Biocultural Heritage

Promoting resilient farming systems and local economies

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Drivers of change

We are facing a double extinction crisis - biological and cultural - as a result of prevailing development models and globalization.

The FAO estimates we have lost three quarters of all crop genetic resources in the past 100 years. Modern farming, based on just a few species and varieties, has spread across the globe, weakening agriculture’s genetic basis and our capacity to adapt to changing climates. Yet policymakers often see traditional farming systems rich in genetic diversity as a hindrance to economic growth.

Traditional knowledge is also disappearing fast. Up to 90 per cent of languages — an indicator of traditional knowledge — will be extinct or threatened by 2100. (UNESCO 2003)

The IIED and partners’ project “Protecting community rights over traditional knowledge” (2005-2009) identified multiple drivers of change, which are often mutually reinforcing, and affect both genetic resources and traditional knowledge since these are closely interlinked:

Traditional knowledge is also disappearing fast. Up to 90% of languages – an indicator of traditional knowledge – will be extinct or threatened by 2100
— UNESCO 2003
  • Agricultural policies, subsidies and research/extension which promote modern varieties and technologies, at the expense of local diversity.

  • Promotion of modern varieties/food products in the media, which influences consumer demand and reduces markets for traditional foods.

  • Limited arable land, reduction in size of landholdings, and take over of community land for other uses.

  • The existence of plant breeders’ rights to protect new varieties without equivalent protection of farmers rights over traditional varieties, which means that farmers have no incentive to sustain them.

  • Erosion of cultural values and customary rules, due to modernisation, western education and religion, extension of government authorities to village level, top down natural resource laws, and migration and changes in occupation due to economic pressures.

As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) found, the loss of genetic resources is only partly mitigated by formal biodiversity repositories ex situ, because these are incomplete, and people, especially farmers on marginal land, have little access to them.

For more information see: Protecting Community Rights over Traditional Knowledge: Implications of Customary Laws and Practices. Interim report (2005-2006).