Mexico’s biocultural diversity in peril

Mexico’s biocultural diversity in peril
Mexico’s languages at very high risk of disappearance shown in red, denoting areas in which the language is spoken, and its most biologically diverse states bordered in green
English 04/05/2020 13:58 Mexico City Omar Vidal & Richard C. Brusca Actualizada 14:16
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President Andrés Manuel López Obrador: we must reinforce efforts and significantly augment investments to rescue and preserve Mexico’s unique biocultural diversity and traditional knowledge

The most devastating epidemic in Mexico’s history occurred exactly five-hundred years ago, in 1520, when a single smallpox outbreak killed an estimated 30% to 50% of the indigenous population. One can only speculate how many indigenous languages were lost or put on a path toward extinction during that period. Shortly thereafter, in northern Mexico, many groups of hunters and gatherers who spoke unknown languages perished because of introduced diseases brought by the Spanish from the Old World or simply from the brutal campaigns launched by Spanish conquerors.

The diversity of life encompasses both biological diversity and human cultural dimensions, as well as the complex interrelationships between the two.  Species are the basic units of biodiversity, while languages allow us to estimate the diversity of cultures.  As it turns out, places with high species diversity typically also have high linguistic diversity, whereas areas with low species diversity tend to have low linguistic diversity.  Importantly, the indigenous people who live in these places are custodians of much of the world´s biocultural diversity. 

While much effort and money have been spent to stem the loss of plant and animal species, the loss of languages and indigenous cultures is receiving far less attention and is virtually ignored in much of the world.  Yet language loss is equivalent to extinction of a plant or animal species; once a language is gone, the traditional knowledge it carried is also erased.  As the world grows less linguistically and culturally diverse, it is also becoming less biologically diverse.  Biologists estimate the annual loss of species today at 1000 times or greater than historic rates, and linguists predict that 50-90% of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of this century. 

The world’s inhabitants today speak around 7100 languages.  But roughly half of the world speaks only 24 languages and have from tens to hundreds of millions of speakers, while the other half of the world speaks the remaining 7076 languages, of which around half have fewer than 10,000 speakers.  And shockingly, according to UNESCO, nearly 40% of the world’s population lack access to education in a language that they speak or understand. 

We just published a research paper in which we compiled exhaustive databases on both endangered species and endangered languages to test the relationship between the two in Mexico.  Here is what we found. 

With 364 living languages, Mexico is the world´s fifth most linguistically diverse country, but 64 of these languages are facing a very high risk of disappearance (fewer than 100 surviving speakers) and 13 have already disappeared (gone extinct).  Mexico is also the fourth most biologically diverse country, but 1213 species of its flora and fauna are threatened with extinction and at least 127 species have recently been driven to extinction.  As predicted, biological and linguistic diversity strongly overlap geographically, with the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Puebla harboring most species and most languages.  Similarly, Mexico’s biodiversity hotspots mirror its language hotspots, and areas with the highest number of endangered species overlap with areas where the endangerment of languages is also highest. 

Loss of biocultural diversity in Mexico (and the Americas in general) began as soon as Europeans arrived.  Although estimates of the Native American population size of Mexico upon first arrival of Europeans in 1519 vary greatly, most researchers put it in at least 20 million.  This indigenous population quickly began to collapse from warfare, slavery, and the introduction of pathogens unknown in the Americas, such as those that causes influenza, smallpox, and the bubonic plague.  

At least 13 languages have gone extinct in Mexico in historic times.  Of the 364 languages spoken today in Mexico, over 100 are at very high risk of disappearance (less than 100 speakers survive) and 43 are in high risk of disappearance (between 100 and 1000 speakers survive).  The ones with the highest risk of going extinct in the immediate future are: Kiliwa (2 speakers survive), Awakateco (3), Tuzanteco (5), Ayapaneco (8), Ixil nebajeño (12), Zapoteco de Mixtepec (14), Ku´al (20), Ixcateco (21), Kaqchikel (35), Zapoteco de San Felipe Tejalapám (50), Ixil chajuleño (52), and Zapoteco de Asunción Tlacolulita (53).  

The most insidious threats to Mexico´s biodiversity are habitat destruction and fragmentation (mostly by deforestation for agriculture and livestock), overexploitation, invasive species, and climate change.  The threat to Mexico´s languages includes a combination of factors such as the reduced number of speakers, their geographical dispersion, predominance of adult speakers, and trends for abandoning transmission of languages to new generations.  All of this is compounded by a lack of interest or even outright neglect by authorities, which has led to exclusion of indigenous languages from public and institutional spaces, mass media communications such as radio and television, and their diminishing use among communities and families.  

Some indigenous people seem to have accepted that their languages will disappear, and they will soon be able to communicate only in Spanish, while others desire to reverse the extinction trend.  Many more simply do not know what to do to save their (Mexico´s) cultural heritage. 

Given that the regions harboring Mexico´s highest biocultural diversity are considered strategic for the country´s environmental and food security, as well as to ensuring the rights of indigenous peoples, it was proposed that they should be an important component of the 2019-2024 national development plan.  This hasn’t happened as yet, but we hope this policy initiative results in concrete action to protect Mexico’s unique cultural and natural heritage. 

Time is of the essence because Mexico´s biocultural diversity is at a crossroads.  Since endangered languages and endangered species strongly overlap geographically, it makes sense to combine efforts to protect both.  Federal, state and municipal governments, businesses, conservation organizations, philanthropists, and multilateral agencies need to urgently reinforce efforts and significantly augment investments if we are to rescue and preserve the country’s unique biocultural diversity and traditional knowledge for the benefit of present and future generations.  

When species go extinct entire biological communities and ecosystems can be disrupted or permanently altered.  Regardless of their economic, scientific, and aesthetic value to humans, plant and animal species have a value of their own because of their unique evolutionary history, genomic diversity, and, ultimately, because of their very existence.  When we allow languages to disappear, we squander the culture of humanity, the millennial knowledge of the natural world, and a part of our own past.  

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