Human Ecology

, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 727–737 | Cite as

Reappraising the Concept of Biocultural Diversity: a Perspective from South Africa

  • Michelle Linda Cocks
  • Freerk Wiersum


Biocultural diversity has been conceptualised as the sum of the world’s differences regarding biological diversity at all levels and cultural diversity in all its manifestations, and their interactions. The concept is often framed in the context of conservation as a retention versus loss model by emphasizing the religious and spiritual values of the natural environment and the positive interactions between traditional indigenous people and conservation of natural ecosystems and indigenous species. On the basis of our research amongst the ‘non-traditional’ amaXhosa in South Africa, we argue that this interpretation is too narrow and that the concept needs to be reappraised in order to capture the dynamic, complex and relational nature of bio-cultural diversity relations. We conclude that the concept involves a complex of human values and practices related to the three main dimensions of biodiversity at landscapes, species and genetic levels. It is not only related to the conservation of wild species in culturally venerated natural ecosystems, but also to human creativity in creating hybrid nature-culture systems, including the incorporation of biodiversity in the human domain through the creation of human-modified landscape elements and agro-biodiversity. The biocultural values and practices are subject to various dynamics in relation to socioeconomic change. Some lose their importance as a result of modernization, but others endure even in urban conditions.


Biodiversity conservation Cultural and spiritual values Cultural practices Cultural landscapes Agrobiodiversity Domestication 



We gratefully acknowledge the various comments and suggestions of Kris van Koppen, Susi Vetter and the anonymous reviewers on various drafts of this manuscript.


  1. Ainslie, A. (2002). Introduction: Setting the scene. In Ainslie, A. (eds), Cattle ownership and production in the communal areas of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, Cape Town: Research Report No. 10, pp. 1–17.Google Scholar
  2. Ainslie, A. (2005). Farming cattle, cultivating relationships: cattle ownership and cultural politics in Peddie District, Eastern Cape. Social Dynamics 31(1): 129–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Almaz, Negash. (2001). Diversity and conservation of enset (Enset ventricosum (Welw.) Cheesman) and its relation to household food and livelihood security in south western Ethiopia. Ph.D. Disseration, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  4. Assogbadjo, E., Glèlè Kakaï, R., Chadare, F. J., Thomson, L., Kyndt, T., Sinsin, B., and van Damme, P. (2008). Folk classification, perception, and preferences of baobab products in West Africa: Consequences for species conservation and improvement. Economic Botany 62(1): 74–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beinart, W. (1980). Labour migrancy and rural production: Pondoland c.1900-1950. In Mayer, P. (ed.), Black villages in an industrial society. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.Google Scholar
  6. Bérard, L., and Marchenay, P. (2006). Local products and geographical indications: taking account of local knowledge and biodiversity. International Social Science Journal 58(187): 109–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berkes, F., Colding, J., and Folke, C. (2000). Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecological Application 10(5): 1251–1262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernard, P.S. and Khumalo (2004). Indigenous knowledge and the cultural importance of woodland and forest species in southern Africa. In Lawes, M.J., Eeley, H.A.C., Shackleton, C.M., and Geach, B.G.S. (eds.), Indigenous forests and woodlands in South Africa. Policy, people and practice, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, pp. 498–501.Google Scholar
  9. Byers, B. A., Cunliffe, R. N., and Hudak, A. T. (2001). Linking the conservation of culture and nature: A case study of sacred forests in Zimbabwe. Human Ecology 29(2): 187–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell, B., Mandondo, A., Nemarundwe, N., Sithole, B., De Jong, W., Luckert, M., and Matose, F. (2001). Challenges to proponents of common property resource systems: Despairing voices from the social forests of Zimbabwe. World Development 29(4): 589–600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carruthers, J. (2006). Mapungubwe: an historical and contemporary analysis of a world heritage cultural landscape. Koedoe 49(1): 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chase, A. K. (1989). Domestication and domiculture in northern Australia: A social perspective. In Harris, D. R., and Hillman, G. C. (eds.), Foraging and farming, the evolution of plant exploitation. Unwin Hyman, London, pp. 42–54.Google Scholar
  13. Cocks, M.L. (2006a). Wild resources and practices in rural and urban households in South Africa: implications for biocultural diversity conservation. Ph.D. Dissertation, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  14. Cocks, M. L. (2006b). Biocultural diversity: Moving beyond the realm of ‘indigenous’ and ‘local’ people. Human Ecology 34(2): 185–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cocks, M. L., Bangay, L., Wiersum, K. F., and Dold, A. P. (2006). Seeing the wood for the trees: the role of woody resources for the construction of gender specific household cultural artefacts in non-traditional communities in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Environment, Development and Sustainability 8: 519–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cocks, M. L., and Dold, A. P. (2000). The role of ‘African chemists’ in the health care system of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Social Science and Medicine 51: 1505–1515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cocks, M. L., and Dold, A. P. (2006). Conservation of biocultural diversity: the role of medicinal plants in Xhosa culture. Journal of Ethnobiology 26(1): 60–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cocks, M. L., and Wiersum, K. F. (2002). The significance of biodiversity to rural households in Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. 13: 39–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Cocks, M. L., Dold, T., and Vetter, S. (2012). ‘God is my forest’ – Xhosa cultural values provide untapped opportunities for conservation. South African Journal of Science 108(5/6): 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cunningham, A. B. (1991). The herbal medicine trade: Resource depletion and environmental management for a hidden economy. In Preston-Whyte, E., and Rogerson, C. (eds.), South Africa’s informal economy. Oxford University Press, Cape Town, pp. 196–206.Google Scholar
  21. Daniel, T. C., Muhar, A., Arnberger, A., et al. (2012). Contributions of cultural services to ecosystem services agenda. PNAS 109(23): 8812–8819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dasmann, R. F. (1991). The importance of cultural and biological diversity. In Oldfield, M. L., and Alcorn, J. B. (eds.), Biodiversity: Cultural, conservation, and ecodevelopment. Westview Press, Boulder, pp. 7–15.Google Scholar
  23. Decher, J. (1997). Conservation, small mammals, and the future of sacred groves in West Africa. Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 1007–1026.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. De Wet, C. (1995). Moving together, drifting apart: betterment planning and villegisation in a South African homeland. Witwatersland University Press, Johannesburg.Google Scholar
  25. De Wet, C., and Whisson, M. (1997). From reserve to region: apartheid and social change in the Keiskammahoek district of (former) Ciskei: 1950–1990, Occasional paper Number 35. Institute for Social and Economic Research Rhodes University, Grahamstown.Google Scholar
  26. Diederichs, N. (ed.) (2006). Commercialising medicinal plants. A southern African guide. Sun Press, Stellenbosch.Google Scholar
  27. Dold, A. and Cocks, M.L. (2002). The trade in medicinal plants in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. South African Journal of Science 98, November/December.Google Scholar
  28. Dold, T., and Cocks, M. (2012). Voices from the forests. Celebrating nature and culture in Xhosaland. Jacana Media, Pretoria.Google Scholar
  29. Fabricius, C., Koch, E., Turner, S., and Magome, H. (2004). Rights, resources and rural development: Community-based natural resource management in southern Africa. Earthscan, London.Google Scholar
  30. Fairhead, J., and Leach, M. (1995). Misreading the African landscape: Society and ecology in a forest – savannah mosaic. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  31. Gold, C. S., Kiggundu, A., Abera, A. M. K., and Karamura, D. (2002). Diversity, distribution and farmer preference of Musa cultivars in Uganda. Experimental Agriculture 38(1): 39–50.Google Scholar
  32. Harris, D. R., and Hillman, G. C. (eds.) (1989). Foraging and farming, the evolution of plant exploitation. Unwin Hyman, London.Google Scholar
  33. Hladik, C.M., Hladik, A. Linares, O.F. Pagezy, H. Semple, A. and Hadley, M. (eds.), (1993). Tropical forests, people and food: biocultural interactions and applications to development. Paris and Partenon. New York: UNESCO and Man and Biosphere Series No. 13.Google Scholar
  34. Hoffman, M. T., and Todd, S. (2000). A national review of land degradation in South Africa: The influence of biophysical and socio-economic factors. Journal of Southern African Studies 26(4): 743–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kareiva, P., Watts, S., McDonalds, R., and Boucher, T. (2007). Domesticated nature: Shaping landscapes and ecosystems for human welfare. Science 316: 1866–1869.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kepe, T. (2008). Beyond the numbers: Understanding the value of vegetation to rural livelihoods in Africa. Geoforum 39: 958–968.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Laird, S. A., Awung, G. L., Lysinge, R. J., and Ndive, L. E. (2011). The interweave of people and place: biocultural diversity in migrant and indigenous livelihoods around Mount Cameroon. International Forestry Review 13(3): 275–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Liu, J., Dietz, T., Carpenter, S. R., Alberti, M., Folke, C., Moran, E., Pell, A. N., et al. (2007). Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science 317: 1513–1516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Loh, J., and Harmon, D. (2005). A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological Indicators 5: 231–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maffi, L. (2005). Linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 599–617.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Maffi, L., and Woodley, E. (eds.) (2010). Biocultural diversity conservation. A global sourcebook. Earthscan, London.Google Scholar
  42. Mander, M. (2004). An overview of the medicinal plant market in South Africa. In Lawes, M. J., Eeley, H. A. C., Shackleton, C. M., and Geach, B. G. S. (eds.), Indigenous forests and woodlands in South Africa. Policy, people and practice. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Scottsville, pp. 440–445.Google Scholar
  43. Mander, M., Ntulii, L., Diederichs, N. and Mavundlai, K. (2007). Economics of the traditional medicine trade in South Africa. In Harrison, S., Bhana, R., Ntuli, A. (eds.), South African Health Review 2007. Health Systems Trust, DurbanGoogle Scholar
  44. Marthez-Stiefel, S-L., Boillat, S. and Rist, S. (2007). Promoting the diversity of worldviews: An ontological approach to biocultural diversity. In Haverkort D. and Rist, S. (eds.), Endogenous development and biocultural diversity. The interplay of worldviews, globalization and locality. Worldviews and Sciences 6, Compas Series, Leusden, Netherlands, pp. 67–81.Google Scholar
  45. Martin, E.B., Vigne, L. and Allan, C. (1997). On a knife’s edge: The rhinoceros horn trade in Yemen. A TRAFFIC Network Report, May Issue.Google Scholar
  46. McAllister, P. (2001). Building the homestead. Agriculture, labour and beer in South Africa’s Transkei. African Studies Centre, Leiden.Google Scholar
  47. McKey, D., Linares, O.F., Clement, C.R. and Hladik, C.M. (1993). Evolution and history of tropical forests in relation to food availability – background. In Hladik, C.M., Hladik, A., Linares, O.F., Pagezy, H., Semple, A., and Hadley, M. (eds.). Tropical forests, people and food: biocultural interactions and applications to development. UNESCO, Man and Biosphere Series No. 13. Paris and Partenon, New York, pp. 17–24.Google Scholar
  48. McNeely, J. A. (2000). Cultural factors in conserving biodiversity. In Wilkes, A., Tillman, H., Salas, M., Grinter, T., and Shaoting, Y. (eds.), Proceedings of the cultures and biodiversity congress. Yunnan Science and Technology Press, Yunnan, pp. 128–142.Google Scholar
  49. Michon, G., De Foresta, H., Levang, P. and Verdeaux, F. (2007) Domestic forests: a new paradigm for integrating local communities into tropical forest science. Ecology and Society 12 (2), article 1. Online:
  50. Mignouna, H. D., and Dansi, A. (2003). Yam (Dioscorea ssp) domestication by the Nago and Fon ethnic groups in Benin. Genetic Resources and Crop Cultivation 50(5): 519–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystem and human well-being: synthesis. Island Press, Washington.Google Scholar
  52. Milliken, T., and Shaw, J. (2012). The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. TRAFFIC: Johannesburg, South Africa.Google Scholar
  53. Mogano, L.L. (2013). Unearthing the essence of nature and the perception of natural landscape among amaXhosa in the Eastern Cape: An exploratory study. MA Dissertation, Rhodes University at Grahamstown, South Africa.Google Scholar
  54. Mühlhäusler, P. (1996). Linguistic ecology: Language change and linguistic imperialism in the Pacific region. Routledge, London.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Norgaard, R. B. (1995). Beyond materialism: A co-evolutionary reinterpretation of the environmental crisis. Review of Social Economy 53(4): 475–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Padoch, C., and Vayda, A. P. (1983). Patterns of resource use and human settlement in tropical forest. In Goley, F. B., and Lieth, H. (eds.), Tropical rain forest ecosystems, structure and function. Ecosystems of the World No. 14A. Elsevier, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  57. Peires, J. B. (1989). The dead will arise. Nongqawuse and the great Xhosa cattle killing-movement of 1856–7. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 301–313.Google Scholar
  58. Persica, A., and Martin, G. (eds.) (2008). Links between biological and cultural diversity. Report of International Workshop. UNESCO, Paris.Google Scholar
  59. Pilgrim, S. E., Cullen, L. C., Smith, D. J., and Pretty, J. (2008). Ecological knowledge is lost in wealthier communities and countries. Environmental Science & Technology 62(4): 1004–1009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Philander, L. E. A., Makunga, N. P., and Platten, S. J. (2011). Local medicinal plant knowledge in South Africa preserved by apartheid. Human Ecology 39: 203–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Poland, M., Hammond-Tooke, D., and Voigt, L. (2003). The abundant herds: A celebration of the Nguni cattle of the Zulu people. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.Google Scholar
  62. Posey, D. A. (1999). Introduction: Culture and nature – the inextricable link. In Posey, D. A. (ed.), Cultural and spiritual values of biodiversity. A complementary contribution to the global biodiversity assessment. UNEP and Intermediate Technology Publications, London, pp. 1–19.Google Scholar
  63. Posey, D. A., and Overal, W. L. (eds.) (1990). Ethnobiology: Implications and applications, 2nd ed. Museu Paraensa Emilio Goeldi, Belem.Google Scholar
  64. Pretty, J. (2002). Agri-culture. Reconnecting people, land and nature. Earthscan Publications, London.Google Scholar
  65. Pretty, J., Adams, B., Berkes, F. F., de Athayde, S., Dudley, N., Hunn, E., Maffi, L., et al. (2009). The intersections of biological diversity and cultural diversity: Towards integration. Conservation and Society 9(2): 100–112.Google Scholar
  66. Ramakrishnan, P. S. (1996). Conserving the sacred: from species to landscape. Nature and Resources 32(1): 11–19.Google Scholar
  67. Rapport, D., and Maffi, L. (2010). The dual erosion of biological and cultural diversity: implications for the health of ecocultural systems. In Pilgrim, S., and Pretty, J. (eds.), Nature and culture, rebuilding lost connections. Routledge and Earthscan, London, pp. 103–119.Google Scholar
  68. Rautenbach, C. (2011). Umkhosi Ukweshwama: revival of a Zulu festival in celebration of the universe’s rites of passage. In Bennett, T. W. (ed.), Traditional African religions in South African law. UCT Press, Claremont, pp. 63–89.Google Scholar
  69. Redford, K.H., and Painter, M. (2006). Natural alliances between conservationists and indigenous peoples. Wildlife conservation society. WCS Working Paper No. 25, New York.Google Scholar
  70. Richards, P. (1996). Forest indigenous peoples: concept, critique and cases. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 104B: 349–365.Google Scholar
  71. Rosenthal, D. (1996). Showdown in Zimbabwe. International Wildlife 26(6): 28.Google Scholar
  72. Rössler, M. (2012). World heritage cultural landscapes: a UNESCO flagship programme 1992–2006. Landscape Research 31(4): 333–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Sayer, J., Ishwaran, N., Thorsell, J., and Sigaty, T. (2000). Tropical forest biodiversity and the world heritage convention. Ambio 29(6): 302–309.Google Scholar
  74. Shackleton, C. M. (2000). Comparison of plant diversity in protected and communal lands in the Bushbuckridge lowveld savanna, South Africa. Biological Conservation 94: 273–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Shackleton, C. M., Botha, J., and Emanuel, P. L. (2003). Productivity and abundance of Sclerocarya birrea subsp. Caffra in and around rural settlements and protected areas of the Bushbuckridge Lowveld, South Africa. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods 13(3): 217–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Shaw, E.M, and Van Warmelo, N.J. (1972). The material culture of the Cape Nguni Part 1: Settlement. Annals of the South African Museum 58(1).Google Scholar
  77. Sheridan, M. J., and Nyamweru, C. (eds.) (2008). African sacred groves: Ecological dynamics and social change. James Currey, Oxford.Google Scholar
  78. Soga, J. H. (1931). The Ama-Xhosa: Life and customs. Lovedale Press, Lovedale.Google Scholar
  79. Stepp, J. R., Cervone, S., Castand, H., Lasseter, A., and Stocks, G. (2004). Development of a GIS for global biocultural diversity. Policy Matters 13: 267–270.Google Scholar
  80. Sunderlin, W., Hatcher, J., and Liddle, M. (2008). From exclusion to ownership? Challenges and opportunities in advancing forest tenure reforms. Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington.Google Scholar
  81. Swaminathan, M. S. (2002). The past, present and future contributions of farmers to the conservation and development of genetic diversity. In Engels, J. M. M., Roa, V. R., Brown, A. H. D., and Jackson, M. T. (eds.), Managing plant genetic diversity. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, pp. 23–31.Google Scholar
  82. Terrell, J. E., Hart, J. P., Barut, S., Cellinese, N., Curet, A., Denham, T., Kusimba, C. M., et al. (2003). Domesticated landscapes: The subsistence ecology of plant and animal domestication. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10(4): 323–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Turnhout, E., Waterton, C., Neves, K., and Buizer, M. (2013). Rethinking biodiversity: from goods and services to ‘living with’. Conservation Letters 6(3): 154–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. UNESCO. (2005). Conserving cultural and biological diversity: the role of sacred natural sites and cultural landscapes. International Symposium: 30 May – 2 June 2005: Tokyo, Japan.Google Scholar
  85. Vernon, G. (2013). Even the cows were amazed, Shipwreck survivors in South-East Africa 1552–1782. Jacana Media, Auckland Park.Google Scholar
  86. Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McBNeely, J. A., and Oviedo, G. (2010). Sacred natural sites. Conserving nature and culture. Earthscan, London.Google Scholar
  87. Wiersum, K. F. (1997a). From natural forest to tree crops, co-domestication of forests and tree species, an overview. Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science 454: 425–438.Google Scholar
  88. Wiersum, K. F. (1997b). Indigenous exploitation and management of tropical forest resources: An evolutionary continuum in forest-people interactions. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 63: 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wiersum, K. F. (2010). Forest dynamics in southwest Ethiopia: Interfaces between ecological degradation and resource enrichment. In Bongers, F., and Tennigkeit, T. (eds.), Degraded forests in eastern Africa. Management and restoration. Earthscan, London and Washington, pp. 323–342.Google Scholar
  90. Wiersum, K. F., Husselman, M., Dold, A. P., and Cocks, M. L. (2006). Cultivation of medicinal plants as a tool for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation in the Amatola region, South Africa. In Bogers, R. J., Craker, L. E., and Lange, D. (eds.), Medicinal and aromatic plants. Agricultural, commercial, ecological, legal, pharmacological and social aspects. Wageningen UU Frontis, vol. 17. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 43–57.Google Scholar
  91. Wiersum, K. F., and Shackleton, C. M. (2005). Rural dynamics and biodiversity conservation in Southern Africa. In Ros-Tonen, M. A. F., and Dietz, T. (eds.), African forests between nature and livelihood resources: Interdisciplinary studies in conservation and forest management. Edwin Mellen Press, UK, pp. 67–92.Google Scholar
  92. Wild, R., and McLeod, C. (2008). Sacred natural sites: Guidelines for protected area managers. Gland. IUCN, Switzerland.Google Scholar
  93. Wood, D., and Lenné, J. M. (1997). The conservation of agrobiodiversity on-farm: Questioning the emerging paradigm. Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 109–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Anthropology Department, Rhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group, Wageningen UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations