What Biodiversity Is

One of the hard questions to answer these days is What Is Your Research? I think I answer everyone who asks differently.  Its not that its complicated, but there are so many parts I'm never sure where to start.  So I will attempt to answer here, in a series of posts.  I study Biodiversity, and how farmers interact with it to make a living, so I will start with what I think biodiversity is.

Farming Diversity

Once upon a time six years ago I was in rural Yucatan on an exchange program.  The farmers that I interviewed amazed me.  I made friends with a farmer named José Ramualdo, and I'll never forget walking through his milpa, where he had corn just harvested, with beans twining up the dried stocks and squash plants underneath.  He explained to me that the plants I thought were weeds were medicinal, or they were good for feeding to sheep or the bees, or they "kept the soil cool".  He had an amazing diversity of plants, with an amazing diversity of uses.  I counted 32 different plants that on that walk And that was just in the milpa, the home garden, which is primarily managed by his wife, was even more diverse.

All that diversity, of course, is only as useful of your knowledge of it.  I think that was the aspect of biodiversity that amazed me most: José Ramualdo not only knew the names and characteristics and needs of each species and variety, but also how they interact.  And José, as a young man 28 years old, was still in the process of learning, so there were some plants that he told me we should ask his father and grandfather about.

Two halves of biodiversity

That experience got me thinking about biodiversity as a phenomenon made up of two parts.  One is what most scientists mean when they say 'biodiversity'- the all the different living organisms, and their  germplasm- the seed, cuttings, fungal spores and animal eggs and sperm where genetic information is encoded.  The second is the knowledge people use interact with those organisms.  That includes the names we give them and the ways we use them to make a living, the techniques of caring for them and managing them, and the meanings and importance we give them.

Both halves of biodiversity - the biology and the knowledge - influence each other.   We form much of our ecological knowledge from observing and interacting with organisms, and in that sense the biological form of an organism shapes our knowledge.  At the same time, we select our favorite plants, remove weeds, alter habitats, and in many ways shape the conditions under which the same organisms evolve.  Biodiversity is made up of a relationship between people and organisms, or to think about it at a larger scale, between culture and nature.  Because both cultural systems and natural systems are constantly changing and interacting, which some scholars have described as an "adaptive dance".

No where is this relationship clearer than in the crops like corn and beans that have become entirely dependent on humans  for their reproduction.  If humans stop planting a variety of one of these crops, that variety will be gone forever.  But it also applies to all the semi-wild and wild things that farmers use and manage.  José Ramualdo, like farmers everywhere, makes choices of which wild plants should be removed when he weeds the field, and which should stay.  He also decides which wild plants and animals to harvest, how much of them to take, and when to do it.  And when he does anything, he observes how the ecosystems he works in responds.  His actions effect population dynamics and selective pressures, and at the same time, he learns.  What he learns will become ideas and be encoded into beliefs and customs that can be passed on, just as he learns the plants from his father and grandfather, and also how I learned something important about biodiversity from him.