Improving Nutrition in Indigenous Peoples’ Communities - Key Approaches

Projects aiming to improve Indigenous Peoples’ nutrition need to be grounded in a participatory and intercultural to facilitate co-design with Indigenous communities. A special focus should be put on ensuring that all project development steps conducted with Indigenous Peoples’ communities are carried out in local Indigenous languages. A gender-sensitive and transformative approach with a focus on Indigenous women as knowledge holders of food biodiversity is key. The respect of the Indigenous Peoples' rights to land, self-determination, and cultural and spiritual heritage, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), should be an underlying principle of any project. IFAD's approach aims to ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are fully respected in the design and development of IFAD-supported projects. See good practices in IFAD's engagement with Indigenous Peoples. 

Participatory and Intercultural Approach

Working with Indigenous Peoples must be grounded in an approach where Indigenous Peoples' knowledge, and associated ways of learning, creating, innovating and transmitting knowledge are given equal value and consideration as scientific or other types of knowledge. When collaborating and creating projects with people of different cultural backgrounds, participatory methods must apply an intercultural approach. Such an approach is based on an understanding of Indigenous Peoples’ ways of learning, creating, and innovating, and on an appreciation of their languages, worldviews, and cosmogonies. A focus on the intercultural principles of respect and openness to different worldviews facilitates a bridging of Indigenous and non-Indigenous approaches in projects and partnerships. The intercultural approach is increasingly recognized and applied in education and health sectors, particularly in improving health services for Indigenous Peoples (1).

A special focus should be put on creating safe spaces for discussion and ensuring that discussions take place in local language with adequate translation and interpretation. Language, as an integral part of culture, is a fundamental tool to understand and describe the world. Indigenous Peoples’ languages and culture play an important role in protecting their rights, wellbeing, knowledge, and identity. Without Indigenous terminology, it is difficult to express Indigenous Peoples’ philosophies, knowledge, and cultural practices and to convey them to future generations. 

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Gender-sensitive and Transformative Approach

Indigenous women are knowledge-holders of food biodiversity and keystones of family nutrition. In the midst of IPFS disruption, they often bear the burden of malnutrition. Gender-sensitive nutrition programs that specifically target women, pregnant women, and adolescent girls can help to ensure that they have a better access to nutritious foods and healthy diets. Examples of gender-sensitive actions are recognizing the key roles that Indigenous women play as knowledge holders and food providers in IPFS, proving information relevant to health and nutrition, supporting women's livelihood and economic strategies, enhancing women's status and role in household and community decision making, collecting gender-disaggregated data, and building gender capacity and sensitivity of both local communities as well as project implementers.

While the levels of gender equality vary across Indigenous Peoples’ societies, most are influenced by exogenous discriminatory social and economic institutions, policies, and laws. Indigenous women often experience multiple levels of discrimination. Women's empowerment calls for a gender-transformative approach that emphasizes the need for structural transformation and addresses the underlying social norms, attitudes, and behaviours that perpetuate gender inequalities. This requires engaging both men and women, within and outside of the community, as agents of change to address the root causes of gender inequalities (2). See mainstreaming gender-transformative approaches at IFAD, and other resources.

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Indigenous Peoples' Rights

Indigenous Peoples' rights, including land rights, are the fundamental basis of their food systems, food security, nutrition, and culture. Land ownership ensures the continuation of their knowledge and practices. Violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights exacerbate the loss of food biodiversity. Many Indigenous Peoples continue to face a range of human rights issues. Some of the most difficult human rights challenges for Indigenous Peoples stem from pressures on their lands, territories, and resources as a result of activities associated with resource extraction and the expansion of cash crops.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is the most comprehensive global framework that addresses the unique human rights situation of Indigenous Peoples. The provisions of UNDRIP that are especially relevant to food systems are Right to Food, Self-Determination, Right to Land, Territories and Resources, and Intellectual Property Rights. They should be reviewed as essential additions to this toolbox.

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  • 1 Pelcastre-Villafuerte BE, et al. (2020) Health needs of indigenous Mayan older adults in Mexico and health services available. Health and Social Care 28 (5): 1688-1697.
  • 2 Lemke S, Bellows AC (2016) Sustainable Food Systems, Gender, and Participation: Foregrounding Women in the Context of the Right to Adequate Food and Nutrition. In: Bellows AC, et al. (Eds.). Gender, Nutrition, and the Human Right to Adequate Food. Routledge, New York, pp. 254-340.

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