As habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species continue to erode global plant and animal diversity, they are simultaneously leading to the loss of the world’s cultural diversity. As of 2018, nearly 7,000 languages are still spoken worldwide, 50% of which are endangered. Languages are disappearing at a rate of one every three months. To maintain the world’s biodiversity, it is not enough to solely focus on the effects of environmental threats on plants and animals. It is essential that we also consider the impacts of plant endangerment and extinctions on the human cultures that depend on them. Loss of cultures and languages results in lost knowledge of the plant world, uses of plants, and traditional ecological knowledge.

Cornell Botanic Gardens is fighting the loss of biological and cultural diversity through increasing awareness about the necessity to maintain “biocultural diversity,” by working with communities affected by biodiversity loss, and by creating alliances with other like-minded organizations.

Learn more in a scholarly paper published by our director, Christopher Dunn.

What We’re Doing

Within our gardens and natural areas, we aim to nurture the unique and personal connection people have to plants by highlighting and celebrating the link between biological and cultural diversity.

We do this through:

  • Creating exhibits in our welcome center that highlight plants and their importance to cultures around the world.
  • Providing signs, labels and other forms of interpretation throughout our grounds that highlight the cultural significance of plants in our collections.
  • Outdoor books in the Young Flower Garden share cultural legends and lore of plants in bloom.
  • Plant labels in the Robison Herb Garden provide a description of each plant’s use and its cultural significance.
  • Programs and special events that celebrate the cultural significance of plants, such as our “Cultures and Cuisines” program and Fall Lecture Series.
  • Storytelling: We invite our visitors to share personal stories of their special connections to plants, which are video-recorded or shared in writing so we can share them with others.
  • Engaging with Cornell faculty that focus their academic research on conserving plants and cultures through our Faculty Fellows Program.

Working With Communities in the U.S.

In the face of a rapidly changing climate, communities around the world that rely on environmental cues or “ecological calendars” to plan agricultural and cultural activities are struggling to reliably predict these cues.

Christopher Dunn, Executive Director for Cornell Botanic Gardens, is working with faculty and students at Cornell University to better understand how local and indigenous communities can adapt livelihoods, and maintain traditional practices and well-being, in light of climate change.

Working with the Lakota Sioux in North and South Dakota

We are working with other Cornell faculty, graduate students, and the Lakota Sioux community at the Standing Rock Reservation to better understand what climate change means for their livelihood and culture. Native Americans (among other indigenous communities) have traditionally relied on seasonal cues for when to fish, hunt, hold festivals and many other cultural practices.

Global Engagement

Working with communities in the Pamir Mountains

A team of Cornell University researchers (including our director Christopher Dunn), along with colleagues from China, Germany, and Italy are working with elders in the villages of the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia to understand how natural and agricultural systems have changed over the past several decades using current climate research. Researchers can then work with these communities “recalibrate” their ecological calendars. This project was featured in the June 2016 National Geographic article “Climate Change is Making Calendars Run Amok“.

Christopher Dunn spoke about these efforts at the 23rd UN Conference of Parties (COP23) in Bonn, Germany in 2017. View his 15-minute presentation.

Additional Collaborations

We are creating alliances to fight the loss of cultural biodiversity, including collaborations with several international organizations and the establishment of a new Biocultural Gardens Network.

Learn more.