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 populations, landscapes and productive systems, and through the multiple uses of natural resources. This savoir-faire about nature, largely perfected during almost 9,000 years, constitutes without doubt the bulk of the biocultural patrimony that exists in Mexico. As mentioned above, from a biocultural perspective Mexico occupies third place on a world scale, just after Indonesia and India, and just before Australia, Brazil, and China (Figure 1).

Figure1. The six top countries in terms of biocultural richness. Numbers indicate the ranking position of countries in biological and language diversity.

i. Biological diversity

Due to its geographic location, its geological history, and its heterogeneous topography, Mexico represents an exceptional setting for the multiplication of species. The confluence of Neartic and Neotropical vegetation lineages that occurs in the mountain ranges offers a complex network of biogeographical locations in the form of a mosaic, which gives place to innumerable niches that are relatively small in size. This landscape heterogeneity, a product of natural history, results in an incredible biological richness. Mexico occupies the third place in the world in the number of vascular plant species and endemics, and the fourth place in the richness of vertebrate species and endemics (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians). Overall, the plant and animal diversity that occurs in Mexico places the country as the fifth most megadiverse county in the world, containing approximately 10% of the biological diversity worldwide (CONABIO, 2008).

ii. Linguistic diversity

Much of the current Mexican territory is the site of one of two main centers of civilization that developed on the American continent over more that 10 thousands years. In its cultural importance and complexity, this center of civilization resembles those that originated in China, India, Mesopotamia, the Andes, and Egypt. The diverse peoples that coexisted on this territory shared a common base in terms of their worldviews, knowledge, and production methods. Today, this legacy of civilization is represented by the existence of more than 300 living languages, most of which are endemic and are spoken by a population estimated between 7 and 10 million people. The significance of this richness places Mexico as the fifth most linguistically megadiverse country in the world (

iii. Agricultural diversity

Another substantive feature of biocultural diversity in Mexico is that it constitutes one of the 12 Vavilov centers, or centers of origin of the domestication and diversification of plants in the world. This Mesoamerican effort of plant domestication comprises 15% of the crops that are currently consumed in the world. Such effort is fundamentally based in the domestication of maize, an emblematic icon of Mesoamerica, accompanied by another 110 species that include the tomato, chocolate, vanilla, bean, squash, and chile pepper. This region also excels in adaptation to the heterogeneity of the landscape through the design and implementation of the multi-cropped milpa system. The milpa is an agricultural field characterized by the planting of a triad of crops, maize-bean-squash, which on occasion is accompanied by up to ten to twenty associated species.

The Biocultural Hotspots

The definition, location, and delimitation of biocultural centers or hotspots in space is achieved utilizing scientific information, statistics, and cartography of biological, linguistic, and agricultural diversity, and their correlation with indigenous territories. In Mexico, 22 biocultural centers are recognized (Figure 2). They are the result of a “core nucleus” of indigenous territories totaling at least 28 million hectares in size with 6.79 million indigenous habitants, making up 14% of the national territory. Inside and out of this nucleus another 3.31 million habitants who speak an indigenous language live in 27,712 localities (Boege 2008). The importance of these biocultural hotspots is emphasized by the five following situations:

Figure 2. Geographical location of 22 biocultural regions in the Mexican territory. For details see Boege, 2008.

i. Water capture. Approximately 23%, or about a quarter, of all water captured nationally is collected in biocultural hotspots. The majority of the water is collected in basin watersheds that are directly impacted by atmospheric events such as hurricanes, north winds, and cyclones. These areas act as a sort of sponge that captures water, and for this reason they provide highly valued ecosystem services.

ii. Biodiversity. In Mexico, the majority of the ejidos (new peasant settlements resulting from the Agrarian Reform of 1917) and comunidades (some 35,000 in total), which make up the core of peasant and indigenous territories, is localized in the ten states of the Mexican Republic considered as the richest in biological terms (these states include Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guerrero, and Michoacán among others). Approximately 70% of indigenous territories is under some sort of priority for the conservation of its rich biological resources, including centers of natural origin and high agrodiversity areas.

iii. Remaining vegetation. Essentially all types of vegetation present at a national level are encountered in these centers (Figure 3). Most importantly, the biocultural centers maintain 76% of tropical deciduous forests, 70% of tropical rain forests, 63.5% of tropical semi-deciduous forests, 54% of temperate mixed forests, and 30% of pine and/or oak forests that remain in the country. For the remaining vegetation that occurs within indigenous territories, it is estimated that there are 15,000 species of plants, half of the entire flora of Mexico (Boege, 2008).

Figure 3. Percentage of the remaining primary vegetation of Mexico located within indigenous territories. After Boege, 2008.

iv. Natural protected areas. Of the total 152 protected natural areas at a federal level that exist in Mexico, 52 have indigenous populations living within them. These protected areas have a surface area of 5.57 million hectares, where 1.46 million hectares overlap with indigenous territory. If this surface area is added to the areas protected at the state level that coincide with indigenous territories, a total of more than 2 million hectares that are protected by law can be found in indigenous territories (Boege, 2008).

v. Maize diversity. The history of the domestication of maize, squash, beans, chile peppers and another 110 Mesoamerican crops in Mexico is indissolubly connected with the cultural development of indigenous peoples that have farmed in this region for more than 9 thousand years. Out of all of these crops, maize is the most emblematic. Because of this, it is essentially unknown whether humans domesticated maize or maize domesticated humans. Since Mexico is the center of origin and diversification of maize, the bulk of its genetic bank at the global level is located in Mexico. This reserve is distributed in situ across the country at altitudes that range from sea level to 3,400 m.a.s.l. Under conditions of incredible landscape variety, up to 60 races of maize are cultivated (Ortega-Paczka, 2003) and hundreds or perhaps thousands of local varieties of native maize are adapted to micro-specific ecological conditions. Such adaptations are also a response to cultural, food, ritual, and commercial necessities (Perales et al, 2005). The consumption of native maize is the quintessential staple of Mexican diet  and gastronomy, where the largest part of this consumption occurs in indigenous territories.

Biocultural Resistances: Grassroots Projects

i. Community-based conservation

Within a context of high social presence in the agrarian system, community-based conservation has been a growing process. In Mexico, local participation in biological conservation has been facilitated by legislation and several government programs. The main program has been the Project for Biodiversity Conservation by Indigenous Communities (COINBIO in Spanish), which developed actions in villages of three states: Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán. As a result, only in Oaxaca there are 16 community-based reserves, which give protection to over 45,000 hectares. By 2007 the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) accepted and certified around 170,000 hectares as locally conserved areas (Boege, 2008). More recently, in Quintana Roo 49 Mayan ejidos have spontaneously promulgated and established areas of tropical forests for conservation, offering protection for water bodies and archeological sites, and linking these initiatives to projects of ecotourism (Elizondo and López-Merlín, 2009).

ii. Shaded coffee agroforestry systems

Coffee landscapes are man-made landscapes resulting from a complex set of environmental and social processes. In Mexico, there are five main modes of producing coffee (Figure 4): (i) the two shade-grown coffee systems established under a multilayered and multispecies canopy of native trees that generally are creations of indigenous, small-scale growers (rustic polyculture and traditional polyculture); (ii) two coffee systems established under planted trees that correspond to either small- and medium-scale farmers or large-scale owners who are highly involved in the production of specialized cash crops (commercial polyculture and commercial monoculture); and (iii) the sunny coffee system, a monoculture which utilizes chemical fertilizers and pesticides and generally is grown by major landowners. Each of these five types of coffee systems reflects specific combinations of biological, ecological, cultural, agrarian, and social factors (Moguel & Toledo 1996, 1999). The two traditional shaded coffee agroforests, but especially the traditional polyculture, also called coffee garden, represent an advanced stage of human manipulation of the native forest architecture and composition. They represent a sort of humanized natural forest, which can function as an important refuge for biodiversity (principally birds, mammals, flowering plants, and insects).

Figure 4. Five main modes of producing coffee: (a) rustic; (b) traditional polyculture; (c) commercial polyculture; (e) shaded monoculture; and sunny monoculture. The figure shows the real heights of trees in meters. After Moguel and Toledo, 1999.

In the last two decades, a growing movement of cultural resistance has made Mexico the first producer of certified organic coffee in the world. It is estimated that almost 300,000 hectares are dedicated to growing traditional coffee gardens. Today there are 350,000 small-scale coffee growers in Mexico, mainly in the states of Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca. These growers produce 40 percent of the total national coffee production, and almost all of the organic shaded coffee. In the state of Chiapas, for instance, 107,000 coffee growers, two-thirds of whom belong to indigenous communities, and many of whom produce certified organic coffee through over 100 local and regional cooperatives, are strategic social actors for any biological conservation project (Toledo, 2003).

Struggles for the Preservation of Native Maize

The genetic contamination of native maize that has been discovered in indigenous territories and peasant communities of Mexico during the last decade, and the imminent arrival of genetically modified maize to Mexican parcels, have caused an uprising of unusual resistance all over the country (Barrera-Bassols et al, 2009) (Figure 5). Such movement at a national scale has been nurtured by urban, peasant, and indigenous claims synthesized in the slogan “without maize there is no country” (“sin maiz no hay pais”). Within the framework of this social struggle, an ensemble of local actions, undertaken by a diverse array of indigenous and peasant communities and adapted to their own cultural and environmental contexts, has led to the elaboration of plitical discourse and practices in which maize appears as an emblematic icon in their claims, which express: (a) rejection of agricultural technologies such as transgenic biotechnology; (b) opposition to the local effects of the global market; (c) disapproval of the health effects caused by both; and (d) a defense of local food sovereignty in the face of the loss of Mesoamerican agro-biodiversity that is occurring in their territories.

Figure 5. Geographical distribution of: (i) maize races of Mexico, (ii) recorded sites with presence of transgenic maize (black dots), and (ii) grass-root movements of peasant and indigenous peoples against the genetic contamination of maize (arrows). For details see Barrera-Bassols, et al 2009.

Concluding Remarks

In a country that is profoundly characterized by its biocultural richness, it is difficult to design any conservation policies without taking into account the profound relationship that has existed since time immemorial between nature and culture. In Mexico, each species of plants and animals, each type of soil and landscape nearly always has a corresponding linguistic expression, a category of knowledge, a practical use, a religious meaning, a role in ritual, and an individual or collective vitality. To safeguard the natural heritage of a country without safeguarding the cultures that have given it shape and meaning is to reduce nature to something beyond recognition: static, distant, nearly dead. Similarly, it is not possible to safeguard cultures while destroying the surrounding nature that support them and gives meaning to their existence. That is a simple but inescapable and vital principle.


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