EXCLUSIVE: Reinventing Indigenous peoples’ food systems

By FrontierManipur | Published On 06th Jul, 2021, 11:50 GMT+0530

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It indeed is time that the world community pays more attention and respect to the processes that intrinsically link Indigenous peoples to their roots.

By Salam Rajesh

Of the many things the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown open for global debates are the reinventing of the Indigenous peoples’ food systems that traditionally have sustained lives and livelihoods for millions of Indigenous peoples and local communities across the globe, especially in the underdeveloped countries. The restrictions imposed in the wake of the spread of the lethal virus worldwide have literally forced the marginalized sections of people to go back to nature for their food and sustenance.

A recent publication of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Alliance of Biodiversity International and CIAT (2021) titled ‘Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience in the front line of climate change’ specifically points out that, “Indigenous peoples’ food systems are today at a juncture in time where, unless properly analyzed and supported by the right policy interventions, risk disappearance or full assimilation by the dominant cultures mainstreamed in the globalization process. Markets, along with climate change effects and pressures from external actors encroaching indigenous territories and ancestral lands are probably the factors that are transforming Indigenous peoples’ food systems at the fastest rate”.

Anne Nuorgam, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) reminds the world community that, “Although Indigenous peoples and their ecological based food systems have adapted and survived for centuries, pressures from extractive industries, intensive agricultural schemes, lack of access to natural resources, increasing environmental degradation, and drastic changes in climatic conditions are posing major threats to our livelihoods”.

The report gives due recognition to the singular importance of the ‘territories of life’ where Indigenous peoples have rights to ownership to their traditional lands and of which they are the key custodians. While acknowledging that Indigenous peoples’ lands are more robustly protected and governed under customary laws and practices, the report does not mince words when it says, ‘When the food systems are well functioning, biodiversity is maintained, social cohesion and wellbeing are achieved through customary governance practices, and equity is ensured through reciprocity and solidarity circular mechanisms’.

Instances of conflicts of interest where Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) have issues with the States over infringement of rights over lands traditionally managed and governed by IPLCs, and where Governments make moves to make laws that over-rides the ‘territories of life’ of the IPLCs, have more or less embroiled IPLCs in conflicts where their lives and livelihoods are at risk. The eviction of IPLCs from their own traditional lands has been in the news too often, indicating Governments’ interests over the welfare of the IPLCs. To top it all, there often is no process for resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced families.

The FAO report accepts this factor while spelling out that ‘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’.

The report shows concern on the future of Indigenous peoples’ food systems taking into account the various factors influencing the rapid decline in traditional ways and lifestyles. The influence of westernized lifestyles and the inroad of imported food items have more or less influenced preference of changes in lifestyles and food habits in most countries, thus impacting marginalized communities particularly in the underdeveloped countries who largely depend on scourging for food from natural resources.

The report spells it out that, “Markets, along with climate change effects and pressures from external actors encroaching indigenous territories and ancestral lands, are probably the factors that are transforming Indigenous peoples’ food systems at the fastest rate. The future will largely depend on indigenous youths’ ability to reconcile traditionally sustainable and self-consumption food systems with the growing preference towards market-oriented food systems whilst maintaining elements of ancestral knowledge and sustainability”.

This concern is focused on the younger generation who are the future custodians of their traditions, and unless they are motivated to revive their traditional values, societies will erode to a level where dependence on external support becomes manifold. The revival of traditional food systems is intrinsically linked to the revival of the traditional forest lands whose resources provide food and water security for the local people. At the same time, respecting the rights of the IPLCs becomes fundamental and absolutely necessary to maintain equilibrium in nature.

The United Nations has launched its campaign on ecosystem restoration, marking the present decade (the years 2021 to 2030) essentially important for the restoration of ecosystems that can sustain the lives of millions of local communities who depend directly on forest and wetland ecosystems for their foods and sustenance, while equally giving importance to the restoration of the marine ecosystems upon whose resources millions depend for their livelihoods and sustenance.

The FAO report re-emphasizes that, ‘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 stem 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’.

It then becomes relevant that Governments provide recognition to the status quo on rights to traditional lands that Indigenous peoples have enjoyed for centuries. Most conflicts are based on land rights where Governments in hand with corporate and big-time companies infringe on nature reserves that IPLCs have considered their territories of life and traditionally have enjoyed the rights to access and resource use, generations after generations.

The dilution of green laws that give teeth in protecting forest and wetland ecosystems have unleashed a system where mining companies easily come into rack up the forest lands in search of minerals, destroying the forests and degrading the landscape to such a state wherein the process of desertification become an almost natural process. It is an observed fact that most times the IPLCs lose out in their resistance to the more powerful external pressures, often supported by the States.

The FAO report winds up with the conclusive thought process that, ‘Considered as some of the most sustainable on the planet, Indigenous peoples’ food systems are about the future of food. They can play a significant role in informing the transformation of food systems, making them more sustainable and respectful of nature’. It indeed is time that the world community pays more attention and respect to the processes that intrinsically link Indigenous peoples to their roots.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at salamrajesh@rediffmail.com)

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