Do indigenous peoples hold the key to tackling global hunger?

Competition for land, water and energy are increasing, exacerbated by climate change and a growing population. But why does the Food and Agriculture Organisation now believe indigenous people could provide a solution? Peter Giovannini investigates

Eugenio was using some pieces of wood and a net to build a makeshift dam in a shallow area of the Maniqui River in the Bolivian Amazon region. A university professor, four research students and I were standing at the edge of the river, up to our ankles in brownish water. With our hands we formed a small barrier of sand and mud at the side of the river to close off the artificial pond that Eugenio had started on the other side, now within the river.

When the water in the artificial pond was almost still, Eugenio walked over to the canoe and took a bundle of sticks fastened together with strips of bark. He placed the bundle inside the shallow pond, took a stick in both hands and started pounding the bundle with it. While the rhythmic noise of the stick hitting the bundle kept time, a foamy substance flowed out from the bundle and mixed into the water.

Eugenio is a member of the Tsimané, one of the many indigenous groups inhabiting the Amazon basin, and he was showing us a technique for catching fish using a plant poison. This is not the only way the Tsimané hunt fish. They also use hook and line, nets and bows and arrows, but using a plant as fish poison was certainly the most unexpected and intriguing to me.

Indigenous stakeholders

Indigenous people such as the Tsimané are now at the centre of the new policy on indigenous and tribal peoples published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) at the end of 2010. The new FAO policy considers 'indigenous peoples as fundamental stakeholders and partners in development' and puts together principles to guide FAO interactions with indigenous communities. 'The fight against hunger cannot be won without them,' says Jacques-Diouf, the director-general of the FAO, in the foreword of the new policy document.

The new policy comes at a moment when the world faces new challenges for the environment and food security. The Foresight report on global food and farming futures, a UK government-commissioned study about food security published at the end of January 2011, stresses that competition for land, water and energy will increase in future decades along with the effects of climate change and increased population pressure.

The report suggests that the major challenges in the next decades will be achieving a sustainable balance between food demand and supply, maintaining biodiversity, ecosystem services, and mitigating climate change while feeding the world. The report concludes that investing in new solutions and new technology is a high priority in addressing these challenges, but there is scarcely any mention of traditional knowledge and indigenous people.

So why is the FAO now paying more attention to indigenous peoples? How can they contribute to the FAO’s mission of achieving food security worldwide? 

First, indigenous people include 15 per cent of the global poor (according to the UN definition of poverty) and are among the most food-insecure in the world because of the many challenges they face regarding land rights, acculturation – the loss of traditional culture and its replacement by a dominant culture - and changes in diet.

In February 2011 six Wichí children, indigenous people living in northern Argentina, died of malnutrition. The appropriation of their lands, and their conversion to cattle ranches by outsiders, had a severe impact on their traditional food system and has left the Wichí particularly food-insecure. Oxford-trained anthropologist and ethnobotanist Dr Ian Fitzpatrick, who carried out an ethnobotanical study among the Wichí, reported that a considerable portion of the practice of collecting and consuming wild food, a practice that many indigenous people employ to increase resilience to food shocks, has been abandoned and potential food is left to rot in the soil.

During my own research among Mazatec indigenous peoples in Southern Mexico, I found both malnutrition and over-nutrition co-existing in the same communities. This pattern was probably caused by changes in diet and the collapse of the price of coffee, the major cash crop in the area, on the international market. 'Coffee has no more value', I was told by several farmers who no longer considered it worth their while to harvest the coffee beans from the trees. 

Secondly, the FAO suggests that indigenous people can be important allies in the fight for food security and sustainable development. The idea that indigenous peoples and local communities can contribute to development, not only as recipients but also as equal partners, has grown in the last decades in different, but related, fields of development.

Biodiversity conservation

In the last two decades researchers have noted that areas of high biological diversity often overlap with areas of high cultural diversity. Ten out of the twelve countries with the highest biodiversity on earth are also among the 25 most linguistically diverse countries and more than 1000 different indigenous groups inhabit tropical forest ecosystems where most of the biodiversity is concentrated. In other words, the areas that are richer in environmental resources are also the areas where indigenous people live. According to many, this is because they act as stewards of biological diversity.

The concept of biocultural diversity, which maintains that biological and cultural diversity are linked, has spread among environmental and cultural institutions, including international organisations such as UNEP, UNESCO and IUCN. As a consequence the conservation community has started to look at local communities and indigenous peoples as partners in, rather than as obstacles to, the implementation of conservation projects.

Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of Terralingua, a non-profit organisation that pioneered the concept of biocultural diversity, said that there is now plenty of evidence that indigenous cultures can and do support biodiversity conservation and work together with environmental organisations.

Environmental stewards

In Ethiopia, for example, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society supported and helped to revitalise the culture of the Gamo indigenous people because it recognised that the spiritual meanings that these people attach to their land, such as the veneration of sacred forests, are essential for the conservation of its biodiversity. 

Indigenous peoples are also the stewards of a great deal of agricultural biodiversity, which includes the diversity of crop species and livestock selected through generations, a fundamental resource for breeding new crops in the future.

In 2001 the FAO negotiated the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources with the aim of promoting the conservation, exchange, and sustainable use of plant genetic resources. This treaty recognised the role that indigenous peoples play in conserving and developing crop diversity and their rights over traditional knowledge.

For example, in the Andes indigenous people grow hundreds of different varieties of potatoes adapted to different altitudes and micro-climates. In Peru’s Sacred Valley, close to Cusco, six Quechua communities created a Potato Park, a protected area of more than 12,000 hectares to conserve hundreds of potato varieties within their own habitat. The International Potato Center (CIP), the most important international agricultural research centre dedicated to the potato, supported this initiative through an agreement with these communities and repatriated some 400 potato varieties previously held in its collections.

Traditional products

Timothy Johns, Professor of human nutrition at the Centre for Indigenous People’s Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, says he considers the ideas of the new FAO policy to be at the forefront of current thinking. He also says that urban populations in developing countries would benefit from more traditional products going to market as these are usually very healthy.

For example, during the biodiversity week held in Rome in May 2010, Dr. Barbara Burlingame, an FAO nutrition expert, showed how a local variety of bananas in the Micronesian Island of Pohnpei contains 25 times as much beta-carotene as the banana variety typically found in local shops and supermarkets. Burlingame explained how the vitamin A-rich local variety could make a significant difference in fighting blindness related to vitamin A deficiency. According to the World Health Organization, 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 become blind every year as a result of this deficiency.

Essential cooperation

It is not only plant genetic diversity that is maintained by indigenous peoples but also agro-ecological knowledge, used for example to grow crops in dry or mountainous areas that are less suited to mechanised large-scale agriculture, and practices that increase resilience after shocks such as drought, flood, or pests. Cooperation between local people and scientists is going to be essential in encouraging the quick adaptation to new climatic conditions that will be necessary in the next few years.

'Many of the ways that indigenous communities are adapted to their very unique environment have a lot of important lessons and can be useful in other situations. Particularly when you look at Sub-Saharan Africa and semi-arid areas, there are all kinds of things that people do that could be applied elsewhere,' says Professor Johns.

But in spite of all these good reasons to engage in a dialogue with indigenous peoples, as FAO policy suggests, there are many challenges facing such collaboration. For example, local communities and small-scale farmers are increasingly integrated into market systems within which they are at a severe disadvantage.

And the new FAO policy scarcely addresses food sovereignty, the right of people to have control over their food system rather than be dependent on international market forces. Via Campesina, an international movement of peasant farmers that coined the term food sovereignty, argues that major trade organisations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are undermining food security and food sovereignty as a result of their neoliberal policies.  

'To bring indigenous foods and products successfully to the local market, these systems need to be invested in, they require some form of subsidies, changes in regulation and food marketing', says Professor Johns.

One of the major conclusions of the Foresight report on global food and farming futures is that policy on food systems must now coordinate its efforts with other sectors, and in particular with the environmental sector. The FAO’s interest in indigenous peoples stems from an increasing awareness of the role that they can play in conserving the environment and the contribution that they can make to agriculture in the form of knowledge and genetic resources.

Ultimately, by engaging in dialogue with indigenous and local communities around the world the development and scientific community increase the number of available solutions and approaches, which are necessary tools in tackling the many challenges of achieving food security.

Peter Giovannini is a researcher, lecturer and consultant, and teaches Ethnobotany at the at the University of Kent

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