The importance of food sovereignty for indigenous peoples: A conversation with Dr. Elifuraha Laltaika

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The importance of food sovereignty for indigenous peoples: A conversation with Dr. Elifuraha Laltaika

©IFAD/Francesco Cabras

For decades, populations facing food insecurity have been advised to try the same strategies: scale up food production; try new varieties – or even new species entirely; integrate into global markets to find an ever-growing range of customers. But these methods don’t always align with what works best for indigenous peoples. Their food systems emphasize the use of native species, traditional farming and processing practices, and localized production and distribution. The methods used to help them achieve food security, therefore, should cohere with each community’s cultures, traditions and existing food systems.

Beyond food security, indigenous peoples insist on the centrality of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty values all the same things as food security, but it also probes a bit further, examining and questioning the methods used to achieve food security. Indigenous peoples tend to define food sovereignty as the right “to choose, to cultivate, and to preserve their food practices and biocultural values.” Or, as Dr Million Belay, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, describes it, food sovereignty means “owning your food” – that is, having the rights to produce your own food and control over the means by which you produce it.

We wanted to learn more about food sovereignty and what it means for indigenous peoples, so we sat down with Dr Elifuraha Laltaika, a professor of law at Tumaini University Makumira and an expert in indigenous peoples’ rights. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

IFAD

What does food sovereignty mean, specifically for indigenous peoples?

Dr. Laltaika

The term “food sovereignty” is really gaining global traction now. Very simply, it means putting communities in the driver’s seat, in terms of decision-making, in the realm of food production and food supply. And when it comes to indigenous peoples, it has an additional embedded meaning: the food, and the land upon which food is grown, has cultural and spiritual significance.

IFAD

We know that, globally, there are many threats to indigenous peoples’ food sovereignty. What do you consider to be some of the most important challenges facing food sovereignty worldwide?

Dr. Laltaika

There are many ways, as you are saying, but I want to highlight the aspect of prejudices. Indigenous foods are and always have been looked down upon, and that has been done intentionally, especially by those who want to sell a product. We need to empower indigenous peoples to feel proud of their food systems and show the rest of the world that different modes of food production work just as well.

IFAD

Autonomy is one of the core elements of the theme of this year’s UNPFII. Can you talk about the connections between food sovereignty and autonomy?

Dr. Laltaika

For indigenous peoples, autonomy is at the heart of all discussions. Autonomy, broadly defined, is the ability to decide and implement matters at your own pace – a resistance against external imposition. Therefore, food sovereignty – the ability to decide, for example, which seeds to use and therefore which seeds the next generation is going to inherit – safeguards the autonomy of indigenous peoples. We can say that food sovereignty and autonomy are like twins.

IFAD

Human rights is one of the UNPFII’s six mandated areas. Could you describe how food sovereignty relates to human rights?

Dr. Laltaika

Broadly speaking, food is an internationally recognized human right. But, as we’ve said, it has an additional spiritual and cultural dimension for indigenous peoples. I’ll give you a practical example: certain cultural and religious ceremonies are marked by the consumption of specific foods. And in my pastoralist community, certain types of animals are given for dowry. Therefore, within many cultures, you can’t really disentangle food production, food consumption, and even the growing of food.

IFAD

What about the connections between food sovereignty and the environment?

Dr. Laltaika

One of the major topics of discussion at the 2019 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was the effort to dispel claims that indigenous food production is destructive to the environment. This claim has been used to, among other things, justify evicting indigenous peoples from their lands. But the scientific literature proves that indigenous food systems are so much more intertwined with, and compatible with, environmental sustainability. Any resistance to modern techniques such as monocropping and mass production of foods speaks to the very nature and intent of indigenous peoples to keep their environment intact, because they depend on their environment for sustenance.

IFAD

What steps do intergovernmental organizations like IFAD need to take to ensure that indigenous peoples can maintain sovereignty over their land and systems of food production?

Dr. Laltaika

The United Nations as a whole has made quite some progress in terms of frameworks and standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples. What needs to be done now is to move from standard-setting to implementing those standards. And IFAD has been at the forefront of that – for example, with the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility, a fund that goes directly to indigenous communities to implement some of those standards provided by the legal frameworks.

I’m a big fan of empowering communities directly. Having worked as a team leader for Africa for the Facility, I’ve looked at a lot of funding proposals, and I was struck by the innovation that goes into writing those proposals. If they get funded, they have a real chance to create change.

Dr. Elifuraha Laltaika is a Senior Law Lecturer and the Director of Research and Consultancy at Tumaini University Makumira (Arusha, Tanzania). He holds a Doctorate in Law from the University of Arizona, two Master of Laws degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Kwazulu Natal, and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Dar-Es-Salaam. A Fulbright alumnus, he served as a Harvard Law School visiting researcher and has guest-lectured in several universities abroad.

Between 2017 and 2019, Dr Laltaika served as an expert member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Prior to that, he worked as a Senior Fellow at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, and honed his research skills in the area of international law and indigenous peoples’ rights at the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP) Program of the University of Arizona.