Learning from Indigenous Peoples to Build Climate-Resilient Food Systems

TWN Info Service on Sustainable Agriculture
15 July 2022
Third World Network

Dear Friends and Colleagues

Learning from Indigenous Peoples to Build Climate-Resilient Food Systems

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems (IPFS) are probably amongst the best placed to provide insights, lessons and empirical evidence that could facilitate the transition towards more sustainable food systems.

This publication by the FAO provides an overview of the common and unique sustainability elements of IPFS, in terms of natural resource management, access to the market, diet diversity, indigenous peoples’ governance systems, and links to traditional knowledge and indigenous languages.

The analysis identified four salient characteristics across IPFS:

  • Indigenous Peoples preserve and enrich their ecosystems through their food systems
  • Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are resilient and adaptive
  • Indigenous Peoples’ food systems can broaden the existing food base with nutritious foods
  • Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are interdependent with language, traditional knowledge, governance and cultural heritage

The analysis confirms the need for more systemized research at all levels on IPFS. There is still much to learn with respect to the different solutions that these food systems can provide. The publication also provides policy recommendations.

We reproduce below the Key Messages from the report.


With best wishes,
Third World Network


Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change

 Food and Agriculture Organization


1.  Provision of livelihoods, equity and social well-being: Indigenous Peoples’ food systems have been providing food, livelihoods and well-being to Indigenous Peoples for centuries. Their sophisticated territorial and natural resource management practices stems from their close relationships and profound understanding of the environment and its biodiversity. This relationship is based on reciprocity, respect, the observation of the natural cycles and the interactions between the different elements in the ecosystem. The governance systems, cultures, languages, beliefs and cosmogonies in Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are embedded in this connection with nature. When the food systems are well functioning, biodiversity is maintained, social cohesion and well-being are achieved through customary governance practices, and equity is ensured through reciprocity and solidarity circular mechanisms.

1.1. The world cannot feed itself sustainably without listening to Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are multifunctional and holistic, generating food, medicines, shelter and energy, and supporting culture, social and spiritual manifestations. This multi-functionality is rooted in understanding and engagement in the food systems in their totality, giving special attention to the relationships between the different elements in the ecosystem. The very existence of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems today and their capacity to preserve 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity in the planet (Sobrevilla, 2008) constitutes two of the most important contributions made to the world ́s sustainability.

1.2. Indigenous Peoples’ elaborate territorial management includes mobile and semi-mobile practices. Gathering, hunting, fishing and farming are integral to Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. Such activities are dependent upon their collective rights and access to communal resources including lakes, lands, forests and seas. However, lack of access to their ancestral territories and natural resources and governmental restrictions directly threatens the continuity of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. For Indigenous Peoples’ food systems with mobile or semi-mobile practices, revitalizing and protecting this mobility is fundamental. There is a direct linkage between these mobile practices, the health of communal resources, the sustainability and the biodiversity of their food systems that needs more understanding, dedicated research and better policies.

1.3. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are changing at an unprecedented rate. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are changing profoundly and are rapidly influenced by internal and external drivers (market and monetization; climate change; biodiversity loss; pressures from external actors; decay of traditional knowledge transmission; youth migration; mechanization; prospects and tastes changes; new technologies and inputs in agriculture and fisheries). These drivers are transforming some of the ancestral practices and rapidly altering the food systems, with some Indigenous Peoples’ resorting to unsustainable practices in their food systems whilst others are being abandoned. A major threat comes from external actors encroaching upon Indigenous Peoples’ territories and reducing their lands’ size.

1.4. Market is the fastest modifier of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. In the eight food systems, market dependency for food needs oscillates from around 20 percent to 45 percent. Markets are one of the largest factors transforming Indigenous Peoples’ food systems at an incredible speed. Fuelled by improved communications, markets are bringing new opportunities in terms of cash generation, new services and goods, and new tastes and foods.

1.5. Monetization has changed Indigenous Peoples’ circular solidarity and reciprocity
The increasing monetization is leading many indigenous communities to move away from barter, food sharing and communal works as traditional forms of solidarity and reciprocity. Engaging with the cash economy enables communities to access additional sources of food, inputs for food generation and health services. However, this tendency has also been seen to weaken sustainability and resilience of traditional practices of resource sharing and weaken ancestral forms of social cohesion.

1.6. Highly processed and imported foods have arrived, yet Indigenous Peoples prefer
their foods. 
Although many Indigenous Peoples are consuming more highly processed and
imported commercial foods, traditional foods are still preferred in the communities. Indigenous Peoples’ preference for traditional crops and breeds ensures the maintenance of the genetic diversity and biodiversity of traditional seed varieties, as well as wild and semi-domesticated edible species.

1.7. Food composition is also fundamental to improve Indigenous Peoples’ food and nutrition security. Food composition, particularly on micronutrients, enables research and policies to be put in place to protect key foods that are being abandoned due to changes in preferences, sometimes jeopardizing the food and nutrition security of the communities. Dedicated food composition efforts would lead to political support and sharing of knowledge and good practices before the disappearance of certain food items.

2.  Resource use efficiency: Indigenous Peoples’ food systems rely primarily on renewable energy and resources within their territories. From the environment, Indigenous Peoples acquire the materials and foods to cater for shelter, tools, fibres, medicines and meals. With sunlight, water, fire, wind and other renewable energies, they process, build and consume the acquired natural materials and food items. Until more recently, waste was an unknown concept in their systems. Intact Indigenous Peoples’ food systems have practices to use and regenerate resources efficiently, whilst effectively reintegrating waste materials. External factors are compromising the efficient processes of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, including the arrival of materials that generate inorganic waste, increased dependence on fossil fuels, and use of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Further, the compounding impacts of climate change are affecting Indigenous Peoples’ resource availability and efficiencies.

2.1. Climate change and natural disasters are negatively impacting Indigenous Peoples and their food systems. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are increasingly vulnerable to the amplifying realities of climate change. Historically, their food systems were resilient by aligning with the cycles of natural resources. As these cycles are disrupted by climate change, so too are their food systems and food security. Furthermore, seasonal eating habits were a strength of their food systems and nutritionally diverse diets. Now such habits pose potential risks as the variability in weather patterns affects the seasonal cycles and availability of food sources.

2.2. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems maximise innate energy, but external inputs are also increasingly required. In the field research undertaken, it was observed that Indigenous Peoples cover the majority of their energy demands for processing, heating and cooking with sunlight, wind, water and firewood – renewable energy sources available within their territories. However, dependency on fossil fuels increases exponentially for mobility (transport by boat, car) and cooking (gas stoves). Their systems have the potential to incorporate more renewable energy sources. There are good examples of solar panels for boreholes, home appliances and small hydroelectric schemes.

2.3. Shifting cultivation is a sustainable practice and lifestyle. Shifting cultivation within Indigenous Peoples’ territories is crucial to ensure the preservation of the environment and biodiversity whilst also generating diverse food sources. The practice effectively blends resource management and production techniques to generate renewed growth of semi-domesticated and domesticated species, creating a broad, diverse base for food security and dietary diversity from wild foods in local fields, forests, pastures and waterways. Shifting practices are essential in territorial management of many Indigenous Peoples’ food system. However, in the last 40-50 years, obstacles and rules against shifting practices have increased exponentially. Such obstacles have negatively affected Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and territories reliant on these techniques, diminishing their food security and surrounding biodiversity.

3.  Conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources: Indigenous Peoples have been conserving, protecting and enhancing natural resources for thousands of years. Currently, 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is located in Indigenous Peoples’ territories (Sobrevilla, 2008), an undeniable testament of their ability to generate food whilst preserving and enhancing biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples’ diverse management practices span across terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the globe. Despite the clear evidence and wide scientific recognition, many governments and external non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not following the science, gaining consent or respecting Indigenous Peoples’ capacities to enhance biodiversity whilst practising their livelihoods. Many Indigenous Peoples subjected to environmental protection laws and natural protected areas have experienced restrictions to their livelihoods. When Indigenous Peoples are consulted and their consent is gained by governments and NGOs, the outcomes of conservation agendas and legislature are enhanced.

3.1. Indigenous Peoples’ approaches to conservation are key. Indigenous Peoples’ approach to ecosystem conservation recognises the interdependent health of the food system, the local ecosystem and humans. Indigenous Peoples conserve biodiversity through ancestral practices emanating from traditional knowledge passed on orally from generation to generation.

3.2. Indigenous Peoples depend on intact biodiversity for food security and nutritional
 Indigenous Peoples maintain biodiversity of native species and often enhance the richness of domesticated species. Food systems are often comprised of wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated plants and animals. Their relationships with diverse local species contributes to maintaining the biodiversity of their surrounding ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity in Indigenous Peoples’ territories can be attributed to multiple factors. These include pressures from external actors, and replacement of sustainable practices with unsustainable and extractive ones, such as overfishing, overhunting, reduction of fallow periods, and increased numbers of animal heads in the herds. These human-induced factors are compounded by the effects of climate change, including reduction of water points, desertification, loss of wildlife, the disappearance of wild plants, melting of ice, changes in rainfall and seasons, climate variability, and changing migration patterns.

3.3. Impacts of globalization are affecting Indigenous Peoples’ territorial management. The economic drivers of globalization promote unsustainable practices and demands that exhaust environmental resources. This crowds out management practices that are regenerative for ecosystems. Often, the extraction rate exceeds the regeneration rate. Pressures from external actors, including national parks, extractive industries, expansion of commercial agriculture and livestock operations are factors causing the size of Indigenous Peoples’ territories to be reduced.

4.  Responsible and effective governance mechanisms: Indigenous Peoples’ governance mechanisms are integral to their home territories and livelihoods. The respect for elders and their leadership, generational transmission of traditional knowledge and their collective rights are pillars of their complex governance systems. Furthermore, the core values of solidarity, reciprocity and communal works serve to inform their societal organization and leadership. Conflicts are commonly resolved within the community as per widely understood and followed unwritten codes of conduct. Orality remains the main form of transmission of traditional knowledge. When Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is followed in new administrative institutions, the support and involvement of Indigenous Peoples results in more community engagement and better accountability in management. Increasing intercultural education and programmes for indigenous youth is critical for the future of Indigenous Peoples and the health of their communities.

4.1 Nation states must recognise Indigenous Peoples and their rights and ensure access to basic public services. Although Indigenous Peoples’ societies have existed for thousands of years, several Indigenous Peoples across the world have not been recognised within national legislation and normative frameworks. This is despite the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). in 2007. This lack of recognition is a direct threat to Indigenous Peoples’ rights, in particular their rights to land, natural resources and self-determination.

4.2. Indigenous governance practices should be recognised and strengthened at all levels. Indigenous Peoples have developed safety nets and solidarity mechanisms based on social organization and customary governance systems. These systems are mobilized especially during times of food scarcity, in which food sharing within and between neighbouring communities is common practice. Communities that have maintained their traditional governance institutions manage to strengthen social cohesion through collective decision-making processes.

4.3. Natural resource management decisions need to involve Indigenous Peoples. Several of the governance and customary mechanisms developed by Indigenous Peoples are in place to ensure proper, sustainable management of natural resources. This helps them guarantee the regeneration of ecosystems and their food security. Therefore, it is crucial to integrate Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives into conservation strategies and follow the principle of FPIC. Such practice will help guarantee conservation measures ensure Indigenous Peoples maintain their guardianship, culture, sacred sites and livelihoods.

4.4. Development programmes do not work without FPIC. Some of these programmes have improved access to electricity, petrol, schools, health dispensaries and roads. Others have brought new varieties of seeds and new animal breeds. Field research findings indicate these positive impacts are more significant when the community was part of the initiative or consulted before the intervention. However, some programmes, initiatives and social protection schemes are introduced in the communities without consultation, resulting in a low level of success. In some cases, these initiatives have created new challenges for the communities and other environmental issues related to the introduction of new plant varieties
and animal breeds.

4.5. Indigenous languages must be sustained. About 4 000 of approximately 6 700 languages currently spoken in the world are indigenous languages (UNDPI, 2018). When an indigenous language starts to deteriorate, so does the traditional knowledge of the community, resulting in community members forgetting the names of plants, herbs and practices. This can lead to Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and associated territorial management practices vanishing. A point of concern is that Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge remains largely undocumented globally, with many cultures relying mainly on oral transmission in their indigenous language. Another matter of concern is indigenous youth who do not know the language or are uninterested in learning the traditional teachings. Such circumstances threaten the continuation of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge systems, languages, cultures and cosmogonies. Indigenous language revitalization efforts and intergenerational learning are key to sustaining indigenous languages.

4.6. Intercultural education is fundamental for indigenous youth. Intercultural education is critical in academic curricula and in feeding programmes to preserve Indigenous Peoples’ languages, food systems, nutritional health, cultural identities and traditional knowledge. In the majority of cases, schooling has had a detrimental impact on Indigenous Peoples’ customary systems and transmission of traditional knowledge, further transforming prospects, roles, tastes, traditional knowledge and belief systems. Education and school feeding programmes can play key roles in regenerating indigenous language and cultural identities for indigenous youth, addressing the loss of their language and changes in food habits, such as moving away from their traditional foods towards highly processed and unhealthy foods. As a response, intercultural educational plans and mobilizing traditional knowledge within school programmes is crucial to ensuring that food systems, livelihoods and indigenous languages are preserved and carried forward into future generations.

5.  Resilience of people, communities and ecosystems: Indigenous Peoples and their food systems have prevailed for thousands of years, adapting to changes in the environment and developing new practices and techniques. Their beliefs, cosmogonies, value systems and principles constitute core elements of their cultural resiliency. Common values such as reciprocity, solidarity, co-responsibility and community are seen throughout Indigenous Peoples globally. These core elements and common values are expressed in the dynamism of their Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, resulting in resilient systems and strong communities. Today, the expansive loss of biodiversity, along with the compounding effects of climate change, is taking a heavy toll on Indigenous Peoples and their food systems. New, growing interest and dependence on external markets is changing the principles, core values and dynamics within Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Collective rights and communal work is being abandoned in favour of more individualistic livelihoods.

5.1. Indigenous Peoples are custodians of intergenerational traditional knowledge. Indigenous Peoples hold unique and rich traditional knowledge on local resources that support the communities’ resilience and adaptive capacity. In particular, indigenous women not only play a key role in Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, they are also guardians of ancestral, dynamic and specific traditional knowledge that they, along with the elders, transmit to younger generations. In the field research, this intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge stood out as a fundamental element of Indigenous Peoples’ resilience.

5.2. Indigenous Peoples have adapted their food systems over time. Indigenous Peoples with their food systems and traditions have survived for centuries through climate variations, periods of colonization and displacement. Far from frozen in an idealized past, Indigenous Peoples are constantly adapting, incorporating observations, open to recombination, and receptive to new ideas and practices to borrow and adjust to their local specificities. Rather than exhaust the environment for their needs, Indigenous Peoples adapt their food generation and production to the seasonality and natural cycles observed in their surrounding ecosystems. This delicate balance between change and dynamism, and traditional knowledge through observation of the environment makes Indigenous Peoples and their food systems unique and diverse.

5.3. Indigenous Peoples’ cultures depend on the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge. The future of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems will be affected by the decisions that indigenous youth are making today. Namely, their ability to reconcile traditionally sustainable and self-consumption food systems with the growing preference towards market-oriented food systems. The future of Indigenous Peoples’ cultures and traditional knowledge will be determined by how indigenous youth choose to maintain elements of their ancestral knowledge and livelihoods. The transmission of traditional knowledge from older to younger generations is changing rapidly, parallel to the new interests and prospects of indigenous youth. In addition, to the rural-urban migration, the attractiveness of new technologies, professions and more education opportunities often hinders the transmission of traditional knowledge. Amidst the change, elders and youth are aware their languages, cultures and food systems will vanish without their generational stewardship of traditional knowledge.

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