Biocultural Revitalisation ~ 14th Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology

ISE Congress Logo
ISE Congress Logo

The over-arching theme of this conference was ‘One Earth for All: Regenerating Biocultural Ecosystem Resilience’. It was held in Bumthang, Bhutan, and was hosted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, under the Department of Forests and Park Services (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests).

We Congress delegates were indeed among the lucky people of earth: a wonderful conference, themes that matter deeply, people from some 57 nations, the Bhutanese ethic of mutual resilience among humans, nature and the sacred, and their tremendously kind hospitality.

The logo depicts ‘the four harmonious friends’. The bird picks a fruit and drops the seed. The rabbit waters it, the monkey fertilises it, and when it starts to grow, the elephant protects it. Together they are able to reach and enjoy the fruit. One reading is about teamwork. Another is about sustainability. And yet another is that great ecological truth of connectivity – what goes around comes around, and all are well because all are taking care.

In an earlier essay I mentioned that one of the things I was looking forward to in the conference was the ‘Sung Sessions’. I had assumed that ‘sung’ was the past tense of ‘sing’, but that was not quite right. ‘Sung’ is the word in the national language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, for ‘story’. So these were story sessions, and one whole stream of the conference was dedicated to them, along with the final day which was a ‘Bio-cultural and Film Festival’. The explanation for the inclusion of the sung sessions was quite clear: Indigenous knowledge is transmitted across generations and through communities through the arts of story-telling and other performance genres. The Congress honoured these modes of communication, as well as honouring this knowledge.

ISE makes a point of including many, many Indigenous people. In their own words: ‘Supporting and promoting the critical efforts of indigenous peoples, traditional societies, and local communities in the conservation of biological, cultural and linguistic diversity has been the priority since the International Society of Ethnobiology’s (ISE) inception in 1988.’ This is possible thanks in large part to the generous support of the Christensen Fund. I want to state with deep gratitude that the participation they sponsor enriches the lives of all the delegates and our home communities, and furthers the flow of significant knowledge in the global community. Since much of this knowledge concerns keeping Indigenous biocultural knowledge alive, and working to halt the ravaging damages of the contemporary world, this flow of knowledge really matters. Heartfelt thanks are equally due to all the organisers, to the many lively and lovely volunteer guides, and to the delegates.

Along with all the knowledge benefits, I have to say as well that these conferences are really fun! It is not possible for me to summarise the congress as a whole. There were several sessions running at once, and I could not be everywhere. I missed a bit here and there, as one does. In addition to academic sessions, I danced myself into a state of wonderful exuberance, made myself hoarse shouting while dancing in the company of the delegates from Kyrgyzstan, wept with friends I hadn’t seen for ages, and (not to lose sight of academic matters) gave a paper in the session my Taiwanese colleague Professor Chih Chun-chieh and I organised on ‘Indigenous people and climate change’.

Since this report must inevitably be partial and personal, my aim is to highlight some of the main themes, and convey the flavour of the event as I experienced it. I will begin with the opening ceremony, for everything flowed effortlessly from that glorious multi-species start.

The area was a huge grassy sports field in Jakar, the main town of the Bumthang District. Mountains surrounded us. A red carpet separated the dignitaries from the rest of us. Chairs for the conference participants were set up facing the dignitaries and their white tents or marquees. Each tent was beautifully decorated with colourful appliqué designs of dragons and auspicious symbols. Ravens flew overhead, flags snapped in the breeze, dogs ambled about, and everything was bright, full of motion, and marked with dignity. The royal procession entered with drums and singing. Monks took up their places, and Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuk (the King’s sister) seated herself in the centre of the central marquee. A senior monk blessed the conference with gestures of respect to the four directions and to the Princess. Every one of us was offered butter tea and a plate of rice with raisins. There were speeches of welcome, and a short but extremely sincere speech by the Princess on the importance of conservation and indigenous knowledge.

The raven is Bhutan’s national bird; to see one is an auspicious sign.

Ravens atop a prayer flag
Ravens atop a prayer flag

Ravens soared above the ceremony, and at one point a pre-recorded raven call was played over the sound system in a multi-species welcome and blessing. As the conference was hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, this was also an occasion to award prizes for outstanding environmental stewardship and to launch some recent publications.

The ceremony was followed by entertainment and dinner. The tents had been re-arranged, there were huge bonfires, and the dzong up on the mountain side was all lit up.  We talked, listened to a great range of music, ate, and in due course leapt up from our chairs to dance and holler. Traditional Bhutanese music by Jigme Drukpa included songs of mountains, the lively music of the extremely popular Amis singer Suming (Taiwan) got us up and dancing, while the wild and wonderfully energetic music and dance brought to us by the Kyrgyzstan group was all about horses and riding, and seemed to require lots of shouting and whistling.

The more academic side of the conference started the next day. With themes on ethnobotany, medicinal plants, ethnozoology, mapping, and ecological restoration, among others, there was good representation of numerous areas of Indigenous ecological knowledge. The theme that brought it all into coherence was stated in the title of the conference: regenerating biocultural ecosystem resilience.

Michael Gavin and Joe McCarter from Colorado State University explained the situation particularly well: ‘Biological and cultural diversity both face acute extinction crises, but linkages between cultural and biological conservation programs are uncommon.’ Answers to questions of why this is so, and how resilience can be promoted formed the basis of a great number of the papers in both the academic streams and the sung streams.

These questions start to articulate one of the most fascinating issues of our moment on earth. According to western modernity’s linear and teleological timeline ideology, history is a one-way flow toward all that is bigger and better (progress). The most progressive (developed) peoples are at the forefront of history, and other peoples (Indigenous, underdeveloped, impoverished) follow behind in history’s backwaters. According to this ideology, their destiny, indeed their only destiny, is to catch up with the developed peoples. But as the west looks into a future of climate change, catastrophe, and wreckage, we are forced to realise that the ‘downstream’ people have already been here. They have lived this story, and have significant experience of surviving with their dignity and values intact. Now we see a different flow, telling us (of the west) that wisdom is to be found in exactly those places and among those people who had been classed as ‘backward’.

This complex issue speaks directly to what many of the conference participants were discussing, either directly or indirectly. As people who have been through colonisation, collapse, and catastrophe, they have had to ask the tough question that the west seems intent on avoiding: what knowledge and skills do they have for cultural and ecological survival? They have sought ways of teaching the young, promoting resilience, and forging links between past, present and future. Overwhelmingly, they are seeking out the Elders, the traditions, the knowledge, and, indeed, the joy of life.

One of the great take-home messages from this complex conference is that there is no resilience without joy.

Members of the Taiwanese Indigenous group, led by Professor Lin Yih-ren of Taipei Medical University were, I thought, particularly articulate. It was not so much that they explained joy, but rather that they performed it. Their sung session on ‘Water Resource Management: Resilience, local knowledge, and Indigenous people’s struggle for ecological issues in Taiwan’ involved short speeches, videos, mime, songs, dances, and a blessing by Reverend Adong. i managed to make a few little video clips of Amis people dancing (view here),  Atayal people singing their haunting harmonies (view here),  and a bit of the join-in dance which involved so many people from so many cultures and nations (view here).

Much of the dancing was open to the audience. People got up and joined the circle, and when it was clear that the room was too small the circle became a line that snaked into a larger room and reformed itself. We all became fully aware of one of the teachings of the dance: exuberance is hard physical work – you become tired as well as happy! As I witnessed and participated, my eyes kept returning to the powerpoint slide on the wall announcing ‘Water Resource Management’. I imagined bringing some of the leading water resource management honchos from Australia (for example) to participate in a day of singing and dancing. Would they understand that water is life? Would they get the point that just as without water there is no life, so too without joy and the connectivities it generates, life is barely worth living?

Flowing water, Trongsa Dzong
Flowing water, Trongsa Dzong

I will have more to say about traditions and resilience in Taiwan in a future essay, so for now I will move to another sample of the riches of the conference. The session on Ecological Restoration included a wonderful speech on ‘Caring for the “Rolling Beauty of Time”: the regeneration of Hawaiian land management system’ by Chris Oliveira (Koiake, USA) and team members Glen Kila and Lisa Gollin. Kealohanuipuna Kinney (Brown University) was part of this session, and spoke particularly compellingly about sovereignty. The richness and challenge of their presentations is not readily captured in a little summary, so perhaps I should just say that the understanding of the world’s own motion and design was brought into connection with Hawaiian people’s commitment to land regeneration, sovereignty, and the revitalisation of their intergenerational complexity.

Perhaps the most sobering presentation was by the group from Kyrgyzstan. This session was framed around ‘re-thinking revitalization’, and the printed discussion by Erjen Khamaganova and Ken Wilson (both of the Christensen Fund) sets out very clearly a number of issues for post-soviet Central Asia: ‘The history of the nomads of the post-soviet space of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Siberia) means that traditional knowledge and practices of sustainable and effective livestock management have been significantly eroded. The problem is not just the sheer loss of traditional knowledge, but may be much deeper, namely the loss of the sources of knowledge (people’s ability to learn with and from the land). With the disappearance of the traditional institutions of transferring knowledge from generation to generation, and the loss of direct interactions of elders with younger generations of herders on the pastureland the foundation of relations between people, landscapes and livelihoods including its core spiritual dimension has been undermined…. The discussion will thus involve the deeply challenging issues of the re-creation of the sources of knowledge in a new living tradition and will address common problems in revitalization of bio-cultural systems.’

These delegates, the men splendid in their tall hats, were utterly inspiring in their honesty and their love of their homeland, horses, falcons, and way of life, and in their commitment to rebuilding their shared lives in the wake of loss followed by colonisation and collapse.


One final sample: The sung session on well-being was inspiring in quite a different way. Session chairs Gary Martin (Global Diversity Foundation, Morocco) and Octaviana Trujillo (Northern Arizona University) explained their aim of opening a dialogue between Bhutan and co-thinkers elsewhere on the topic of the ‘growing global movement [that] is basing the search for alternatives to mainstream development approaches on the core value of human-environmental wellbeing’. This session aimed to open discussion around the fact that ‘a wellbeing-focussed framework can provide robust alternatives to current neoliberal paradigms’. Participants were invited to reflect on their experiences of wellbeing initiatives, and to offer guidance for enhancing and establishing such initiatives around the world.

The clear and explicit message of many of the sessions, both sung and academic, was this: resilience is achieved through collaborative interactions between young and old, the living and the dead, the human and the more-than-human including animals, plants, sacred sites, ‘natural features’, spirits, deities and ancestors. Resilience starts with values, not with problems to be solved. And the values that matter in the work of biocultural resilience emphasise that which is good for all, not simply that which is good for (some) humans, or good on the basis of a calculation of the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Here, too, the conference slogan ‘One Earth for All’ was shown to be deeply serious, and truly challenging.

A second take-home message from the conference is that there are indeed thriving alternatives to the neo-liberal paradigm. They involve mutualism, and they are widely inclusive.

Four harmonious friends, Punakha Dzong
Four harmonious friends, Punakha Dzong

The conference closed as it had begun: with speeches, food and drink, music and dance. The final dance was Bhutanese. We joined the circle, our arms gesturing in farewell, and danced to the hauntingly beautiful song that traditionally is the last dance.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


Postscript: I will be including more photos and videos in this essay once I have been given permission from the people involved. I will also include more website links as they become available. I n addition to this essay, I am including accounts of ideas and events encountered at the Congress in several other posts.

Resources: For an excellent account of revitalisation of medicinal plant knowledge in the wake of soviet rule, see the video made by Professor Karim-Aly Kassan and his team (view here). This website has numerous fascinating case studies in video format.

One of the great songs of the Amis people of Taiwan, performed by Congress Delegate and popular singer Suming, is available on YouTube (view here).

There are a few YouTube sites with songs by Jigme Drukpa, with varying quality (view here).

9 thoughts on “Biocultural Revitalisation ~ 14th Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology

  1. great post Deborah! I am still mesmerized by Bhutan, can’t let go of the immense excitement and energy channelled thru the congress. This was a great gathering of people from diverse backgrounds . Your points about wisdom flowing from the backward to advanced societies are succinct and convincing. Many thanks!

    1. it was wonderful to meet you sanjay, i learned a great deal from travelling with you, thanks so much!

  2. Debbie, thank you for sharing your beautiful reflection of our time in Bhutan.

    Warm regards,


  3. Happy to hear that you had great time in Bhutan and enjoyed the ISE congress. Your summary shows that there was enough for international participants to learn and take home from this tiny mountain country. Great reflection! all the best.

    1. Dear Jigme, I keep realising all the things I didn’t say – like – thanks for the wonderful conference bags! Yes, it was a spectacular Congress, thank you all so much. Debbie

  4. Dear Debbie,

    Many thanks for such an inspiring and touching reflection from the Congress in Bhutan. I read it with joy and tears from my heart. Your words remind me so many touching moments in Bhutan and echoed so much to my reflections on FB (though in Mandarin).

    I am so pleased to meet you in the Congress and listen to your encouragement for Taiwan’s indigenous people. You are very right to discover resilience accompanied by the power of joy. I myself seldom notice the obvious secret why I like to work with indigenous people. You reveal the answer! And it’s such a paradox. The joy expressed by them whom are the ones suffered the most. This is the way they build up resilience. Now I understand that we need stories, songs, dances, and dramas to tell the deepest feelings (whether they are happy or sad) interacting with the world. Indigenous people teach us in this wonderful way. I am so grateful to be one of them and thanks to you for pointing out.

    We are going to have some sharing meetings in the indigenous communities. Hsin-Han is organizing these occasions. Would you mind we translate your words for sharing with indigenous participants? Let’s continue connected. A deep gratitude from my heart again.

    1. Dear Yih-ren, As always in our conversations, your words deepen my understanding. Thanks so much. Yes, I would be very happy for you to translate my words and share them with others. As you know, there will be at least one more essay about Taiwan. Cheers, Debbie

  5. Dear Debbie,

    I really enjoy reading your essay about the Congress. I almost cry as I read what you wrote. Please write more. I would like to keep my memories in Bhutan and the Congress alive in my consciousness. thank you very much for this Debbie. God bless.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. I too am longing to keep the memories alive. Such precious moments must remain with us forever! All blessing in return, debbie

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