Loss of Biological and Cultural Diversity in the face of Climate Change

Mathilde Pasta
11 min readJun 9, 2021


An overview of the Biocultural Conservation International Systems of Governance

©UNESCO — Source: https://en.unesco.org/themes/biodiversity

Biocultural diversity loss is a global environmental problem still overlooked. It is an issue that affects both the global commons and crosses national borders (O’Neill, 2017). Yet, the tools at hand to address it remain scarce.

What exactly is “Biocultural Diversity Loss”?

Bio-cultural diversity loss refers to the phenomenon of reduction and destruction of both biological and cultural diversity due to climate changes. As the term suggests, the problem is composed of two intertwined “sub-problems”: The extinction of species essential to healthy biodiversity on the one hand, and the disappearance of Heritage sites and strands of human cultures on the other hand.

  • Biological Diversity Loss:
Highlights from the IUCN Red List | © Earth Touch — Source: Earth Touch News

In his book on The Environment and International Relations, O’Neill defines biodiversity loss as follows (2017: 34):

“It is the loss not only of animal and plant species but also of genetic diversity and habitats, caused by human activity”.

He goes further in explaining that the impacts of such loss have intrinsic consequences on ecosystems, and economies.

  • Cultural Diversity Loss:

In the encyclopedia of world problems and human potential, the Union of International Associations equates the loss of cultural diversity to the “destruction of Human Heritage”, and of “people’s connection to their local environment and the living world”. Some identified impacts include the loss of knowledge and the extinction of certain cultures, customs, and practices.

In sum, Biocultural diversity loss is a combination of both problems. Because they are co-constitutive, they form a symbiosis and become one. Indeed, they are caused by the same climatic threats, they are inherently co-evolutionary and often are geographically interdependent. For Gavin, et al (2015), Biocultural Heritage is composed of indigenous, traditional, and local community knowledges and practices as well as of the environment and ecosystems from which they flourish. The concept is in other words based on a “Human-In-Nature” approach to conservation, rather than on a binary vision of “Humans-Vs-Nature”.

I acknowledge that this attempt to offer a definition might not be satisfactory to all. The environmental problem we are dealing with is in fact so intricate and multi-layered that it remains difficult to delineate and interpret. The secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity itself admits that “there is no consensus on the precise meaning of the term “biocultural” and how it links to diversity agenda(s)” . The problem is nonetheless an important one and a paradigm shift is needed in order to safeguard our planet and its diversity in its entireness. It is part and parcel to the broader so-called “super wicked issue” or “problem without passport” that Climate Change represents.

Painting of Uluru by Danny Eastwood | © Karlangu Aboriginal Art Centre — Source: Culture Trip

Unscrambling Biocultural conservation governance at an international level: What is the biggest challenge that this system faces?

TThis blogpost aims at looking at the ways in which the biocultural diversity loss is addressed globally from an institutional standpoint. I will first paint the broad context of governance over this specific issue in order to make sense of what is already being done and enlighten the ways in which the issue is currently institutionalized. Then, the biggest challenge that this system faces will be described and reflected upon. For the purpose of this blog, I chose to examine the problem of Regime Complexity specifically as it seems to be deeply rooted in the current governance frameworks surrounding the issue of biocultural diversity loss.

Of course, the Nature/Culture Conservation regime did not surface in a vacuum. It is constituent to a larger system of regimes, itself embedded in the Global Environmental Governance (GEG) scheme. GEG is recognized by most academics as being the most challenging form of governance in terms of exertion because it is multi-leveled. In other words, it encompasses institutions and practices directly linking the international society to the civil society (Backer & Eckerberg, 2014). This is particularly relevant in the case of biocultural diversity conservation. That is the reason why the implementation of governance in the field requires the establishment of an environmental regime, defined as a variety of norms, rules, and principles that set the grounds for collaboration between all actors involved to effectively address the environmental challenge (Keohane, in Kütting, 2000).

The following infographic gives a good overview of the regime as it sheds light on the chronological evolution of biocultural conservation’s institutionalization process and illustrates the ways in which international institutions come into play in its architecture:

GEG in the face of Biocultural diversity loss | © Mathilde Pasta

In response to the glaring threats that biocultural diversity loss represented for our environment and livelihood, the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat (SCBD), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the 2010 Declaration on Bio-cultural Diversity and founded along with other organizations a Joint Programme. This marked a turning point in the Regime’s History as it is the moment the issue was formally added to the International Community’s agenda among the rest of environmental priorities. Since then, a regime for biocultural diversity conservation is slowly developing through partnerships especially but according to ecologists, more progress remains to be made. If more actors on the international arena recognize the importance of cultural diversity vis-à-vis biological diversity (and vice-versa), the policies focusing on biocultural loss remain incomplete, each treating different aspects of the problem as mutually-exclusive parts.

As the last part of the infographic (“where are we now?”) shows, the international regime resembles a hastily embroidered patchwork of institutions all styled, reshaped, and designed in parallel with the obtention of new data and information on biocultural diversity. The increasing density in number stakeholders constituting the regime however created overlaps across agendas and international obligations. This largely contributed to the emergence of an institutional problem: International Regime Complexity (Alter & Meunier, 2009). For example and as seen in the infographic, two institutions hold the steering wheel with regards to research: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). I created the following podcast to extrapolate more on the phenomenon as well as to put forward the views of two members of the IUCN: Mr. Badman, Director of Nature Culture Initiative, and Sonia Moreno, alunni of the Graduate Institute and Coordinator of Global Biodiversity policy and governance branch:

From Problem Framing, to Regime Complexity and Interest Diversity

The challenge directly stemming from problem framing and regime complexity that Mrs. Sonia Pena Moreno identifies and enhances in the podcast with regards to IUCN negotiations is related to the fact that the scope of the environmental problem we are dealing with is constantly changing. As Koremenos et al have emphasized, agreeing over which sectors should be included within negotiations can represent an ultimatum for institutions (2001). Similarly, alterations to institutional issue linkages impacts the width of the scope of arrangements. Elements such as membership rule, and well-defined scope of the issues covered are primordial to the genesis of effective international institution (ibid). Regime complexity in the case of biocultural diversity management thus constitutes a major impediment to institutional design attempts.

In addition, the systems of governance monitoring the field are state-centric. This means that there is no central authority able to foster biocultural diversity protection by itself. In the absence of such overarching body, the state-system is in charge of coping with the issue. But if states remain at the forefront, the network graph of actors involved in the regime presented bellow suggests that other stakeholders (Non-State-Actors) such as private corporations, expert groups and NGOs are to take into consideration as well (O’Neill, 2017).

Network graph: Actors Analysis for the Biocultural Conservation Regime | © Mathilde Pasta

Such diversity increases the level of regime complexity and brings about another associated challenge: the one of interest diversity (Mitchel, 2001). In fact, The entangled network depicted through the graph also reveals how anarchic the entire system is. If International Organizations such as ICCROM, the IUCN, and the UNESCO orient decision-making processes through enlightened fieldwork and research, they are composed and funded for the most part by those stakeholders’ whose preferences often clash (ibid). In this context, cooperation processes and the drafting of Declarations such as the above-mentioned 2010 one, transform in negotiation games characterized by a quest for relative gains (O’Neill, 2017).

Current systemic patterns in biocultural diversity governance serve the purpose of those who establish them: States. Implementation and sanction procedures for instance remain dependent on member states’ incentives to participate in negotiations (Bernauer, et al, 2013). This relies on both their economic capacity to participate (abatment cost) as well as on the degree of ecological vulnerability they face (Sprinz & Vaahtoranta, 1994). If states either don’t feel particularly vulnerable or don’t perceive themselves as wealthy enough to take an issue to heart (perhaps preferring to prioritizing other issues), they simply lack attraction to the institution and chose not to participate. As a consequence, the entire regime comes out weakened (Alivizatou, 2011), suffering from participation gaps.

Equivalently, the diversity of International Institutions covering the environmental problem sets fertile grounds for regime fragmentation (Alter & Meunier, 2009). In a context where interests between stakeholders diverge, regime complexity and institutional scope ambiguity can be utilized (and actively sustained) to allow for the selection of a preferred interpretation (ibid). This phenomenon, known as “forum shopping” in the field of International Law, enables actors to put forward their preferred agenda and to integrate the institution with which values correspond the most rather than adapting or reforming a lopsided regime.

Inupiaq artist Allison Warden performs during the 2017 Arctic Arts Summit while Sámi spectators look on | ©Pernille Ingebrigtsen — Source: Arctic Today

“Overlapping” and “Nesting” Regimes: Challenges to political coordination

In the context of biocultural diversity protection, the adoption of cross-institutional political strategies is common practice. That is also thanks to the atypical structural features of the regime. Regime complexity here is characterized by the presence of both overlapping and nested regimes within the broader system of governance (Alter & Meunier, 2009). Strictly speaking this is epitomized in three ways:

First through the existence of global institutions such as the UNESCO, ICOMOS, and the IUCN, whose agendas all include the problem of biocultural diversity loss in one way or another but with disparate interpretations and applications (overlapping regimes).

LBCD logo | © CBDS — Source: CBD

Second, through the increasing development of internal programs, agreements, and institutional partnerships that promote their own hybrid regimes with cross-cutting understandings of the matter at hand. The UNESCO-SCBD joint Programme “Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity” constitutes a good example.

As explained by the CBD Secretariat:

“Although some progress has been made in recent years, international institutions are configured into various conferences of the Parties, Committees, and Working Groups which tend to work in isolation on separate priorities in biological diversity and cultural diversity.”

And third, through the autonomous evolution of organizations that stem from other global organizations. This is for instance the case of ICCROM. Today the organization’s role is to bridge the gap between nature and culture’s needs for conservation. However, it originally focused on World Heritage Preservation solely and gradually integrated nature conservation as a core element of its agenda.

The “Culture Nature Journey” webinar | ©ICOMOS — Source: ICOMOS

The institution acts like a “multimodal hub” for states and non-state actors to engage with Biocultural diversity conservation through personnel training, information sharing, and advocacy programs. Partnerships are regularly initiated with sister institutions like the IUCN and the ICOMOS and good practices are exchanged through projects like the Panorama Nature-Culture Journeys for example.

Yet, it is worthy to note that ICCROM was originally a sub-branch of the UNESCO. Member-states are thus shared between both institutions. A number of states such as the Russian Federation or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, are well aware of this concentric overlap (nested regime). They logically prefer to abide by the policies of the bigger institution (UNESCO), which, in their view, already covers the issue and performs similar tasks (Alter & Meunier, 2009). One might find the situation quirky in this case because Alter and Meunier, the scholars who undertook to study “nested regimes”, compared the organizational construction to the one of Russian dolls.

So, can the Regime at all be considered “effective” ?

Regime complexity in the case of Biocultural diversity conservation derives from the presence of those overlapping and nested institutions. Their existence itself demonstrate that vagueness of scope is correlated to weakness of coordination in the case of this regime (Bernauer, et al, 2013). But such lack of coordination with regards to monitoring mechanisms also raises another challenge: the one of effectiveness assessment which is seen in the academic world as one of the major organizational pathologies.

The effectiveness of a regime with regards to a problem is a difficult thing to measure. One can evaluate effectiveness in terms of success of implementation for example but it could also refer to risk management or adaptation and mitigation to the problem at stake. Alter and Meunier also shed light on the fact that regime complexity fosters competition between stakeholders. Competition can represent an obstacle to effectiveness evaluation since it centers attention on actors’ interests rather than on solving the environmental problem (Meadowcroft, 2014). Nonetheless in the case of biocultural diversity conservation, it can also represent an opportunity following the feedback effects’ theory. This means that competition can encourage actors to get further involved, increasing the total amount of resources they dedicate to the cause and allowing for positive experimentation (Alter & Meunier, 2009).

2017 World Heritage Committee Meeting | © Pawel Suder — Source: IUCN

To conclude, this blog aimed at unscrambling governance processes in the field of biocultural diversity conservation by identifying the main challenge to its exertion. A study of the historical context in which the problem of nature and culture loss was institutionalized allowed to underline the characteristics of a highly intricate system of governance. Indeed, the regime complexity is marked by a constant evolution of the ways in which the environmental problem is framed.

This brings about three barriers which prevent the international community from finding and implementing strong solutions to fight biocultural diversity loss. First the lack of scope and the abuse of interest-based strategies by regime’s stakeholders; second, the presence of overlapping and nesting regimes which is part and parcel to a lack of coordination between institutions; and third, the difficulty of assessing effectiveness in and by itself.

It is important to underline that the system all in all seems on the right track towards positive progress. Innovative and progressive approaches are increasingly taken into consideration when trying to tackle the problem of biological and cultural diversity loss in the context of climate (Gavin, et al, 2015). Emerging conservation techniques indeed rely on more solid understandings of the horizontal and vertical links between nature and culture, between humans and the environment across space and generations (Maffi & Woodley, 2010).

Mathilde Pasta.

Nenets children share a laugh | © Aleksandr Romanov — Source: Asian Geographic