Linguistic and Biological Diversity Linked

Summary: Cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity are linked, researchers say. The link may be to preserve both natural environments and indigenous populations.

Source: Penn State

Cultural diversity — indicated by linguistic diversity — and biodiversity are linked, and their connection may be another way to preserve both natural environments and Indigenous populations in Africa and perhaps worldwide, according to an international team of researchers.

“The punchline is, that if you are interested in conserving biological diversity, excluding the Indigenous people who likely helped create that diversity in the first place may be a really bad idea,” said Larry Gorenflo, professor of landscape architecture, geography and African studies, Penn State.

“Humans are part of ecosystems and I hope this study will usher in a more committed effort to engage Indigenous people in conserving localities containing key biodiversity.”

Gorenflo, working with linguist Suzanne Romaine, Merton College, University of Oxford, UK, looked at 48 localities in Africa designated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Natural World Heritage Sites. These sites host “globally important natural or combined natural and cultural resources,” they report.

This paper was placed online as an unedited manuscript in January 2021 ahead of final online publication in April 2021 in Conservation Biology.

They analyzed geographic information system data on Indigenous languages in these areas and found that 147 languages overlapped with the UNESCO sites. Indigenous languages occurred in all but one of the Natural World Heritage Sites examined.

“The Namib Sand Sea desert in Namibia is a pretty dry area,” said Gorenflo. “Kind of desolate, with wonderful sand dunes and natural features, but so harsh that there is no one living there as far as I know.”

But in all the other Natural World Heritage Sites in continental Africa and on nearby islands, Indigenous people not only live, but, to some extent, manage the environment in which they live and have been doing so for a long time.

“The big message is basically that there is increasing evidence that cultural diversity and biodiversity are interrelated, and we found this at a fairly fine geographic scale,” said Gorenflo. “If this is the case, then it makes a strong argument for Indigenous people to be part of ecosystem management in sites where they live.

“In terms of management approach, when there is more than one linguistic group associated with a specific site, the strategy probably should be to let the people associated with individual areas deal with those areas,” he said.

In addition to finding that speakers of Indigenous languages often live in high-profile UNESCO sites, the researchers also found that the number of languages in these localities correlated with the number of species whose ranges of occurrence include these sites.

For their language data, the team used Ethnologue, a linguistic database originally established to translate the bible and the only global dataset for languages with detailed geographic information.

“The database is certainly not totally correct,” said Gorenflo. “But it does show major patterns.”

For the species data, the researchers used the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species which includes species range data. They looked at amphibians, mammals, reptiles and a collection of freshwater species. They also used data from Birdlife International and “Handbook of the Birds of the World” for bird species.

“What we found numerically is that within UNESCO World Heritage Sites, if you plot language numbers against species range numbers, you find that there is a positive relationship,” said Gorenflo. “It may be because more natural complexity generates more cultural complexity, though we do not know for sure.”

Study results revealed that in the UNESCO sties in Africa, Indigenous languages overlapped with the ranges of more than 8,200 species in the groups considered.

This shows a young Masai boy
Masai boy standing in a field with a stick in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. Credit: Larry Gorenflo, Penn State

Gorenflo suggests that there might be a reduction in biodiversity in these globally important African sites if Indigenous groups are displaced or somehow have their influence on managing these localities marginalized.

“Our ultimate goal is to try to look at a few places and figure out how we might redesign and reconsider management strategies and get Indigenous people more involved in shared governance.”

Focusing on these high-profile UNESCO sites provides a basis for engaging Indigenous people in governance that hopefully will extend to less noteworthy places in Africa and beyond, according to Gorenflo.

He hopes to examine specific areas to increase their understanding of the relationship between biological and linguistic diversity, focusing first on the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania where much of the linguistic and biological diversity occur in this nation.

He also plans to examine Vanuatu, an archipelago in the eastern Melanesian Islands Biodiversity Hotspot with particularly dense linguistic diversity. Two other biodiversity hotspots of interest are Indo-Burma — Cambodia, Lao, Viet Nam, Myanmar and Southern China — and Mesoamerica, two regions where linguistic diversity is also quite high.

About this neuroscience research news

Source: Penn State
Contact: A’ndrea Elyse Messer – Penn State
Image: The image is credited to Larry Gorenflo, Penn State

Original Research: Closed access.
Linguistic diversity and conservation opportunities at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa” by L. J. Gorenflo and Suzanne Romaine. Conservation Biology


Linguistic diversity and conservation opportunities at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa

Africa contains much of Earth’s biological and cultural–linguistic diversity, but conserving this diversity is enormously challenging amid widespread poverty, expanding development, social unrest, and rapidly growing human population.

We examined UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Natural World Heritage Sites (WHSs) on continental Africa and nearby islands—48 protected areas containing globally important natural or combined natural and cultural resources—to gauge the potential for enlisting Indigenous peoples in their conservation.

We used geographic information system technology to identify instances where Natural WHSs co‐occur with Indigenous languages, a key indicator of cultural diversity. And, we compared the geographic ranges for 4 taxa and selected freshwater species with occurrence of all Indigenous languages within Natural WHSs and subsections of WHSs covered by the geographic extent of Indigenous languages to measure the correlation between linguistic and biological diversity.

Results indicated that 147 languages shared at least part of their geographic extent with Natural WHSs. Instances of co‐occurrence where a WHS, a language, or both were endangered marked localities particularly deserving conservation attention.

We examined co‐occurrence of all languages and all species, all languages and endangered species, and endangered languages and endangered species and found a correlation between linguistic and biological diversity that may indicate fundamental links between these very different measures of diversity.

Considering only endangered species or endangered languages and species reduced that correlation, although considerable co‐occurrence persisted. Shared governance of government‐designated reserves is applicable for natural WHSs because it capitalizes on the apparent connection between culture and nature.

Natural WHSs in Africa containing speakers of Indigenous languages present opportunities to conserve both nature and culture in highly visible settings where maintaining natural systems may rely on functioning Indigenous cultural systems and vice versa.

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  1. Linguistic diversity and biological diversity are correlated. Ok. But correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The question is howcthese heritage sites should best be conserved. By the tribal groups representing these linguistic groups, or by a scientifically informed governmental agency. Before everyone reflexively gags at this version of, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help…” I would point out that native people are fir the most part impoverished and are therefore likely to be exploited by political demagogues or private interests who are likely to exploit these sites for short term financial gain. In the USA, sheisters under the guise of “returning the national parks to the Indians are plotting just such a nefarious take over. The world will be better served if the there is rational effort to establish manage of these sites by conservationists. Don’t be taken in by romantic garbage about “returning native land to native people…PLEASE!

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