostering their full and effective contributions in decision-making and innovation, including their free, prior, and informed consent. This ambitious global initiative calls for new organizational practices and complex stakeholder interactions to create value. Innovators, policymakers, and scholars can leverage their unique skills to better understand and optimize these new approaches, mechanisms, and partnerships, ultimately constructing healthier biocultural assets and capital.
The Future of Biocultural Innovation
The future of biocultural innovation is full of promise, but the lack of adequate theorizing about biocultural innovation hinders practical implementation. Policy makers recognize many unresolved practical challenges in integrating traditional knowledge into assessments and innovation processes that currently prioritize scientific knowledge. Additionally, little is known about how to scale up biocultural innovations in an equitable and fair manner with their Indigenous originators. For example, even though Indigenous agricultural practices like agroforestry, intercropping, water harvesting, and crop rotations are fueling the regenerative agriculture industry—which yields high-quality produce, sequesters carbon, and enhances biodiversity—Indigenous communities have gained little in return. Thus, one person’s bioprospecting is another person’s biopiracy.
Furthermore, the biosphere and ethnosphere are in crisis. Accelerating species loss is pushing ecosystems worldwide dangerously close to “tipping points,” where biodiversity loss will irretrievably damage their capacity to benefit humanity. Language extinction is also occurring at an alarming rate, with an estimated 30 percent of languages––and thus, deep reservoirs of biocultural knowledge––predicted to become extinct by the end of the century. The ongoing marginalization of indigenous peoples results in their overrepresentation among the world’s poor, despite their crucial role in protecting 80 percent of existing biodiversity.
Promising initiatives that align with biocultural innovation principles already exist, but often go unrecognized as such. UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere initiative, for example, brings scientists and Indigenous peoples together to form Biosphere Reserves that function as ‘innovation labs’ for sustainable development. These initiatives provide a solid foundation for championing the UN Environmental Program’s shared 2050 vision, which seeks to establish pathways for society to live in harmony with nature, and there are already hundreds of existing and potential biocultural innovations that offer pathways to attaining this outcome. For instance, a review commissioned by the European Union identified 510 biocultural innovations that enhance food security, resilience, livelihoods, and biodiversity, while another recent review outlined 236 biocultural innovations in areas ranging from physical infrastructure to natural disaster warning systems, financing, and policy.
By categorizing these initiatives under the umbrella of biocultural innovation, we hope to encourage a more concerted focus on this unique and promising form of sustainable development. We also hope that our “3Cs” model and initial theorizing may further propel this movement, inspiring further biocultural innovation breakthroughs and comprehensive policy reform.
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