Recovering Landscape Health and Cultural Resilience in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico

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Luís and Tomás Palma gathering native pine seeds for a tree nursery in their Sierra Tarahumara community Credit: David J. Rapport

The Rarámuri people (also known as Tarahumara by non-Rarámuri) are an indigenous group living in the Sierra Tarahumara, a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. This region of high sierras and deep canyons boasts an exceptional ecological diversity, and is home to some of the most resilient indigenous societies in the North American continent. The Rarámuri (about 70,000 people, living mostly in isolated settlements and small villages scattered across the Sierra Tarahumara) speak a distinct language and have maintained a strong identity and vibrant cultural traditions through over five centuries of contact with the now prevailing Spanish-speaking population. They are subsistence farmers, and have traditionally also relied extensively on a variety of wild plant and animal species for food, medicine, and other basic needs.

However, their long-term adaptation to this mountainous region and their ability to sustain their livelihoods and way of life—and ultimately to retain their cultural and linguistic identity—have been severely threatened by rapid environmental, socio-cultural and economic changes brought about by virtually unrestricted mining, logging, ranching, mass tourism and now increasingly the drug trade, all of which have been facilitated by extensive road development and the building of other major infrastructure. These activities have collectively resulted in massive deforestation causing the loss of forest plant and animal species; overgrazing; soil erosion with consequent loss of water resources; frequent droughts and flash floods; water pollution; decrease of arable lands and diminished soil quality and fertility, resulting in lower crop yields and periodic crop failures; displacement from traditional lands; out-migration, especially of the younger generations, due to inability to make a living in the communities; induced social and cultural change; social dislocation and loss of social cohesion; erosion of intergenerational transmission of values, beliefs, knowledge, practices and language; and a variety of health and nutritional issues. Adding to these woes, global warming is s projected to bring long-term drought to the region.

The scale and pace of change are challenging the Rarámuri’s ability to continue to live and develop according to their own worldview and way of life. Many elders and other community members are concerned about the Rarámuri’s future as a distinct people if the erosion of their landscape and culture continues. While stressing their long-standing continue reading–>