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Grappling with the plurality of biodiversity

Biodiversity is usually defined in a scientific and technical way, with a prominent focus on species. As a result, many conservation programs focus on the protection of charismatic species, and on the creation of strictly protected areas, often thought of as wilderness in a pristine state. However, this scientific concept of biodiversity provides too thin a basis for biodiversity action because it leaves out the many different ways in which people know, value, depend on, and care for nature. 

A recent Perspectives article in Nature Sustainability argues that this narrow definition of biodiversity significantly contributes to the lack of progress in reversing the declining global trend in biodiversity. The mismatch between the way nature is conceived and valued by the conservation movement versus ordinary people, including marginalized communities, is a source of confusion and conflict. The article, “Biodiversity and the challenge of pluralism”, argues that reconsideration of the use of the concept of biodiversity is needed to address the multiple and multi-level drivers leading to the global nature crisis. 

The article is authored by members of Future Earth, including Unai Pascual (Basque Centre for Climate Change, BC3), Sharad Lele (ATREE, Bangalore), and Sandra Díaz (Univ. Cordoba and CONICET, Argentina). Unai Pascual, who is co-chairing the IPBES Values Assessment, summarizes the central idea elaborated in this Perspectives piece: “In order to address the causes and potential solutions about the declining trend of nature globally, biodiversity scientists, practitioners, and policy makers need to take into account the multiple perspectives and values people hold towards nature, even if they do not always align. Life on Earth is based on biodiversity and society perceives nature and thinks about nature’s values in many different ways, making human-nature relations incredibly diverse. It is time to take into account the very diverse ways nature matters to people and this should be urgently reflected in biodiversity science, policy and practice.”  

Sandra Díaz adds, “How you define nature is not just semantics. Thinking of nature as the living fabric in which all people are interwoven or as a remote wild paradise reserved to a few, determines what kind of questions we make about our relationship with the natural world, and what actions we take”. 

The article stresses the importance of recognizing the different ways in which nature matters to people: not only the diversity of species, but the diversity of all life on Earth and the different relations between these forms of life, including people. Such a ‘pluralistic’ perspective could enhance the acceptability of conservation measures, especially where conservation fuels social conflict (see, for example, cases mapped by the Environmental Justice Atlas), and help  make conservation more socially legitimate and effective. This also implies that a new approach to conservation science is needed, one that can capture the multiple values of biodiversity. Such a pluralistic approach could build bridges among a broader set of nature-concerned citizens, and challenge the idea that there is an inevitable clash between nature and human well-being. This perspective is also at the heart of the ongoing Assessment about nature’s values by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), expected to be published in 2022.

A pluralistic approach that recognizes the needs and forms of knowledge of actors that have an interest in and are affected by biodiversity conservation could address the long history of forced displacement that has taken place the name of biodiversity conservation. What is needed instead is a conservation approach that respects the rights of marginalized communities, especially Indigenous people, whose traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable practices continue to be vital for the protection of biodiversity in many countries around the globe.

The world is not only facing a growing biodiversity crisis, but also a worsening trend in social inequality (see the  World Inequality Lab). There is an urgent need to refine the explanations of the underlying causes of this intertwined social-ecological problem,  and this requires taking into account politics of power, strong vested interests and differentiated responsibilities in order to identify who benefits from the destruction of biodiversity and how their harmful activities can be stopped. 

The article in Nature Sustainability is designed to contribute to the next Summit of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been delayed by the COVID-19 situation, and scheduled to take place in October 2021 in Kunming, China. The authors hope that their calls for pluralism will help inform the setting of biodiversity objectives, targets, and indicators for the next decades. 

Sadly, one of the co-authors of the paper, Professor Georgina Mace of University College London, passed away before its publication. Georgina Mace was a fervent advocate of inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches to biodiversity science, and this Perspectives piece aims to be a humble tribute to Georgina Mace’s life and tireless work in the field of biodiversity science.