You are what you eat: Indigenous youths breathe new life into ancient traditions

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You are what you eat: Indigenous youths breathe new life into ancient traditions

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
©IFAD/Francesco Cabras

Indigenous peoples have an intensely rich heritage and unique cultures. But centuries of dispossession have made it difficult for many indigenous communities to preserve their way of life, including their food heritage.

From farming and ritual practices to ancestral customs and culinary techniques, food heritage encompasses every aspect of food preparation passed down through generations.

With their vast local knowledge and deep connection to nature, indigenous peoples are key to conserving local ingredients and producing sustainable food through systems that are unique to their ecosystem.

For example, in Brazil’s semi-arid northeast Seed Guardians are people tasked with using traditional knowledge to conserve and restore biodiversity and food security. They know the local plants well and collect hundreds of varieties of species that are resistant to the effects of climate change.

And with more than 476 million self-identified indigenous people in about 90 countries across the world, the potential to enhance the world’s knowledge and appreciation of local and sustainable food and food systems is vast.

That’s why, at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto each year, indigenous peoples join food producers, scientists, cooks and researchers to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, environmental politics and the future of food. Indigenous communities, says the Terra Madre team, are the future of food and supporting them means preserving the world's biodiversity.

Meet three inspiring youths who are working to make our food systems fair and more sustainable through indigenous traditions.

 

Lizet Bautista Patzi: a guardian of local plants in Bolivia

Lizet attending Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. © Lizet Bautista Patzi

A young Aymara woman from Bolivia, Lizet’s indigenous community populates much of the Andes and Altiplano regions. There, where the climate is often cold and arid, the Aymara find refuge in a variety of traditional hearty stews, made with onions, carrots, potatoes, white corn, beef and wheat kernels mixed with wheat grains and chuño – a freeze-dried potato product.

A student of gastronomy, Lizet’s passion for food comes from a direct line of farming ancestors, including her parents.

In 2020, Lizet was introduced to the Slow Food movement and obtained a grant to start a project focused onthe protection and valorisation of the Ajara, a plant that was threatened by the effects of intensive agriculture, fast food and the loss of indigenous food systems.

Thanks to her efforts, the Ajarawas added to the Arkof Taste catalogue of endangered heritage foods and is no longer at-risk.

 

 

Raúl Mondragón: reviving ancient traditions in Mexico

Raúl’s organization works to alleviate food insecurity through ancient traditions. © Raúl Mondragón

Raúl is adamant that ancient techniques are key to solving modern problems, including Mexico City’s overwhelming demand for food. With more than 20 million people, many residents lack access to nutritious food.

A member of the Slow Food youth network, Raúl set up Colectivo Ahuejote, which works to revive the Xochimilco’s chinampera agriculture in Mexico City. Thought to date back to at least 1,000 years ago chinampas are ancient agricultural systems that use wetlands and canals to provide a consistent source of irrigation that is organically rich from rotting vegetation and household wastes.

But Xochimilco could soon disappear due to environmental challenges, including urbanisation, water shortage and pollution. Raúl and his organization are working to prevent this by helping local farmers grow their crops and linking them to buyers in the city in order to grow the agroecological activity and regenerate the area.

 

Lucy Njeri Githieyah: generations of food lovers in Kenya

When she's not cooking, Chef Lucy works to restore the local
vegetation. © Lucy Njeri Githieyah

When Lucy finished school in Kenya, she joined her father in the family butcher business in Nakuru before opening her own catering business.

In 2016, the young chef from the Kikuyu community – Kenya’s largest ethnic group – was introduced to Slow Food Kenya, where she tapped into the knowledge of older generations, while harnessing the energy and creativity of youths.

Lucy led a team of young people to disseminate and sow more than 30,000 seed balls – a seed inside a ball of charcoal dust with nutritious binders that can be easily dispersed in mass quantities – to regenerate the Lake Elementaita area with vegetation cover.

Recognising the essential role of indigenous peoples in sustainable development, IFAD currently supports more than 80 projects and investments targeting indigenous communities across 45 countries. Working hand-in-hand with them — through initiatives like the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility and the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum— IFAD helps them build sustainable, regenerative food systems amid an increasingly wasteful world.