The Biocultural Heritage of Mexico: an overview

Víctor M. Toledo, Eckart Boege and Narciso Barrera-Bassols


Studies from different disciplinary backgrounds are revealing the inextricable links between cultural, biological and agricultural diversity at global, national, regional and local scales (Maffi, 2005). These multidimensional and complex relations are named ‘biocultural diversity’. In some way, these links represent the (biocultural) memory of the human species, because they are the present-day expression of a long historical legacy of interrelations between humans and nature (Toledo and Barrera-Bassols, 2008). At the country level, the conjunction of these three dimensions represents the nation’s biocultural heritage, and it is revealed through the geographical analysis of wild plant and animal species, languages, domesticated organisms, and especially territories of indigenous and local peoples.

In this essay, we offer an overview of the biocultural heritage of Mexico, through the discussion of three main topics: (i) a brief description of biological, linguistic and agricultural diversities; (ii) the definition, identification and mapping of biocultural hotspots in the Mexican territory; and (iii) a rapid review of the main grassroots initiatives and projects engaged in the multiple defense of biotic resources, germplasm, language, cultural identity, local livelihoods and territory. Our national-scale review synthesizes decades of work carried out by Mexican researchers and foreign colleagues about the main components of biocultural richness of Mexico.

Mexico: The Third Biocultural Center of the World

The complex connections between dimensions of linguistic, biological, and agricultural diversity become evident when they are analyzed at a global scale. Such correlations reveal that, in general, the majority of languages and of plant and animal species are situated in countries that are located along the fringes of the tropics (Oviedo, Maffin and Larsen, 2000). The principal centers of domestic plant and animal dispersion are located in these countries, in addition to a majority of cultural centers and/or a majority of the birthplaces of civilizations (Toledo and Barrera-Bassols, 2008).

Mexico, a megadiverse (the country alone contains 10% of the biological diversity found on the planet) and megacultural country (11 linguistic families, 68 language groupings, and 364 language variants according to INALI, 2007) has provided a historical linkage of these two worlds through the generation of one of the most important and singular civilization poles of humanity: the Mesoamerican Civilization.

As a consequence, Mesoamerican peoples domesticated 15% of the plant species that make up the world’s food system (CONABIO, 2008). This feat of civilization was achieved through the manipulation of plant continue reading–>