Biocultural Conservation at NTBG

Weaving hala leaves for a pāpale (hat). Photo by Shandelle Nakanelua

Defining our approach to restoring relationships between plants, people, and places.

At its heart, biocultural conservation recognizes the inseparable bonds between humanity and nature. Many Indigenous cultures share concepts of kinship across species, elements, and places. In Hawaiʻi, the idea of ʻohana (family) transcends humans. For example, kalo (taro) is the older brother of kānaka (Hawaiians). Native Hawaiian scientist Keolu Fox says, “when I say that the land is my ancestor, that is a scientific statement.”

Anishinaabe writer Patty Krawec shares the phrase “nii’kinaaganaa,” encapsulating the belief that “the world is alive with beings that are other than human, and we are all related with responsibilities to each other.”

Biocultural conservation accounts for these relationships, honoring the familial bonds that Indigenous communities maintain with biodiversity, integrating the life-sustaining, ecological knowledge cultivated over generations as they care for the land.

Left: Limahuli Garden Visitor Program Manager Lahela Chandler Correa. Right: Hale Hoʻonaʻauao (House-of-teaching) in McBryde Garden. Photos by Erica Taniguchi.

Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American U.S. secretary of interior, said, “Indigenous knowledge must be at the center of our conservation efforts, as we restore a cultural balance to the lands and waters that sustain us.” This call to action is echoed by the United Nations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and other partners. 

Biocultural conservation integrates communities in collective stewardship and decision-making. It aims to protect not only plants and physical landscapes, but also cultural heritage, languages, practices, and social systems that are connected to the health of our shared environment. In biocultural conservation, our relationship with plants and places deeply matters. Perceiving the reciprocity of this relationship can lead to lasting, transformative change.

At NTBG our mission to perpetuate plants, tropical ecosystems, and cultural heritage is rooted in biocultural conservation. Below are six examples of what this concept means to our staff. Each has their own way of expressing biocultural conservation. As you read, we hope you’ll consider what plants mean to you and, conversely, what you mean to them.

—David Bryant, Director of Communications

Left: Science and Conservation Director Nina Rønsted. Photo by Jon Letman. Right: Hala (Pandanus) at Kahanu Garden. Photo by Seana Walsh.

On the global stage, biocultural conservation can be seen in international agreements such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, signed by 188 countries in 2023. The framework’s vision is “living in harmony with nature where, by 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.” 

This vision puts the relationships between people and nature at the center of solutions to ensure the best possible data, knowledge, and practices contribute to effective biocultural conservation.

To cite one example, in Colombia, dry forests are categorized as critically endangered ecosystems due to extensive clearing for cattle ranching and agriculture. To address this, a series of forest plots have been established in collaboration with local communities, that not only measure scientific biodiversity indicators, but also use community input to identify issues related to deforestation, biodiversity use, and valuation of ecosystem services. The hope is to find conservation solutions that satisfy both ecosystem protection and local societal needs. 

In Canada and Aotearoa (New Zealand), negotiated settlements of Indigenous rights in fisheries management are creating sustainable marine biocultural conservation models based on Indigenous knowledge and long-term commitments to sustain resources and ecosystems. These offer an alternative to the polarizing all-or-nothing models of commercial fisheries vs. marine reserves.

There are countless other examples around the world that illustrate how, through a combination of local, national, and international legislation and initiatives, biocultural conservation honors the intrinsic relationships between nature and humanity.

Similarly, at NTBG, we are harnessing our experience and expertise to build conservation programs that align with cultural values and community priorities while enriching life through the perpetuation of tropical plants, ecosystems, and cultural heritage.

—Dr. Nina Rønsted, Director of Science and Conservation

Lei Wann, Director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve. Photo by Erica Taniguchi.

I see biocultural conservation as a way of expressing the intrinsic and scientific relationship between people, places, culture, and science. It’s a way of acknowledging that we practice science in its Western form, but there’s so much more to our work than that. At its core, these are deep connections and relationships with plants that have existed for generations. 

Often what we find is that the ʻike (knowledge) we have of plants from our ancestors aligns with scientific research and findings. Biocultural conservation is the way we’ve come to express that science has such deep meaning here in Hawaiʻi because of the ʻike from our kupuna (elders) and the deep relationships we share with plants.

—Lei Wann, Director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve 

Left: Brian Sidoti, Director of The Kampong. Photo by Alejandra Libertad. Right: Entryway at The Kampong.

NTBG’s only garden outside of Hawaiʻi, The Kampong, is in Miami, Florida. Our name, Kampong, can be translated as “village.” In this spirit, we use this space to honor the Indigenous communities that once lived here while celebrating the significance of our living collections to the rich tapestry of immigrant communities that make up Miami today.

At The Kampong, biocultural conservation is influenced by those who resided here before us. This includes Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons, one of Dade County’s first licensed female physicians whose office and stable are on the grounds of The Kampong. From the 1890s, Dr. Simmons treated patients, making house calls by horse, buggy, and boat. Today we are planning a guided visitor experience that will interpret medicinal plants used by Dr. Simmons as well as by Native Miccosukee and Seminole peoples.

We also tell the story of plants collected by famed botanist Dr. David Fairchild who introduced thousands of edible and ornamental plants to the United States. David Fairchild named this site The Kampong in 1916.

Another key figure at The Kampong was Catherine “Kay” Hauberg Sweeney, an intrepid and impassioned plant collector who, with her husband, purchased this property in 1963. Mrs. Sweeney devoted her life to ensuring The Kampong remained a refuge for tropical plants and plant enthusiasts. The commitment of these early inhabitants laid the foundation for The Kampong today.

Looking ahead, we continue to add native plants to our collections. In collaboration with faculty of the International Center for Tropical Botany at The Kampong, our pursuit of plant research, public outreach, and education, is rooted in biocultural conservation. We remain focused on three themes: preserving tropical plant diversity; conservation and management of threatened tropical species and habitats; and fostering an understanding of tropical plant-based goods and services such as food, fuel, fiber, and medicine.

—Dr. Brian Sidoti, Director of The Kampong 

Uma Nagendra, Limahuli Preserve Conservation Operations Manager. Photo by Erica Taniguchi

Central to biocultural conservation is human culture and our relationship to the natural world. This connection inherently expands our conservation practices, values, and priorities. Biocultural conservation provides us with more sources of knowledge and expands the range of people who are enthusiastic and invested in our work.

Biocultural conservation guides nearly all we do at Limahuli Garden and Preserve. But often overlooked are defining personal experiences. This is what it feels like to me: the shade of young kukui (Aleurites moluccana) saplings serving as nurse trees in newly cleared restoration areas. It feels like the stickiness of hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) branches being stripped for cordage. I hear it in voices raised in oli (chants) at the beginning of each workday, and in the bird cries of uaʻu (Pterodroma sandwichensis) and aʻo (Puffinus newelli) barking in the Upper Limahuli Preserve.

Biocultural conservation tastes like refreshing ʻōhiʻa ʻai (Syzygium malaccense) fruits plucked from the tree and Tahitian prawns fished from the stream. It is the weight of kōpiko (Psychotria mariniana) branches and ʻalaheʻe (Psydrax odorata) collected for carving. Biocultural conservation maintains the ungulate fence, but also knows the names of the neighborhood hunters to call when you find a sign of pigs in the valley.

Biocultural conservation is not only theory; it is practice. It is action. It is listening, learning, striving, making mistakes, and trying again. Biocultural conservation is a lei formed from the interwoven strands of people, plants, and places which we are communally, perpetually weaving.

—Dr. Uma Nagendra, Conservation Operations Manager, Limahuli Preserve

Left: Mike Opgenorth, Kahanu Garden and Preserve Director. Photo by Shandelle Nakanelua. Right: Kahanu Garden.

At Kahanu Garden and Preserve, biocultural conservation teaches us the critical role humans play in the survival of native ecosystems. On the coast of East Maui, tradewinds deliver sheets of Hāna’s famous ua kea (white rain). Inside Kahanu Preserve’s hala (Pandanus tectorius) forest, the trees provide shelter beneath its canopy. There we can marvel at the tree’s fruit which resembles pineapples arching from the end of branches. The space evokes memories of the people who once used material from these trees to create thatched mats, hats, sails, and lei. Even the tree’s hīnano (male flower) was considered an aphrodisiac. Hala’s stilt-like roots also prevent erosion along the rocky cliffs where they grow.

Coastal hala forests, like those found in the Kahanu Preserve, have been dwindling across Hawaiʻi as a result of invasive species and habitat lost to agriculture and development. An introduced scale insect attacks hala, as is evident by the powdery shells sucking life from its leaves. Highly invasive African tulip trees emerge and spread over the hala canopy where they disperse thousands of seeds.

The future of hala forests like those found at Kahanu Preserve is uncertain, but cultural practitioners seeking fresh plant material have the opportunity to remove invasive plants, perpetuating their own practices while helping save young hala trees and contributing to the long-term health of the forest.

This is the interdependence of biocultural conservation at Kahanu Garden and Preserve. Without hala trees, cultural practices would almost certainly cease to exist. And without human stewards of the forest, the trees would also likely be lost. Through clearing invasive plants and supporting the growth of hala seedlings, we can perpetuate culture, preserve an ecosystem, and provide resources for future generations while protecting the island that protects us.

—Mike Opgenorth, Director of Kahanu Garden and Preserve

Mike DeMotta, Curator of Living Collections. Photo by Erica Taniguchi.

For me, an effective and meaningful biocultural conservation program at NTBG requires a full understanding of Hawaiian values, a Hawaiian world view, and my place in it. Kuleana (responsibility) and aloha ʻāina (love of the land) are values that guide my decision-making process.

The first Hawaiians understood that their actions needed to be sustainable so their relationship with the natural world could enhance biodiversity and ecosystem function. Prior to contact with the west, Hawaiians saw the importance of native ecosystem function as kinolau (physical manifestation) of the kini akua (pantheon of gods). All elements of nature — water, earth, the ocean — were kinolau of major deities.

Living with these sacred elements demanded thoughtful actions and deification required Hawaiians to respect and care for nature in a way that benefited people and ecosystems. This enabled Hawaiians to successfully settle in these islands and support a large population without the negative impacts so common today.

We can be guided by these principles, integrating them into the management of our gardens and preserves in a way that mitigates the harm caused by our modern lifestyle. By embracing biocultural conservation, we can acknowledge what we need to change and identify traditional practices that, if revived, can help maintain ecosystem function. A full understanding of how we fit into nature is essential in rebuilding natural systems that are abundant and resilient.

—Mike DeMotta, Curator of Living Collections

People need plants. Plants need you.

Plants nourish our ecosystems and communities in countless ways. When we care for plants, they continue caring for us. Help us grow a brighter tomorrow for tropical plants.  

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