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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Transdisciplinary partnerships for sustainability: an evaluation guide
Sustainability Science Open Access 02 January 2022
An indicator-based sustainability assessment method for indigenous communities: a case study from Mexico
Environment, Development and Sustainability Open Access 04 July 2021
Recognizing Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and agency in the post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda
Ambio Open Access 18 May 2021
Access Nature and 54 other Nature Portfolio journals
Get Nature+, our best-value online-access subscription
$29.99 per month
cancel any time
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 digital issues and online access to articles
$119.00 per year
only $9.92 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Get just this article for as long as you need it
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Sterling, E. J., Gómez, A. & Porzecanski, A. L. A systemic view of biodiversity and its conservation: processes, interrelationships, and human culture. Bioessays 32, 1090–1098 (2010).
Carpenter, S. R. et al. Science for managing ecosystem services: beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 1305–1312 (2009).
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis (Island, Washington DC, 2005).
Mascarenhas, A., Coelho, P., Subtil, E. & Ramos, T. B. The role of common local indicators in regional sustainability assessment. Ecol. Indic. 10, 646–656 (2010).
Hinkel, J. ‘Indicators of vulnerability and adaptive capacity’: towards a clarification of the science–policy interface. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 198–208 (2011).
Cunningham, A. B. Applied Ethnobotany: People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation (Earthscan, London, 2001).
Fraser, E. D. G., Dougill, A. J., Mabee, W. E., Reed, M. & McAlpine, P.Bottom up and top down: analysis of participatory processes for sustainability indicator identification as a pathway to community empowerment and sustainable environmental management. J. Environ. Manag. 78, 114–127 (2006).
Winter, K. & McClatchey, W. Quantifying evolution of cultural interactions with plants: implications for managing diversity for resilience in social-ecological systems. Funct. Ecosyst. Commun. 2, 1–10 (2008).
Tallis, H. et al. A global system for monitoring ecosystem service change. Bioscience 62, 977–986 (2012).
Mistry, J. & Berardi, A. Bridging indigenous and scientific knowledge. Science 352, 1274–1275 (2016).
Cullman, G. Community forest management as virtualism in northeastern Madagascar. Hum. Ecol. 43, 29–41 (2015).
West, P. Conservation is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea (Duke Univ. Press, Durham, 2006).
Sterling, E. J. et al. Assessing the evidence for stakeholder engagement in biodiversity conservation. Biol. Conserv. 209, 159–171 (2017).
Smith, L. T. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Zed Books, London, 1999).
Chan, K. M. A. et al. Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 1462–1465 (2016).
Daniel, T. C. et al. Contributions of cultural services to the ecosystem services agenda. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 8812–8819 (2012).
Thaman, K. H. in Local Knowledge and Wisdom in Higher Education(eds Teasdale, B. et al.) 43–50 (Elsevier, Oxford, 2000).
Reimaan National Planning Team Reimaanlok: Looking to the Future: National Conservation Area Plan for the Marshall Islands (N. Baker, Melbourne, 2008).
Gavin, M. C. et al. Defining biocultural approaches to conservation. Trends Ecol. Evol. 30, 140–145 (2015).
van Oudenhoven, F. J. W., Mijatović, D. & Eyzaguirre, P. B. Social-ecological indicators of resilience in agrarian and natural landscapes. Manag. Environ. Quality 22, 154–173 (2011).
Ens, E. J. in People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures(eds Altman, J. & Kerin, S.) 45–64 (The Federation Press, Leichhardt, 2012).
Preuss, K. & Dixon, M. ‘Looking after country two-ways’: insights into indigenous community-based conservation from the Southern Tanami. Ecol. Manag. Restor. 13, 2–15 (2012).
Tengö, M., Brondizio, E. S., Elmqvist, T., Malmer, P. & Spierenburg, M.Connecting diverse knowledge systems for enhanced ecosystemgovernance: the multiple evidence base approach. Ambio 43,579–591 (2014).
Raymond, C. M. et al. Integrating local and scientific knowledge for environmental management. J. Environ. Manag. 91, 1766–1777 (2010).
Leenhardt, P. et al. Challenges, insights and perspectives associated with using social-ecological science for marine conservation. Ocean Coast. Manag. 115, 49–60 (2015).
Ens, E. J., Daniels, C., Nelson, E., Roy, J. & Dixon, P. Creating multi-functional landscapes: using exclusion fences to frame feral ungulate management preferences in remote Aboriginal-owned northern Australia. Biol. Conserv. 197, 235–246 (2016).
Jupiter, S. Culture, kastom and conservation in Melanesia: what happens when worldviews collide? Pac. Conserv. Biol. 23, 139–145 (2017).
Pascua, P., McMillen, H., Ticktin, T., Vaughan, M. & Winter, K. B. Beyond services: a process and framework to incorporate cultural, genealogical, place-based, and indigenous relationships in ecosystem service assessments. Ecosyst. Serv. 26B, 465–475 (2017).
Harding, S. Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues (Univ. Illinois Press, Champaign, 2006).
Reed, M. S. et al. A theory of participation: what makes stakeholder and public engagement in environmental management work? Restor. Ecol. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.12541 (2017).
Kainer, K. A. et al. Partnering for greater success: local stakeholders and research in tropical biology and conservation. Biotropica 41, 555–562 (2009).
Walker, W. et al. Forest carbon in Amazonia: the unrecognized contribution of indigenous territories and protected natural areas. Carbon Manag. 5, 479–485 (2014).
McMillen, H. L. et al. Small islands, valuable insights: systems of customary resource use and resilience to climate change in the Pacific. Ecol. Soc. 19, 44 (2014).
Campbell, J. Islandness: vulnerability and resilience in Oceania. Shima 3, 85–97 (2009).
Chambers, R. Participatory rural appraisal (PRA): challenges, potentials and paradigm. World Dev. 22, 1437–1454 (1994).
Berkes, F. Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management 3rd edn (Routledge, New York, 2012).
Berkes, F., Colding, J. & Folke, C. Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecol. Appl. 10, 1251–1262 (2000).
Lawrence, A., Paudel, K., Barnes, R. & Malla, Y. Adaptive value of participatory biodiversity monitoring in community forestry. Environ. Conserv. 33, 325–334 (2006).
Berkes, F. Rethinking community-based conservation. Conserv. Biol. 18, 621–630 (2004).
Turner, N. J., Gregory, R., Brooks, C., Failing, L. & Satterfield, T. From invisibility to transparency: identifying the implications. Ecol. Soc. 13, 7 (2008).
Leonard, S., Parsons, M., Olawsky, K. & Kofod, F. The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 623–632 (2013).
Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 1259855 (2015).
Hicks, C. C. et al. Engage key social concepts for sustainability. Science 352, 38–40 (2016).
Selomane, O., Reyers, B., Biggs, R., Tallis, H. & Polasky, S. Towards integrated social-ecological sustainability indicators: exploring the contribution and gaps in existing global data. Ecol. Econ. 118, 140–146 (2015).
Díaz, S., Demissew, S., Carabias, J. & Joly, C. The IPBES conceptual framework—connecting nature and people. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 14,1–16 (2015).
Pascual, U. et al. Valuing nature’s contributions to people: the IPBES approach. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 26, 7–16 (2017).
Ostrom, E. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009).
Cinner, J. E. et al. Evaluating social and ecological vulnerability of coral reef fisheries to climate change. PLoS ONE 8, e74321 (2013).
Barnett, J., Lambert, S. & Fry, I. The hazards of indicators: insights from the environmental vulnerability index. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 98,102–119 (2008).
Haalboom, B. & Natcher, D. C. The power and peril of ‘vulnerability’: approaching community labels with caution in climate change research. Arctic 65, 319–327 (2012).
West, P. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea (Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 2016).
Le Tourneau, F.-M. et al. Assessing the impacts of sustainable development projects in the Amazon: the DURAMAZ experiment. Sustain. Sci. 8, 199–212 (2013).
de Robert, P., Lopez Garcés, C., Laques, A.-E. & Coelho-Ferreira, M. A beleza das roças: agrobiodiversidade Mebêngôkre-Kayapó em tempos de globalização. Bol. Mus. Para. Emílio Goeldi. Cienc. Hum. 7,339–369 (2012).
Sterling, E. J. et al. Culturally Grounded Indicators of Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems. Environ. Soc. 8, 63–95 (2017).
Estrella, M. & Gaventa, J. Who Counts Reality? Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation: A Literature Review IDS Working Paper 70 (Institute of Development Studies, 1998).
Cullen-Unsworth, L. C., Hill, R., Butler, J. R. A. & Wallace, M. Development of linked cultural and biophysical indicators for the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Int. J. Sci. Soc. 2, 181–194 (2011).
Escobar, C. In: B. Verschuuren, S. M. Subramanian, W. Hiemstra, eds. Community Well-being in Biocultural Landscapes. (pp. 42–57. Practical Action Publishing, Rugby, 2014).
Oba, G. & Kotile, D. G. Assessments of landscape level degradation in southern Ethiopia: pastoralists versus ecologists. Land Degrad. Dev. 12, 461–475 (2001).
Åutsÿl K’e Dene Elders and Land-users et al. Traditional Knowledge in the Kache Tué Study Region: Phase Three - Towards a Comprehensive Environmental Monitoring Program in the Kakinÿne Region (West Kitikmeot Slave Study Society, 2002).
Cobb, D., Berkes, M. K. & Berkes, F. in Breaking Ice: Renewable Resource and Ocean Management in the Canadian North (eds Berkes, F. et al.)71–93 Univ. Calgary Press, Calgary, 2005).
Townsend, C. R., Tipa, G., Teirney, L. D. & Niyogi, D. K. Development of a tool to facilitate participation of Maori in the management of stream and river health. Ecohealth 1, 184–195 (2004).
Jackson, M. V. et al. Developing collaborative marine turtle monitoring in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. Ecol. Manag. Restor. 16, 163–176 (2015).
Bergamini, N. et al. Indicators of Resilience in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes (SEPLs) (United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, 2013).
Kati, V. & Jari, N. Bottom-up thinking—identifying socio-cultural values of ecosystem services in local blue–green infrastructure planning in Helsinki, Finland. Land Use Policy 50, 537–547 (2016).
Satterfield, T., Gregory, R., Klain, S., Roberts, M. & Chan, K. M. Culture, intangibles and metrics in environmental management. J. Environ. Manag. 117, 103–114 (2013).
Biggs, D. et al. The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could ‘mental models’ help? Conserv. Lett. 4, 169–183 (2011).
Schwarz, A. M. et al. Vulnerability and resilience of remote rural communities to shocks and global changes: empirical analysis from Solomon Islands. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 1128–1140 (2011).
Pyhälä, A. et al. Global environmental change: local perceptions, understandings, and explanations. Ecol. Soc. 21, 25 (2016).
Bennett, N. J. Using perceptions as evidence to improve conservation and environmental management. Conserv. Biol. 30, 582–592 (2016).
Nic Eoin, L., Owens, E. & King, R. Memories of Metolong: the challenges of archiving intangible heritage in development contexts. In 2013 Digital Heritage International Congress Vol. 2 37–44 (DigitalHeritage, 2013).
Life Plan - Territories of Life - A Video Toolkit for Indigenous Peoples About Land and Rights (LifeMosaic, Edinburgh, 2015).
Kazakova, Y. & Stefanova, V. High Nature Value Farming in the Western Balkans: Current Status and Key Challenges – A Scoping Document (European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, 2010).
Fazey, I. et al. Knowledge exchange: a review and research agenda for environmental management. Environ. Conserv. 40,19–36 (2013).
Izurieta, A. et al. Developing indicators for monitoring and evaluating joint management effectiveness in protected areas in the Northern Territory, Australia. Ecol. Soc. 16, 9 (2011).
Peterson, R. B., Russell, D., West, P. & Brosius, J. P. Seeing (and doing) conservation through cultural lenses. Environ. Manag. 45, 5–18 (2010).
Ens, E. J., Scott, M. L., Rangers, Y. M., Moritz, C. & Pirzl, R. Putting indigenous conservation policy into practice delivers biodiversity and cultural benefits. Biodivers. Conserv. 25, 2889–2906 (2016).
Armitage, D., Berkes, F., Dale, A., Kocho-Schellenberg, E. & Patton, E. Co-management and the co-production of knowledge: learning to adapt in Canada’s Arctic. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 995–1004 (2011).
Finn, M. & Jackson, S. Protecting indigenous values in water management: a challenge to conventional environmental flow assessments. Ecosystems 14, 1232–1248 (2011).
Housty, W. G. et al. Grizzly bear monitoring by the Heiltsuk people as a crucible for First Nation conservation practice. Ecol. Soc. 19, 70 (2014).
Ens, E., Burns, E., Russes-Smith, J., Sparrow, B. & Wardle, G. in Biodiversity and Environmental Change: Monitoring, Challenges and Direction (eds Lindenmayer, D. et al.) 83–107 (CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, 2014).
Sable, T., Howell, G., Wilson, D. & Penashue, P. Local Science vs Global Science: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development (eds Sillitoe, P.) 109-127 (Berghahn Books, Oxford, 2009).
West, P. Translation, value, and space: theorizing an ethnographic and engaged environmental anthropology. Am. Anthropol. 107, 632–642 (2005).
Tipa, G. & Teirney, L. D. A Cultural Health Index for Streams and Waterways: Indicators for Recognising and Expressing Māori Values(Ministry for the Environment, 2003).
Robertson, H. A. & McGee, T. K. Applying local knowledge: the contribution of oral history to wetland rehabilitation at Kanyapella Basin, Australia. J. Environ. Manag. 69, 275–287 (2003).
Woodward, E., Jackson, S., Finn, M. & McTaggart, P. M. Utilising indigenous seasonal knowledge to understand aquatic resource use and inform water resource management in northern Australia. Ecol. Manag. Restor. 13, 58–64 (2012).
Ka’ūpūlehu Community, McMillen, H., Ticktin, T. & Kurashima, N. Natural-cultural Resources and Climate Change (Ka’ūpūlehu Local Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change Portal, 2014).
Povinelli, E. A. Do rocks listen? The cultural politics of apprehending Australian aboriginal labor. Am. Anthropol. 97,505–518 (1995).
Lauer, M. & Aswani, S. Indigenous ecological knowledge as situated practices: understanding fishers’ knowledge in the western Solomon Islands. Am. Anthropol. 111, 317–329 (2009).
Aini, J. & West, P. In: G. Cullman ed. Resilience Sourcebook: Case Studies of Social–Ecological Resilience in Island Systems (pp. 1–7, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2014).
Gegeo, D. W. & Watson-Gegeo, K. A. “How we know”: Kwara’ae rural villagers doing indigenous epistemology. Contemp. Pacific 13, 55–88 (2001).
Gray, S., Chan, A., Clark, D. & Jordan, R. Modeling the integration of stakeholder knowledge in social-ecological decision-making: benefits and limitations to knowledge diversity. Ecol. Model. 229, 88–96 (2012).
Carter, J. L. Thinking outside the framework: equitable research partnerships for environmental research in Australia. Geogr. J. 174, 63–75 (2008).
Clark, W. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Lebel, L. & Gallopin, G. C. Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 4570–4578 (2016).
Bergamini, N. et al. Toolkit for the Indicators of Resilience in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (SEPLS) (UNU-IAS, Bioversity International, IGES and UNDP, Rome, 2014).
Zent, S. & Maffi, L. Final Report on Indicator No. 2: Methodology for Developing a Vitality Index of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (VITEK) for the Project ‘Global Indicators of the Status and Trends of Linguistic Diversity and Traditional Knowledge’ (Terralingua, 2009).
Morgan, T. Decision-support tools and the indigenous paradigm. Proc. Inst. Civil. Eng. Eng. Sustain. 159, 169–177 (2006).
Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia: Vanuatu Pilot Study Report (Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, 2012).
Guardiola, J. & García-Quero, F. Buen vivir (living well) in Ecuador: community and environmental satisfaction without household material prosperity? Ecol. Econ. 107, 177–184 (2014).
Mason Meier, B. & Chakrabarti, A. The paradox of happiness: health and human rights in the kingdom of Bhutan. Health Hum. Rights 18, 193–208 (2016).
Berkes, F. Community-based conservation in a globalized world. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15188–15193 (2007).
West, P. An anthropology for ‘the assemblage of the now’. Anthropol. Forum 26, 438–445 (2016).
Ballard, T. J., Kepple, A. W. & Cafiero, C. The Food Insecurity Experience Scale: Developing a Global Standard for Monitoring Hunger Worldwide (FAO, 2013).
Ravuvu, A. Vaka i Taukei: The Fijian Way of Life (Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, Suva, 1983).
Brayboy, B. M. J. & Castagno, A. E. Self-determination through self-education: culturally responsive schooling for indigenous students in the USA. Teaching Educ. 20, 31–53 (2009).
Tilley, C. Performing culture in the global village. Crit. Anthropol. 17, 67–89 (1997).
Wood, L. J., Fish, L., Laughren, J. & Pauly, D. Assessing progress towards global marine protection targets: shortfalls in information and action. Oryx 42, 340–351 (2008).
Jupiter, S. D., Cohen, P. J., Weeks, R., Tawake, A. & Govan, H. Locally-managed marine areas: multiple objectives and diverse strategies. Pac. Conserv. Biol. 20, 165–179 (2014).
Friedlander, A. M., Stamoulis, K. A., Kittinger, J. N., Drazen, J. C. &Tissot, B. N. in Advances in Marine Biology (eds Johnson, M. L. & Sandell, J.) 153–203 (Academic, Oxford, 2014).
Isechal, A. L. & Victor, S. (eds) Micronesia Protected Area Management Effectiveness: A Guide to Administering the MPAME Tool (Micronesia Conservation Trust, 2013).
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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Sterling, E.J., Filardi, C., Toomey, A. et al. Biocultural approaches to well-being and sustainability indicators across scales. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1798–1806 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0349-6
This article is cited by
Working from the Inside Out: Fostering Intrinsic Motivation and Expanding Our Criteria for Conservation Success
International Journal of Primatology (2022)
Indicators are Relational: Navigating Knowledge and Power in the Development and Implementation of Coastal-Marine Indicators
Environmental Management (2022)
Transdisciplinary partnerships for sustainability: an evaluation guide
Sustainability Science (2022)
An indicator-based sustainability assessment method for indigenous communities: a case study from Mexico
Environment, Development and Sustainability (2022)
Livelihood resilience in the face of multiple stressors: biocultural resource-based adaptive strategies among the vulnerable communities
Sustainability Science (2022)