Blogs, Systems Thinking

What the biodiversity movement can learn from traditional worldviews

May 22 is International Biodiversity Day. Agriculture is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss globally –  but not all agricultural systems are created equal. Many agricultural practices bring positive benefits to people, the land, and all living organisms.

For example, milpa: the ancestral Mexican tradition of farming maize. Here, maize is planted alongside a diversity of species such as beans, squash, and chilis along with up to 50 usable species, most of them not planted. When cultivated in close proximity, the species provide complementary benefits that increase harvest yield, limit moisture loss, and reduce the growth of weeds without the need for artificial pesticides or fertilizers.

Originating among Indigenous communities in Mesoamerica, the milpa was the backbone of a thriving pre-colonial agricultural system. Today, the milpa system remains prominent among small-scale farmers and is an important source of food and nutritional security for communities. 

More than a means of ecological food production, milpa also reflects a deep relationship between farmers and their fields. It encapsulates the generational connection and understanding that people have of the land and remains central to the culture and religion of many Indigenous communities in the regions we now know as the Americas.

Both of us have spent a significant portion of our careers studying and learning from communities about how the agroecological principles employed by farmers in their milpas can create more sustainable food systems. Milpa demonstrates how a landscape can be intentionally designed and managed over time to enhance agricultural biodiversity—a critical opportunity to take action on the broader biodiversity crisis.

To take one example, from Francisco’s home country, Mexico: the national government has proposed to phase out the use of the herbicide glyphosate. This has created controversy, and significant debate and uncertainty around the best means to control weeds and pests.

Instead of seeing this as a controversy or crisis, this shift away from the status quo should be seen as an opportunity to think differently about biodiversity. Conventional farming views weeds as a nuisance to eradicate. In a milpa, by contrast, farmers treat weeds as a valued component of the ecosystem: using their accumulated knowledge of the land, farmers engineer and manage weeds in such a way that helps to ward off pests and disease. In short, a diversity of weeds, adapted to the local environmental conditions, can eliminate the need for glyphosate, saving farmers money and preventing the contamination of soil and water. 

Not only that, but many of these so-called weeds can be eaten or harvested for their medicinal properties. In a milpa, some weeds are first kept at bay using natural means (the shade of squash leaves, for instance); those that do grow are tolerated and domesticated once a farmer has observed how insects or animals interact with the plant. 

This approach to biodiversity has enabled some people in their 70s and 80s to continue farming—they manage their fields in such a way that has created the conditions for the system to function on its own. By observing and appreciating the interaction between flora, fauna, and the surrounding environment, farmers who practice milpa have created agricultural systems that thrive not in spite of weeds but because of them. 

When looking to reduce biodiversity loss or transform food systems, we too often reach for technocratic solutions. We ask what different inputs will be required, what policies and regulations need to be created, and what scientific expertise should be employed along the way. We narrowly focus on fast solutions to one isolated problem, rather than addressing the system as a whole.

Looking at milpa, we can see that any solution requires as much a shift in worldview as it does a new technical paradigm. Learning from traditional practices, we must look at the interrelationships between species and the surrounding environment. We also need to embrace a mindset that acknowledges the value of all biodiversity and the immense wisdom held by Indigenous Peoples and traditional stewards of the land. 

So, how do we make this shift in worldview? 

The first step is to note the ways in which traditional knowledge is already being used to design more sustainable food systems. From agroecology to transformation or regenerative agriculture to organic conversion, food systems actors employ a number of ecological practices to transform the way in which we grow and harvest food. Elements of Indigenous food systems can be found in each of these concepts and the movement is growing worldwide. 

Secondly, we need to embrace intercultural exchange. This means bringing together Indigenous and western science and practices to create solutions fit for the scale and urgency of the crises we face, both at local and regional level. We think of Fulvio Giaonetto and Maria Blas Cacari, based in the Mexican state of Michoacán: they use botanical science and Indigenous knowledge to craft natural, local compounds that have proven effective at increasing soil fertility and repelling insects in conventional farms and small-scale milpa systems. Their compounds draw on the traditional knowledge of farmers and are now being reproduced by a network of community and women-owned microenterprises. 

Funders and researchers need to decolonize our thinking and better recognize the value of traditional knowledge. This means decentering western science, contemporary means of data collection, and narrow conceptions of evidence, and expanding our perspectives (and funding envelopes) to include Indigenous knowledge that has been accumulated based on multi-generational observation and adaptation. 

Thirdly, we must also consider the importance of language. When you lose the ability to farm in your language, you risk losing ecological concepts and important ways of thinking and understanding the land. Indigenous languages reflect a worldview that inherently understands the interrelationships between all living organisms. This is a paradigm we need to embrace; we cannot do so without revitalizing our Indigenous languages, to truly conceptualize and understand those relationships.

Finally, we must move away from ‘fortress conservation’ as the preferred method of protecting biodiversity. These discussions to build back biodiversity, based on fencing people out of protected areas, are systems of exclusion designed by those in power. All too often, those boundaries for conservation and protected areas are drawn without considering the importance of those lands as a source of food, livelihoods, or cultural and religious significance for local communities. While it is certainly necessary to protect lands from industrial expansion, we must also factor in the needs and traditional management practices of the people who have stewarded these places since time immemorial.

Biodiversity is multidimensional, and acting on the biodiversity crisis must be equally as dynamic. Traditional agricultural systems like the milpa system demonstrate the role of agriculture and food systems in protecting biodiversity. It also shows that to go forward there is value in looking for new ways to bridge contemporary knowledge with that which was developed over millennia.

– Ends

Lauren Baker, Deputy Director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food
Francisco J. Rosado-May, Founding President and Full Professor, Intercultural Maya University of Quintana Roo, Mexico