Indigenous food systems are at the heart of resilience

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Indigenous food systems are at the heart of resilience

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
©IFAD/Francesco Cabras

Indigenous Peoples around the world are stewards of nature and holders of vast local knowledge and traditions, handed down from generation to generation, that guide them in living interdependently with the environment. Indigenous food systems represent a treasure trove of knowledge that contributes to well-being and health, benefiting communities, preserving a rich biodiversity, and providing nutritious food.

Traditional indigenous territories are home to 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity, and indigenous food systems often play a wider role in environmental conservation. Today, fewer and fewer varieties and breeds of plants and animals are being cultivated, raised, traded and maintained. Learning from indigenous food systems can offer us holistic, sustainable ways to interact with nature – which, we must remember, we are a part of, not apart from.

Here, we present four Indigenous speakers from Kenya, Mexico, Suriname and Nicaragua as they share how their communities’ traditional food systems have shaped their response to both the global pandemic and the climate crisis.

Victor Lopez-Carmen, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona and Mexico, campaigns for human rights at an international scale as a member of the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. He talks about the solutions and strengths of Indigenous knowledge, especially when it comes to food.

Indigenous Peoples have experienced colonization and marginalization that has transformed their livelihoods and affected their production and consumption patterns. Globalized markets threaten indigenous food systems, making them increasingly dependent on externally sourced foods, many of which are highly processed – leading to increased food insecurity and malnutrition.

With access to markets restricted due to COVID-19, many Indigenous communities have opted for diversification, relying on their elders’ knowledge of cultivation and consumption. In doing so, they have been able to provide their communities with healthy and nutritious food – and they’ve also become more resilient.

Jupta Itoewaki is a Surinamese Indigenous rights activist, development worker, politician and mother. In 2018 she founded the Mulokot Foundation to represent the Wayana peoples. She tells us how the pandemic has both affected communities’ access to food and provided opportunities to rediscover traditional approaches.

Jupta believes that, although the Wayana community has been significantly impacted by COVID-19, not all the effects have been negative. For example, her community recently found their access to fuel severely restricted due to lockdown measures. Rather than use some of their remaining fuel supply to refrigerate their food, they have returned to traditional preservation methods, such as smoking and salting meats. She also describes a special technique to remove the bitterness from the variety of cassava that grows locally, making it edible.

In Jupta’s community, they talk about food security, but also work towards food sovereignty. For the Wayana, food sovereignty means going into the forest to gather traditional foods, such as Brazil nuts, açai and honey, along with natural medicines. It also means upholding sustainable traditional farming practices instead of using harmful techniques like slash-and-burn. Far from adding to Jupta’s worries about the effects of the pandemic, these practices fill her with pride and joy.

Emily Rosa Lerosion is a Samburu indigenous leader from Laikipia North, Kenya. She’s the founder and director of The New Dawn Pacesetter, a grassroots women’s and youth organization championing for the rights of Indigenous Peoples through the strengthening of communities’ voices in decision-making. She talks about the strengths of Indigenous food systems as well as the threats they face.

Emily Rosa comes from a pastoralist community that has always relied on animal products such as meat and milk. But when access to the markets became restricted due to COVID-19, they realized they would need to diversify. To help their community become more resilient, they began relying on their elders’ knowledge of cultivation and food consumption. They have also started making artisanal products to sell locally and then scale-up after the pandemic. Ultimately, they hope to both strengthen the community’s intergenerational knowledge of food production and empower women.

Margarita Antonio is an Indigenous Miskitu woman from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. She highlights the importance of food sovereignty and the key role that women play in ensuring that communities have access to nutritious food. She notes that, although the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing problems faced by Indigenous Peoples, there have also been powerful responses at the community level – proving that strong and inclusive organizations are key to the future health of these communities.

For Margarita, community organizations are crucial for indigenous communities to thrive. She affirms that Indigenous Peoples’ organizations have the capacity to generate new strength and resilience. It’s also important to her that the responses to any challenges facing Indigenous communities are created by, and fully owned by, the communities themselves.

IFAD-supported projects focusing on Indigenous Peoples are ensuring the protection, promotion, re-introduction or re-vitalization of local traditional crop varieties, food systems, seeds systems, agrobiodiversity, and overall agroecological systems. Find out more at the Fifth Global Meeting of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, where the value of indigenous food systems in the context of resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic will be the central topic.