Monitoring and evaluation are central to ensuring that innovative, multi-scale, and interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability are effective. The development of relevant indicators for local sustainable management outcomes, and the ability to link these to broader national and international policy targets, are key challenges for resource managers, policymakers, and scientists. Sets of indicators that capture both ecological and social-cultural factors, and the feedbacks between them, can underpin cross-scale linkages that help bridge local and global scale initiatives to increase resilience of both humans and ecosystems. Here we argue that biocultural approaches, in combination with methods for synthesizing across evidence from multiple sources, are critical to developing metrics that facilitate linkages across scales and dimensions. Biocultural approaches explicitly start with and build on local cultural perspectives — encompassing values, knowledges, and needs — and recognize feedbacks between ecosystems and human well-being. Adoption of these approaches can encourage exchange between local and global actors, and facilitate identification of crucial problems and solutions that are missing from many regional and international framings of sustainability. Resource managers, scientists, and policymakers need to be thoughtful about not only what kinds of indicators are measured, but also how indicators are designed, implemented, measured, and ultimately combined to evaluate resource use and well-being. We conclude by providing suggestions for translating between local and global indicator efforts.
Complex global environmental challenges call for innovative, multi-scale, and interdisciplinary approaches to research-based policy and action1,2. Monitoring and evaluation are central to ensuring these approaches are effective3,4,5. Developing accurate indicators and relevant success criteria to assess the local outcomes of sustainability management actions, and linking them to broader national and international policy targets, remains a key challenge for resource managers, policymakers, and scientists2.
What indicators we decide to measure and how we measure them impact the people and activities that are included in or affected by a given initiative. Efforts to evaluate well-being or resource use that are developed solely on regional or global scales may leave out indicators critical for local systems. They may discount, mischaracterize, or ignore place-based values, worldviews, and knowledge systems6,7,8. Culturally grounded perspectives are missing from many medium- and large-scale efforts developed by governments and other institutions that aim to implement sustainable resource management and monitor goals and targets9,10. Disconnects can result in miscommunication, misdirected resources, and policies that fail to inspire appropriate action11. More worryingly, assessments that lack a place-based cultural context can be harmful to communities, leading to loss of control over place, knowledge, or resources12,13. Many types of knowledge and knowledge system — from ways of knowing that reflect in situ, local, place-based cultural values (recognizing that ‘culture’ is dynamic8) to externally derived information from ex situ researchers or policymakers — can contribute to understanding and managing systems sustainably14,15,16 (Fig. 1). We use local, place-based, and in situ interchangeably to represent culturally grounded actors such as local or Indigenous peoples who manage cultural and biological resources and to differentiate from actors — be they local or external to a community — who are not familiar with the cultural practices of a place. We recognize individuals can be local in some contexts and external in others, and in a particular location people self-define with different ‘communities’ at different times.
We suggest that different knowledge systems, and the indicators that emerge from these systems, can exist in one of three states:
Understanding biocultural approaches
Here we argue that biocultural approaches are critical to understanding social-ecological systems and the development of locally relevant indicators. Biocultural (or ecocultural as per ref. 17) approaches are those that explicitly start with and build on place-based cultural perspectives — encompassing values, knowledges, and needs — and recognize feedbacks between ecological state and human well-being18,19,20,21,22. These approaches, in combination with methods for synthesizing across evidence from multiple sources23,24, can also help to develop the indicators that are required to meet current complex challenges25. Exchange between in situ and ex situ actors facilitates identification of crucial problems and solutions that are currently missing from many regional and international framings of sustainability21,22,26. We suggest that methods that synthesize across culturally grounded and generalized knowledge from multiple sites (Fig. 1c) can foster greater human adaptive capacity and ecological resilience. In doing so, these methods may be more effective than those that rely on a priori frameworks for information synthesis7,8,27,28.
Historical, political, and economic forces have resulted in a disproportionate representation and power of people and institutions in the West/global North in shaping ‘global’ or ex situ knowledge, policy, and norms29. Yet place-based actors are critical to guide the implementation and monitoring of natural resource management for ethical and practical reasons13,30. Indigenous peoples and other in situ communities manage lands and seas that hold significant portions of the planet’s biodiversity31 and carbon stocks32. In addition, place-based communities have generated creative resilient responses to global pressures, despite experiencing outsized impacts from them33,34.
Scholarship and stories stemming from participatory action research35 and ethnobiology (for example, research into traditional ecological knowledge; TEK) have documented local capacity to respond to stresses36. In particular, participatory and community-led resource management approaches have shown that working within place-based social and cultural contexts has the potential to capture connections and drivers of behaviour, such as variation in communal versus individual property rights, that external framing of a system might miss11,37,38. However, it is increasingly recognized that local institutions are nested within complex multi-level governance systems39. While best practices have been widely developed for community-based governance approaches, new theories and methods are needed to link local goals with sustainable management outcomes that are critical to global policy objectives10,40,41.
Biocultural approaches to indicator development
International efforts to address complex global concerns (for example, landscape fragmentation or food security) increasingly recognize the importance of feedbacks among social and ecological processes, and that human well-being is linked to ecosystem states and processes42,43. For instance, the recently developed Sustainable Development Goals, stemming from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment3, theoretically support planning, tracking, and reporting that integrate across social and ecological systems44. International assessments, such as those emerging from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), incorporate these concepts, although not without some definitional challenges45,46.
One theory that provides guidance in linking between local and global resource management is social-ecological systems (SES) theory47. SES theory provides a priori frameworks for understanding social and ecological feedbacks that characterize the settings within which humans exist and impact policy25,48. However, while SES approaches help to conceptualize interactions between elements of a system, they may neglect or under-emphasize the importance of cultural values, beliefs, and worldviews to sustainable resource management. For instance, vulnerability assessments identify system weaknesses and emphasize what communities and individuals lack34,48,49. This can inadvertently erode local perceptions of well-being and direct blame towards place-based communities, thus fostering a framing of helplessness50,51. Furthermore, SES approaches that rely on ex situ values such as the importance of material goods can be problematic. For example, an Amerindian village that had only one television for the whole village had a quality of life indicator measurement below that of other villages where individual families had their own televisions52. However, watching one television together was considered mex by the inhabitants. Mex is a local concept of well-being as ‘beauty’, valuing not just aesthetics but extended, strong, and peaceful social relations53.
Although related conceptually to SES, biocultural approaches differ in that they explicitly start with the specific human practices, local knowledge and cultural beliefs that influence and are influenced by the land- and seascapes of which human communities are a part19,36,54. All biocultural approaches are social-ecological in nature, but not all social-ecological approaches frame interactions from locally relevant cultural perspectives. There is a fundamental difference between theoretical conceptions of interactions between social and ecological elements of a system (which externally framed SES can accomplish effectively) and culturally grounded understandings of what factors drive a system (an explicit goal of all biocultural and some SES approaches).
In relation to indicator development for sustainable resource management, biocultural approaches present opportunities that can address some of the challenges (Fig. 1b) by creating space for metrics that facilitate cross-scale linkages. Effective biocultural approaches to indicator development have a number of characteristics. First, they begin with an understanding of locally grounded questions and institutions that communities use when interacting with or managing resources. A clear awareness of who is included in the community, what criteria constitute community membership, diverse opinions within the community, and on what scale and by whom decisions are being made is key7. As with development of any indicator, clarity on agency — indicators for what and for whom, chosen by whom, analysed by whom, resulting in actions decided on by whom — is essential55.
Second, the indicators developed are deeply relevant to people’s cultural way of life (Table 1). They encompass cultural values and worldviews that shape people’s understandings of their roles within and responsibilities to their environment56,57. For instance, within the Reimaanlok national framework for the establishment of community-based conservation areas in the Marshall Islands, traditional knowledge holders guide the selection of targeted resources and threats as well as the mapping of sacred places18,54.
Third, the ways in which the indicators are measured and monitored are coordinated with existing livelihood strategies or social activities of the people involved in the monitoring58,59. For example, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation identifies the health of fish based on observations carried out during and immediately after fishing, such as fatness of fish, colour and texture of the flesh, and health of organs60.
Fourth, biocultural approaches to indicator development are enacted with the explicit intention of using the collected knowledge to guide action of interest to communities57,61,62,63. The International Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative, for instance, supports communities in social-ecological production landscapes and seascapes to develop a variety of social, cultural, and biological indicators to facilitate local management63.
Biocultural approaches build on community-based and participatory methods by more explicitly taking a systems perspective, which emphasizes feedbacks between ecological and cultural elements in a system. The types of indicators created through biocultural approaches can capture both the ecological underpinnings of a cultural system and the cultural perspectives of an ecological state, and thus can highlight interactions and feedbacks between humans and their environment. For example, a social indicator may encompass social or cultural practices that in turn explain an observed phenomenon in the population dynamics of a species. A social indicator such as ‘trend in percent of elders or parents transmitting traditional knowledge to children’ could explain why a harvested species has healthy populations, because intergenerational transmission of TEK regarding the impact of harvest of individuals at different life stages facilitates effective population management. Similarly, biological trends and processes — such as dynamics or status of totem species — may underpin local visions of well-being because people’s perceptions of well-being are tied to the health of their totem.
Many cultural aspects are known to affect adaptive capacity64 and yet are often deemed intangible and thus potentially unmeasurable65. Consequently, many assessments rely on indicators that are easier to quantify, compare, aggregate, and communicate across scales and arenas, but that may miss out on feedbacks or critical variables at the local level that biocultural approaches could illuminate (Table 1). As noted in ref. 66, conservation and sustainability efforts frequently approach social-cultural aspects as if they are assessing biodiversity: by creating lists of stakeholders, documenting spatial data on land/sea use, and converting these into relative costs. These approaches overlook the complex psychological and cultural reasons behind management action or inaction. Indicators can and should measure the perceptions of the effect of ecological change on well-being, as these perceptions can drive behaviour more than factors collected via empirical data on change41. Perceptions impact local support (or lack thereof) for management action. Recognition of the role of perceptions within the context of different worldviews is critical to understanding connections and disconnections between international, national, and local framing of problems and successes41,67,68,69.
An emerging literature has begun to identify innovative methods to address the challenges of capturing cultural aspects of a system, when the creation of metrics is deemed helpful or necessary by all parties in a consultation65. For instance, challenges in developing indicators of intangible elements of a system can in part be resolved through the use of ethnographic interviewing techniques that elucidate how the values, beliefs, and experiences of individual people affect their understanding of that system65. As one example, in exploring the impact of western Lesotho’s Metolong Dam on local inhabitants, researchers used audiovisual and global positioning system technology along with interview and group discussion notes to document ‘intangible culture’ as expressed through the relationships between landscape features and cultural histories and narratives70.
Overall, indicators need to be meaningful and applicable to practice at local levels, and should be situated within a context of feedbacks between interconnected ecological and cultural components of a system. Given these complex factors, biocultural approaches can assist in developing grounded, accurate, appropriate, and relevant indicators.
Managing cross-cultural indicator development
Biocultural approaches can be undertaken by Indigenous and other place-based communities without engaging with ex situ entities71. These communities might not use the term biocultural to describe their approach, as for them it is a lived experience. Furthermore, biocultural approaches are not exclusively used in the context of Indigenous communities or in the ‘global South’. High Nature Value farming and other European biocultural initiatives highlight the use of biocultural approaches in non-Indigenous settings72. However, as communities across the globe face internal and external environmental and economic pressures, they have increasingly engaged with ex situ actors in knowledge exchange and co-creation of indicators21,23,73. The process of co-creation of indicators across groups can help to frame questions and solutions that span scales7 and ensure that indicators are relevant to users74 (Fig. 1c). Collaborations that seek to understand and embrace the complexity and interrelated nature of different worldviews can lead to improved conservation and management outcomes75,76,77,78.
For example, in coastal British Columbia, a collaborative team of Heiltsuk First Nation youth and leadership and ex situ scientists placed Heiltsuk observations of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) in the context of Gvi’ilas — customary law in which bear behaviour is recognized as a voice to guide decision-making about whole ecosystems — to undertake basic bear studies. In this project, the Heiltsuk framed the research questions and led the partnership to carry out data collection and communicate the findings to the broader community. The research relied both on population and landscape genetics and on Heiltsuk ways of knowing. As it was embedded in Heiltsuk governance structures, the research led to changes in bear management objectives, sanctions on trophy hunting and outlines for a multi-nation grizzly bear sanctuary under formal co-management frameworks79.
Elucidating culturally grounded understandings requires time and skills, to translate between different types of knowledge and scales of governance21,80. Collaborators need to observe and listen carefully, and be open to the validity and deep complexity of other ways of knowing81. They must also have skills to identify indicators embedded in numerous cultural forms59. Indigenous indicators may be integrated within social contexts that are unfamiliar to ex situ scientists12,82, or that may seem disconnected from environmental management but are inextricably linked for in situ actors. These forms may include stories, songs, ceremonies, oral histories, and what ex situ actors might view as ‘art’21,75,82,83. Including information from different knowledge systems can provide a more complete picture for decision-making84,85. For instance, oral histories from Hawai‘i informed the development of local indicators of environmental and climate change. These include distribution of pan-Pacific, culturally important trees that were once widespread as described by place names and legends, but are now sparse due to landscape transformations and climate change effects86.
Cross-cultural knowledge sharing and collaborations require understanding of how to manoeuvre through the diversity of expectations, perceptions, and viewpoints within and across communities. Knowledge from different sources may initially seem incompatible87. Overcoming this requires ex situ actors to take the time to understand the local context for these knowledges and not dismiss them88. With biocultural approaches, the social-cultural context for local knowledge is key, as is explicit recognition of the producers and holders of knowledge. Knowledge extraction without this context and attribution can disempower local knowledge holders and undermine that knowledge’s transformative potential for management10. Ethnographic research has a key role to play in understanding the politics and process of how knowledge arises and is translated between different groups, and how that can inform decision-making82,87.
Cross-cultural navigation also involves recognizing different perspectives on the type and depth of knowledge that is sufficient for characterizing critical dimensions of a system for management. For example, both in situ and ex situ actors and managers may have only a partial vision of the larger system. In New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, in situ actors might know the micro-scale behavioural ecology of sandfish (Holothuria scabra), but they do not necessarily know the behavioural ecology of species that are intimately connected to the sandfish in the larger system89; ex situ actors might know the large-scale dynamics of those reef species in the western Pacific but may not understand the micro-system dynamics of single reef sites (P.W., unpublished observations). Individuals who are steeped in local cultures but have worked or studied, for instance, in international settings can help with ensuring successful co-creation processes90. Effective two-way communication between ex situ and in situ actors can facilitate policies that leverage the power of both locally relevant knowledge that has evolved within a place and larger-scale generalizable knowledge21,26.
Such collaborative cross-cultural work comes with a number of challenges. Involving numerous sources of knowledge can increase potential for conflict, and enhanced complexity can overwhelm decision-makers and scientists91. Other points that must be considered include the range of beliefs and biases people bring to an endeavour, competitive funding environments, organizational structures driven by external value systems, timelines for reporting that favour efficiency and speed, ethical issues regarding the dissemination and use of co-produced knowledge, and the arbitrary nature of classifying different types of knowledge24. Some of these issues can be overcome if researchers approach cross-cultural work with strategies aimed at fostering true partnerships with in situ groups. Research has shown that when initiatives include diverse actors across all stages, local users are more likely to sustain those initiatives13,24,55. Building in enough time and appropriate conditions for iterative reflection in selection of indicators is critical, as is consideration of rights, representation, and power dynamics13,55,92. The social process of engagement, of working together to reflect on and choose indicators, is a key ingredient of successful indicator development and the discussion itself may lead to improved outcomes. An initiative is more likely to produce practical, actionable knowledge when researchers understand and leverage the interactive nature of knowledge- and decision-making93. When synthesizing different knowledges, approaches that are iterative, collaborative, and include methods to evaluate validity and reliability can be helpful24, as are strategies that use validation processes internal to each system to ensure that the highest calibre knowledge is available for consideration23,73.
Bridging global and local policy and management
If we are to monitor and evaluate sustainable resource use and well-being effectively, we need mechanisms that allow for translation between place-based contexts and other scales, including layers of local and regional government. Thus, in addition to being thoughtful on all scales about what kinds of indicator we measure and who is doing the measuring, we need robust, transparent processes to guide how indicators are designed, implemented, analysed, combined or compared, and incorporated into decision-making processes. Global efforts should also explicitly consider why and how to standardize, despite the ease of comparing and aggregating standardized information. Indicators capturing information in exactly the same way regardless of local context may not be meaningful. Conversely, measures that are developed on local scales and reflect specific place-based values may not easily translate to other locales or to national and international policy by the very nature of their specificity82.
There are several non-exclusive ways to bridge the gaps between local and global indicators. For instance, it may be possible to group complementary indicators under a particular dimension, such as governance, that is meaningful on local as well as global scales. Place-based communities could choose from these indicators to suit their cultural and biological setting43,94. This type of system has already been designed. The vitality index of traditional environmental knowledge (VITEK) is a locally appropriate, globally applicable index that can be used to measure, assess, and compare local ecological knowledge transmission. VITEK defines broad domains of TEK for the overall index, but the actual questions used as indicators are adapted locally95. Tools such as the Mauri model provide a flexible process by which communities can quantify their perceptions of the long-term viability of different well-being dimensions and develop benchmarks tailored to local settings96; while the indicators relate to a specific location, the indicator groupings and methods for scoring the results are fixed, facilitating comparability across communities54.
In addition, provincial and national level agencies have an important role to play. National initiatives such as the Melanesian well-being index standardize and quantify well-being using culturally appropriate metrics97. Similarly, in Latin America, emerging well-being concepts such as Buen Vivir (‘living well’) use culturally grounded quantitative approaches98. One of the earliest efforts to quantify holistic well-being, Bhutan’s gross national happiness index, focuses on non-economic development measures and has received much global attention, although these efforts have also been critiqued in relation to exclusion of minority groups99. National level understanding of local systems and patterns can lead to better tracking of whether or not global targets are being met and enable policy development and action on the ground to address local issues meaningfully. Initiatives that work with national governments to develop indicator strategies for international conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan process and the Biodiversity Indicator Partnership, or to assess the current status of biodiversity, such as IPBES45,46, could help ensure that culturally grounded indicators are developed and used.
Joint efforts in implementation of existing international conventions, such as between the CBD and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, could lead to shared indicators of progress that would better address combined cultural and biological elements on the local scale. These efforts could also promote information sharing, bridge organizational concerns, and integrate specialized knowledge and actions across multiple scales and sectors100.
Global targets such as sustainability and well-being are best addressed through multi-level governance100, and we argue that biocultural approaches can create space for meaningful local metrics while supporting cross-scale application. Future work could find ways to compare results from biocultural approaches to indicator development with those that did not include cultural aspects or feedbacks between humans and their environments, to see if outcomes differ. In addition, more work needs to be done regarding methods for synthesizing across multiple knowledge systems and identifying ways to maintain the richness of local narratives to counter reductionist approaches in decision-making75,101. While great strides are being made in better articulating methods for collaboration and not just participation13,26,30, this remains an ongoing challenge. We believe that by integrating local perspectives and values into global scale indicator development efforts, biocultural approaches can both facilitate development of metrics more appropriate for in situ communities and support the innovative approaches to research-based policy and action necessary to confront complex environmental challenges.
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We thank F. Arengo, T. Milton, K. Careaga, M. Gueze, L. Sebastien and M. Roué for contributions. The material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers EF-1427091 and 1444184. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Support for this project also comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Lynette and Richard Jaffe, and the Jaffe Family Foundation.