THE MASSIVE LOSS of both biological and cultural diversity has triggered many a ‘rescue’ effort – such as attempts to ‘save’ coral reefs and old-growth forests, beat back desertification, restore wetlands, coastal waters and lakes, and revitalise cultural traditions within Indigenous groups. Yet real progress on the ground has proved very difficult. It has become clear that, as with Humpty Dumpty, when an ecosystem and its people have been damaged, the damage is often mighty difficult to repair. Clearly, the old adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies with special force to the current global environmental predicament. But if we take this view in the quest for sustainability, the question then arises: what is to be ‘sustained’ in this rapidly changing world? The answer is simply yet profoundly “life itself”– life in its richness, diversity, vitality and resilience in both Nature and culture. If there is to be hope for a viable future, ecological and cultural health must become a primary goal of humankind.

Health has long held primacy among human concerns. The common greeting “How are you?” reflects the subconscious but very real awareness of the fragility of an individual’s life. Today, the same awareness must be extended to the fragility of Earth’s ecosystems and cultural systems. The notion of eco-cultural health embodies this awareness.

In the mid-1980s, comparative studies of what happens to ecosystems under stress from human activities revealed a common ‘ecosystem distress syndrome’. Irrespective of whether it is marine or freshwater, forest or field, an ecosystem under stress inevitably shows common signs of breakdown: loss of species diversity, reduced efficiency in nutrient cycling, nutrients leaching out of terrestrial ecosystems and excessively accumulating in aquatic ecosystems, increased vulnerability to invasive species and pathogens, and reduced capacity to recover from fires, floods, or droughts.

These changes collectively impair the ecosystem’s productivity, organisation and resilience. Although a corresponding ‘cultural distress syndrome’ has yet to be fully articulated, there is good reason to believe that it will present similar attributes, such as the decline of cultural diversity (as reflected in the loss of many of the world’s languages), the erosion of cultural vitality (as seen in the breakdown of intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge and practices), and the weakening of resilience (that is, a reduced capacity of cultural groups to cope with environmental, economic, social and political change).

The future of humankind is as much at risk from the loss of knowledge of how to live with Nature as it is from the threats to Nature itself. Survival knowledge – knowledge regarding diverse sources of foods, medicines and shelter; knowledge of ways and means of using and managing the land without depleting it – is embodied in the rich diversity of cultures, each co-evolving with and within unique ecosystems. Respect for Nature must be matched with respect for the cultural practices of peoples who are striving to maintain integration with their natural surrounds. Conservation efforts that ignore the vital interactions between culture and Nature and focus only on “preserving Nature” – in some cases, to the point of excluding humans, or even evicting them from the landscape – are bound to fail. Conservation work must focus on respecting and protecting the livelihoods, values, and know-how that have allowed for a sustainable integration of people in the landscape.

THE POTENTIAL FOR revitalising eco-cultural health can be seen in a group of activities now underway in the Sierra Madre, in northern Mexico. The region known as the Sierra Tarahumara is home to an Indigenous people, the Rarámuri who have lived there for centuries, meeting their daily needs through subsistence agriculture (primarily corn, beans and squash) and a complex of cultural practices that enabled them to capture and store water, maintain the fertility of soils, and have an abundance of fuel supply, wild foods, and medicinal plants.

However, particularly since the early 20th century, the Tarahumara region, not recognised by the State as belonging to its Indigenous peoples, was heavily exploited by logging and mining interests. This was followed by the influx of new settlers along with their domestic animals. The wholesale loss of old-growth forests and understorey vegetation, compounded with overgrazing, led to massive soil erosion and to a drastic decline in the health of the landscape.

Increasingly, the life of the Rarámuri has become impoverished through the loss of the forests, diminishing fertility of their fields, and compromised water sources, both in quality and in quantity. It is no wonder that, with subsistence farming no longer sufficient to provide for all of a family’s needs, there has been increasing pressure for the men to work outside the community for long periods of time. In addition, the younger members of the community are leaving to seek work in the cities (where often they find themselves economically marginalised and left adrift without the socio-cultural support systems provided by family and community).

To turn this situation around is daunting and requires sensitivity to both ecological and cultural sustainability. Over the past several years, an eco-cultural health programme has begun to take root in one Rarámuri community. It started by finding out from community members the nature of their concerns, and their priorities for taking action. They were keenly aware of the challenges: they experienced the increasing hardship of making ends meet, and the elders were well aware of obvious signs of degradation in both the health of their ecosystems and the socio-cultural organisation, vitality and resilience of their community.

Their priorities for redressing the situation were in the areas of a safe drinking-water supply, revegetation, and improving sanitation and hygiene. In addition, the women stressed the importance of literacy. Working with a highly motivated and energetic team of experts in these domains, self-selected groups from the community participated in the various revitalisation activities. The emphasis has been on restoration of the land, bringing drinking water from a distant source, and establishing a tree nursery, organic composting, garbage disposal and home gardens. People engaged in active learning about various procedures, such as forming swales along land contours to better retain rainwater – a practice that elders said was once in use among the Rarámuri and then forgotten.

IT IS FAR too early to tell what lasting impact these early initiatives may have on the wellbeing of the people in this settlement. But many of the signs are clearly positive: one of the elders said, “This is an awakening for us,” indicating that many of the connections between cultural practices and the landscape had almost fallen into oblivion and were being rediscovered. This experience contains important lessons.

First, human energies at all levels must be refocused on ensuring the sustainability of food, water, and the biological and cultural diversity of life. Policies at all levels, from local authorities to state and federal governments, must be realigned to enhance the health and viability of eco-cultural systems. Secondly, the exclusive focus on economic growth as the ultimate societal goal must be tempered with respect, reverence and the desire to achieve a sustainable reintegration of cultural and natural systems. Thirdly, well-intentioned conservationists and environmentalists must resist the temptation to couch their arguments for preserving ‘Nature’ in financial terms, which contributes to commodifying Nature.

Restoring eco-cultural health to the Earth will require a radical restructuring of values and behaviours. But therein lies the hope: the current crisis is largely one of human making, and thus the power to change course lies within human hands. •

David Rapport is the editor of Managing for Healthy Ecosystems.