Commission on Ecosystem Management

Cultural Practices and Ecosystem Management

provides expert knowledge and guidance on: the values and roles of culture and cultural practices to support biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and ecosystem management.
Otgon Tengel, Mongolia

Thematic Group Chair: Pamela McElwee 

SC Focal Point: Liette Vasseur

The perception of human societies of their environment is largely driven by their unique culture and cultural practices. Traditionally, modern ecosystem management has been driven via a scientific or conservation ethic.  This has sometimes led to conflict between culture and conservation, but more recently there has been a strong recognition that effective ecosystem management can only be achieved through a better understanding and integration of the relationships between communities and nature. The stark reality is that most societies view and manage ecosystems through a prism dictated by long held cultural beliefs that have sustained their society, sometimes for millennia.  The challenge for ecosystem management is that, in a changing global environment some of these long held practices can lead to degradation of the ecosystem and others can play a very relevant role in promoting biodiversity conservation but also in helping societies to address the impacts of climate change.

This is vitally important as humans now dominate the planet and consume or degrade a disproportionate proportion of ecosystem services from both the land and oceans. This explosion of the human population and use of the planets’ natural resources have led many to describe the current period as the Anthropocene.  In particular specific human actions and choices in industrial and industrializing societies have promoted a “culture of consumerism”, favoring land use practices that undermine ecological resilience and are driving both global climate change and dramatic ecosystem changes.

Culture should be regarded as “a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, tradition and beliefs” (UNESCO, 2002). In addition, “Cultural systems of meaning shape the way that people interpret climate change, and provide an historical and sociocultural context within which impacts are experienced and responses are generated”


The mission of the IUCN CEM Cultural Practices and Ecosystem Management Thematic Group is to provide expert knowledge and guidance on: the values and roles of culture and cultural practices to support biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and ecosystem management; best practices for incorporating, maintaining and enhancing cultural diversity in relation to ecosystem management;  understanding how cultures contribute to climate change, the impacts of climate change on cultural knowledge and practices, and ways to incorporate cultural practices into solutions for the management of ecosystems under climate change; and to share this knowledge about biocultural diversity and practices with ecosystem managers and policy makers.


Integrated management of ecosystems including the role of culture will meet demands of nature and people to address global changes and improve ecosystem and human well-being.


The Thematic Group pursues its mission by implementing actions that:

  1. Enhance understanding of cultural practices that impact on or contribute to biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management, and the cultural knowledge and value systems that underpin practices.
  2. Increase knowledge of the role that cultural practices play in climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation and how culture can contribute to improve human responses to climate change in an integrated manner.
  3. Assist the development of tools and guidance to understand the relationship between various cultures and ecosystem management and climate change response in different ecosystems of the world and therefore contribute to more effective governance.
  4. Promote the development of policies that include and support the role of culture in ecosystem management for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  5. Communicate lessons learned from case studies and promote the carrying out and sharing of case studies and lessons learned.

Relevance of Cultural Practices and Ecosystem Management:

The following examples illustrate the potential uses and importance of cultural practices and ecosystem management in conservation and climate change adaptation:

  1. Basic assessments of cultural conservation practices in different ecosystems of the world have highlighted the relevance of understanding and supporting local and traditional knowledge, when biodiversity and cultural diversity have never been more threatened than now.
  2. The Commission on Ecosystem Management carried out a workshop in Doha in 2013 about “Spirituality and Ecosystem Management”, and included as one of the main recommendations to establish a new thematic group that deals with those issues in a cultural context. As examples, formal and informal religions and spirituality can contribute to ecosystem management through mechanisms such as taboos, practices of care, and community motivations for conservation.
  3. Real solutions to address the impacts of climate change and biodiversity conservation require a knowledge and insight from the social sciences, specifically the role that culture plays. For example, culture influences consumption decisions that may impact species or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and culture influences how people support or oppose responses to mitigate biodiversity loss or climate change.  

Priorities for action (deliverables):

  1. Assessment of cultural practices that impact on or contribute to conservation in different ecosystems of the world.
  2. Assessment of approaches to integrating cultural practices and Nature-based Solutions (NbS)
  3. Assessment of cultural practices in relation to climate change, urbanization, and consumption impacting on ecosystems/ecosystem services
  4. Develop and share case studies about cultural and spiritual values and practices in biodiversity conservation and climate change. 
  5. Develop methodological and practical guidelines for assessing and incorporating cultural practices throughout approaches to ecosystem management and governance.
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