of the Earth

Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity

Excerpted from statements by representatives of indigenous and traditional communities in response to a request from UNEP for information on how they value biodiversity, collected by the Environment Liaison Centre International and published in Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, edited by Darrell Addison Posey (UNEP and Intermediate Technology Publications).

The term ‘biodiversity’ does not exist in my people’s understanding or knowledge. If I were to translate the term into our language, I would say it was everything in this world, down in the sea, and things we can touch. At the same time, it is more than this – more than just things that can be touched or things that are alive. The air, the water and the sun also must be included.

Also there is a spiritual aspect to what is also part of biodiversity. Although our peoples embrace Christianity, Islam or whatever, we believe in the existence of spirit. The spirit is more like a guide, something that you must respect or be conscious of. It could be the spirit of the land, the spirit of things that live on trees or rocks, or even your ancestor spirits.

In our language there is something called adat, an unwritten understanding of common things that everyone should know. It is often described as a traditional legal system, but, to the indigenous people, it is much more, encompassing a set of beliefs and values that affects all aspects of life. It is a set of unwritten rules and principles that extends to everything and to relationships within both the physical world and the spiritual world.

Everything is inhabited by some kind of spirit and there is a proper way to conduct relationships with them. All things are in balance and any disturbances in the spirit world may affect other members of the Earthly family or the community.

Adat is closely linked to agricultural practices and the management of the ecosystems. There is a wealth of ritual and ceremony involved, especially with the swidden system, which aims to redress the balance of nature that agriculture temporarily interrupts. The whole process of work thus brings individuals in contact with the spirit world, and if this should cause conflict between the spirits, the consequences may be felt by the whole community. This, in turn, undoubtedly encourages communal work and the sharing of responsibility for any activities that may adversely affect the spirit world.

Patrick Segundad  Kadazan people, Malaysia

Before we make any decisions, we consult our ancestors first. We remind ourselves about our central spirits, we talk to them and then they give us the go-ahead. Before we touch the land we go to the spirits. The spirits are linked to certain animals or trees.

Ralph Mogati  Korekore people, Zimbabwe

Somebody from the continent of the Great Turtle Island, today called America, said that I don’t need to go to university to learn about biodiversity. I believe what he said is the truth.

Biodiversity is described by science in terms of the metals, rock, sand, water and so on, the things that the scientists themselves can explain. On the other hand, an indigenous person’s explanation of the biodiversity of a river, sea, coral reef, island or waterfall has a fullness in that it also includes the biodiversity of a village, both in the world where humans live and in the world where spirits live.

If we don’t know how to respect the indigenous laws, the relation of the culture to the environment, man, and spirit which must be maintained at all times will be upset. If the relation is not maintained harmoniously, then things go wrong with biodiversity.

Scientists are jumping up and down saying: ‘What’s going wrong with Planet Earth?’ Indigenous people know a great deal about what is going wrong.

If we can link biodiversity to the spiritual aspect, things will change.

Michael Kapo  Papua New Guinea

In the past we saw spirits in every tree. But now, with Christianity coming in, things are changing. It was easy for we Solomon Islanders to accept Christianity because we believe that God lives everywhere. It was just that we had different names for such things in the past.

God lives on the trees and there are times, if you are close to something like that, you can specifically call a shouting tree or a hunting tree. You can go in and give Him everything in your praise. Whenever you are there, you feel good about things, and as you come home, you stop by a small stream or waterfall and wash.

You learn what trees to take and what not to take for medicines. We believe that you have to go and ask the tree first. If they say yes, you take the medicine, but if they say no, then you do not. They could direct you to another tree which is O.K. to use. You don’t take any others.

Ruth Lilongula   Solomon Islands

When Sibö decided to create this world, the Earth, the first people he made were the indigenous people. He walked among our first ancestors here in Talamanca, and he told them many things. He told them for example, how he made the earth and the sea, how he brought the first animals to the Earth, and how he planted the first trees. He also gave certain laws to us and told us how we will be punished if we fail to obey them. He taught us how we should live with all things on Earth.

He made white people in the day. That is why they are more scientific. He gave them the intelligence to do many things that the indigenous people can’t do. White people make cars, planes, boats, money; they make many things. But Sibö only taught the indigenous people to plant, to raise animals, and to hunt and fish.

The origin of the white people is a relative of Sibö called PlékeköL, which means the King of the Leaf-cutter Ants. Just look at the leaf-cutter ants, how they all work together cleaning all the land around their nests. Where the leaf-cutter ants live, all the vegetation is gone because they cut every last leaf and take it back to their big nests.

That is how the white man is. He works very hard, but he destroys nature. The white man cuts down everything that is green, and where he lives there are no trees, no rivers, no animals. On the other hand, the indigenous people don’t work so hard. We plant corn, raise animals and live in the forest. We don’t like to destroy nature, we like to live in nature.

Juan Vargas, Rodolfo Mayorga, Carmen Leiva, Aníbal Morales, Gloria Moyorga, Juanita Sánchez, Eustacia Palacios, Catalina Morales  Costa Rica

All peoples living like the Saami, linked to nature as reindeer herders, have spiritual contact. We live adoring nature and then it becomes sacred.

There is a necessity to please nature so that it gives to you. You have to be kind to nature so that nature will give you more. You have to be friends with the environment, otherwise it won’t work in cooperation with you on whatever you call the spiritual.

Johan Mathis Turi  Saami people, Norway

All of the things that are here, the tubers, plants, trees and wildlife, whatever, are God-given. To put a value on them is difficult. The money-teller would be very little interested. What is equivalent to the biodiversity here, to the things that surround us, is my life. If you took these things away, it would be like taking part of my life, and then my survival would be questionable.

Pera  Bakalaharil people, Botswana

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PHOTOGRAPH: R. Kawakami/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment 1996
Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson: Water is everything (Water) 1996
Metropolitan John of Pergamon: Ecological asceticism (Production and Consumption) 1996