5. Hands in the Soil: Biocultural Diversity and the Ecosystems Approach


In this Lesson, you will apply the ecosystems approach to understand complex relationships between land, soil, biocultural diversity and management strategies. For as long as humans have walked the earth, they have interacted with soil. For thousands of years, indigenous land management practices altered the soil. Through these traditional methods, indigenous farmers developed complex soil classification systems and management practices to conserve and utilize soil sustainably. Up until fairly recently, soil was understood, classified and therefore managed in these ways.

As we learned in the first module, the study of modern agriculture has largely been focused on how to increase production in a given acre of land, while ecology has been a separate study of ‘natural’ ecosystems. In agroecology, we try to integrate an understanding of ecosystem processes with agricultural production. This agri-ecosystem approach starts with the soil.  Under our feet, there are working ecosystems in the soil as complex as any above ground. Soil is one of the most diverse habitats on earth, and consists of some of the most biodiverse assemblages of living organisms on the planet. The diversity of soil organisms is directly responsible for many processes in ecosystems that can provide regulatory and provisioning services to humans. For this reason, it is important that our agricultural practices support soil biodiversity in order to increase the overall sustainability of the agricultural system (Barrios, 2007; Bennack et al., 2002).

Ecosystems are a system of complex relationships between biotic and abiotic factors. Soil ecosystems are as complicated as terrestrial systems, if not more so. In the soil ecosystem, there are five main components: Mineral matter, dead organic matter, water, air and living organisms. Soil ecosystems, which vary depending on location, weather, parent material, etc, support the rich biodiversity in animals and plants that covers our world. Soil ecosystems are vital to carbon storage and sequestration- they hold more carbon than the atmosphere and plants combined.

The modern paradigm for understanding agriculture however, with its chemical bias, treats soil an inert substance instead of addressing the rich diversity that’s a part of soil ecosystems. In the same way, industrial agriculture largely ignores the cultural diversity of humans in an agroecosystem.  We now know that a handful of soil contains more living organisms than humans on planet earth.  Currently, we’re in the middle of the greatest extinction of species since the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. These species have untold effects on the world’s ecosystems, and our survival as a species. Similarly, and much like our soils, our globalized culture is becoming homogenized. We are losing traditional cultures, languages, and land-management practices that have been developed over millennia.

By ignoring the importance of cultural diversity, we ignore the importance of diversity in other systems, such as agroecosystems. As a culture, we have embraced simplified efficiency at the expense of humans cultures and agricultural systems. What is now re-emerging however, is an understanding of soils based in the traditional, systems-approach view of soils as complex ecosystems, past a chemical view of understanding soil. It has also become clear that soil diversity and biocultural diversity are inextricably linked. Protecting ethnobiodiversity can protect soil biodiversity, and vice versa. In this Lesson, you’ll explore that link.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Contrast traditional soil classification and management with modern, industrial soil management and classification
  2. Analyze the relationship between land ownership and traditional knowledge and culture, compare different avenues of land reclamation
  3. Analyze the relationship between soil biodiversity and human cultural diversity
  4. Identify and explain different soil physical and chemical characteristics, and understand how they are related
  5. Value traditional biocultural knowledge of soil classification and management; understand the consequences of the loss of traditional ecological knowledge
  6. Explain the role of soil and decomposition in the global carbon cycle, nutrient cycling and soil structure
  7. Demonstrate the functional groups of soil organisms, and the roles they play in agroecosystem functioning
  8. Compare soil management practices and their effects on soil ecosystems; determine which agroecological practices protect and enhance soil biodiversity


Barrios, E. “Soil biota, ecosystem services and land productivity”. Ecological Economics, vol. 64, no. 2, 2007, 269–285. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.03.004

Bennack, D., Brown, G., Bunning, S., and Hungria da Cunha, M.. “Biodiversity and the Ecosystem Approach in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: SOIL BIODIVERSITY MANAGEMENT FOR SUSTAINABLE AND PRODUCTIVE AGRICULTURE: LESSONS FROM CASE STUDIES”. Proceedings on the Ninth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, FAO, 2002, Rome. http://doi.org/92-5-104917-3