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Research article2013Peer reviewedOpen access

Biocultural Refugia: Combating the Erosion of Diversity in Landscapes of Food Production

Barthel, Stephan; Crumley, Carole; Svedin, Uno


There is urgent need to both reduce the rate of biodiversity loss caused by industrialized agriculture and feed more people. The aim of this paper is to highlight the role of places that harbor traditional ecological knowledge, artifacts, and methods when preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services in landscapes of food production. We use three examples in Europe of biocultural refugia, defined as the physical places that not only shelter farm biodiversity, but also carry knowledge and experiences about practical management of how to produce food while stewarding biodiversity and ecosystem services. Memory carriers include genotypes, landscape features, oral, and artistic traditions and self-organized systems of rules, and as such reflect a diverse portfolio of practices on how to deal with unpredictable change. We find that the rich biodiversity of many regionally distinct cultural landscapes has been maintained through different smallholder practices developed in relation to local environmental fluctuations and carried within biocultural refugia for as long as millennia. Places that transmit traditional ecological knowledge and practices hold important lessons for policy makers since they may provide genetic and cultural reservoirs - refugia - for the wide array of species that have co-evolved with humans in Europe for more than 6000 thousand yrs. Biodiversity restoration projects in domesticated landscapes can employ the biophysical elements and cultural practices embedded in biocultural refugia to create locally adapted small-scale mosaics of habitats that allow species to flourish and adapt to change. We conclude that such insights must be included in discussions of land-sparing vs. land-sharing when producing more food while combating loss of biodiversity. We found the latter strategy rational in domesticated landscapes with a long history of agriculture.


agriculture; biocultural refugia; diversity; ecosystem restoration; resilience; small holders; stewardship

Published in

Ecology and Society
2013, Volume: 18, number: 4, article number: 71

    Associated SLU-program

    SLU Swedish Biodiversity Centre

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG2 Zero hunger

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
    Human Geography
    Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use

    Publication identifier


    Permanent link to this page (URI)