The Boruca people in Costa Rica create intricate masks for their Diablitos Festival in Costa Rica.

Biocultural diversity, the “new normal” in conservation: an interview with Chang Norman Liu, Terralingua’s Blog Editor

When people think of conservation, often images of trees, water or animals come to mind. Many are led to believe that working in conservation means being a biologist, land manager or researcher. But there is a whole other component of conservation that many rising conservationists are not taught about: biocultural diversity.

Chang Norman Liu is Blog Editor at Terralingua, an organization that focuses on conserving biocultural diversity – the interrelated biological, cultural and linguistic diversity of life. In this interview, Chang shares his knowledge and experience of using storytelling to raise awareness of the inextricable connections between Indigenous and local communities and the ecosystems in which they have evolved.

Boruca man and boys wearing traditional masks for the Diablitos Festival in Costa Rica.

A vintage photo of a Boruca man and two boys wearing traditional masks for the Diablitos Festival. The Spanish Conquest ushered in the age of colonialism and the decline of biocultural diversity (Costa Rica).

Discovering biocultural diversity and its role in conservation

In Costa Rica, a country known for its beauty, rich culture, and abundant wildlife, Chang started a new pathway in conservation. “Near the end of my Master’s in Forest Conservation, I chose to do an internship at a botanical garden in Costa Rica. It seemed like a dead end until I heard of two nearby Indigenous territories. Something clicked!”, Chang explained while reflecting on what he now understands was the start of his career switch.

He decided to interview local Indigenous healers on their botanical knowledge and ancestral languages. “I was starting to see the exciting – and increasingly threatened – links between ecosystems, the Indigenous cultures that inhabit them, and their ancestral languages. Suddenly, I wanted to communicate the urgency of preserving this interconnection of the biological, the cultural and the linguistic – what we call biocultural diversity.”

Biocultural diversity, a concept pioneered by a group of people including Terralingua co-founder and current Director, Luisa Maffi, is a critical concept in the conservation field because the places with the greatest amount of biodiversity are also the ancestral homes of the greatest diversity of Indigenous cultures, who have evolved with their natural environments and, in turn, have enriched them.

When people talk of biodiversity (a more familiar term), they often do not take into account the “age-old relations of interdependence with nature”, as Chang puts it. “You can’t really separate the ‘bio’ from the cultural”, he says, describing the relationship between conserving nature and the human communities living in it.

Sharing biocultural diversity with the world through a blog

To bridge the knowledge gap that exists between biodiversity and cultural diversity, Chang publishes stories that illustrate this connection and the critical importance of protecting both.

Being Terralingua’s Blog Editor involves more than simply using descriptive language to tell a story. Chang compares the blog to the inner workings of a diverse forest: “Just like a primary forest rich with biocultural diversity, our blog has to enable and nurture interconnections of all kinds, which means my tasks go beyond writing or interviewing.

“A big part of my work is to ensure our stories are properly optimized for search engines, so they can be easily found online – that is, do they contain the optimal number of keywords and key phrases? Do they make optimal use of the ‘active voice’? Terralingua’s myriad connections with the wider world are also part of this biocultural web.”

Terralingua’s blog has the following functions:

  • A publishing platform for Terralingua’s contributors around the world
  • A content marketing tool for Langscape Magazine and Terralingua’s other programs
  • A vehicle for “From the Director” editorials, where Director Luisa Maffi discusses relevant and timely topics and events

As Blog Editor, Chang brings out and enriches the many connections between writers, their stories and their readers around the world. Through his imaginative writing, careful editing, and added layers of media such as audio files that feature Indigenous language and “calls to action” which motivate people to help preserve or revitalize biocultural diversity, readers can feel immersed in the world’s countless ecosystems – both natural and cultural – and learn to care about them.

Woman wearing traditional Boruca dress and holding a carved gourd in Costa Rica.

Maria Lazaro, the author of a story recently published on Terralingua’s blog. She is wearing a traditional Boruca dress and holding a carved gourd, an example of Boruca crafts. (Costa Rica).

The opportunities and challenges of editing stories for conservation

When asked about his favorite part of his work, Chang replied, “Definitely the collaborations – with fellow writers from around the world, with my colleagues at Langscape Magazine and in Communications, and with all kinds of other people who have passionate opinions about biocultural diversity and its role in their own lives and communities.

“It makes me feel like a member of a huge, planet-wide community working in sync to help humanity divest from its current role as a ‘Destroyer’ species, to evolve into what it was always meant to be, a ‘Restorer’ species.”

Impacts of the blog on the conservation community

Over 25 years ago, “biocultural diversity” was a new concept. Until then, Western conservationists had mostly ignored the presence of Indigenous cultures and their interactions with ecosystems. Today, the impact of biocultural diversity can be measured in the number of organizations that now recognize the term, including the UN and IUCN, who have made “biocultural diversity” central to some of their policy documents. 

However, change is slow. The attitude that human cultures are somehow separate from nature is still common in many societies. Luckily, incremental change is happening every day. Terralingua’s blog and its magazine, Langscape, bring unique, beautiful, and important cultures and ecosystems to people everywhere.

Working remotely and around the world, Terralingua’s staff continue to educate others about the countless Indigenous communities that have co-evolved with nature and still thrive in reciprocity with their ecosystems. 

Boruca masks may depict the fauna of Southern Costa Rica.

Boruca masks sometimes depict the fauna of Southern Costa Rica.

Chang’s calls to action for those interested in biocultural diversity

“Whatever your passion, stick with it. Follow it, deepen it, let it form new connections, and you will see that your path will develop organically, naturally, without you having to force it.”

For those who want to help protect and promote biocultural diversity, here are some simple steps you can take. 

First, think of building connections. Biocultural diversity is all about the myriad interconnections that bind human cultures to nature. You might start by familiarizing yourself with the cultural and biological diversity of your own region. If you live in Europe, ask yourself: how is my region connected historically to Indigenous cultures on this and other continents? Doing a bit of research is key to understanding the sheer cultural diversity that exists throughout the world and the resilience and resurgence if Indigenous cultures everywhere.

Next, note which Indigenous communities in your region have launched programs to ensure their ancestral languages are taught to the next generation. The majority of the world’s Indigenous languages face a significant degree of threat to their survival. Dwindling numbers of younger fluent speakers is the first sign that a language may be in danger of extinction. These languages are key to vast stores of ancestral and traditional knowledge about the natural world.

First Voices is an online platform used to share and promote Indigenous languages and cultures in Canada. It’s a great resource that will familiarize you with the ancestral languages of many Indigenous communities.

The Boruca people in Costa Rica create intricate masks for their Diablitos Festival in Costa Rica.

The Boruca people in Costa Rica create intricate masks (made of local woods, natural fibers, and vegetable dyes) for their Diablitos Festival, which re-enacts a historical event in which Boruca warriors wearing demon masks succeeded in scaring away an invading force of Spaniards. (Costa Rica)

In 2010, Terralingua published the first sourcebook on biocultural diversity conservation, Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook, an important resource for anyone who seeks foundational knowledge about biocultural diversity and its relevance to policy and practice.

Terralingua also offers a Biocultural Diversity Toolkit, complemented by a set of digital booklets that provide a basic introduction to biocultural concepts and tools.

Finally, don’t be afraid to meet and listen to Indigenous peoples themselves: attend events on biocultural diversity, listen respectfully to Indigenous people when they share their worldview, and make personal connections. If you are looking to be more involved online, subscribe to Terralingua’s blog and Langscape Magazine, which bring you stories from all around the world. 

If you’re interested in becoming a Conservation Communicator like Chang, check out our Conservation Communicator role profile.


IMAGES: María Lázaro and Jessica Lázaro.

Author Profile | Anne Mauro

Anne Mauro is a Biologist and Conservationist based in Columbus, Ohio, United States. She is passionate about working with others to develop or strengthen conservation efforts both locally and globally. Originally trained in avian ecology, she is starting her own migratory bird banding research station to determine how passerines utilize rural stopover habitat in Central Ohio. Her work has allowed her to work with a large variety of birds, from breeding passerines in the Missouri Ozarks to studying American flamingos in Florida with the Florida Flamingo Working Group. 


Interviews, Communicator