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Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems and Agroecology: Synergies and Convergences

By Isapi Rúa (Guaraní) 

Indigenous food systems are systems of production, distribution, and consumption of foods based on Traditional Knowledge and practices of Indigenous Peoples. These systems are characterized by their diversity, sustainability, and resilience, which makes them preferable to conventional industrial food systems.

In a webinar organized by the Agroecology Fund (AEF) in November 2023, representatives of Indigenous Peoples and non-governmental organizations and governments from Asia, Africa, and Central America shared reflections on food systems, strengthened by projects that are developing with the support of AEF investment. Their experiences reaffirm that Indigenous food systems share a series of common principles with agroecology among which stand out: intimate relationship with the environment and community management of natural resources. 

The first principle that is essential for these systems is the close relationship of Indigenous Peoples with nature and the natural resources from the territories they have ancestrally inhabited. These relationships center respect and reciprocity. Their agricultural and hunting-gathering practices are not extractive and do not deplete ecosystems. This relationship is anchored in a spiritual connection, with water, forests, animals, and plants. 

Spiritual Connections to the Land
Milka Chepkorir, of the Senwger Indigenous Peoples in the Kapolet Forest, describes how the spiritual connection of hunters with trees and natural resources transcends simple sustenance: "The respect we give is the same respect we give to a pregnant mother, because they give life, just like women."

In the Ogiek Peoples of the Mau Forest, in the Rift Valley of Kenya, honey is not only their essential food but is also part of their rituals and medicinal practices, explained Daniel Kobei, Director of the Ogiek Peoples Development Program (OPDP), a non-governmental organization that works to guarantee the human and territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples in Kenya and Africa. In the agricultural activities of the Maya Peoples of Guatemala, rituals are part of the agricultural cycle and are expressed in the relationship with elements of nature and the cosmos.

“Women have a spiritual connection with Mother Earth, we observe the phases of the moon, to see the changes in the climate to define the planting times,” said María Pedro, leader of Maya Q'anjob'al of the Association of Eulalense women and member of the Coordinator of Territorial Women Leaders of Mesoamerica.

Community management of natural resources is a distinctive feature of Indigenous food systems. This model rooted in ancestral wisdom and sustainable practices is supported by specific methods.

Pedro, member of the women's association, highlights techniques such as rotating planting areas to allow the land to rest, associated cultivation and the use of organic fertilizers instead of agrochemicals. These practices, promoted by the association, are fundamental for the preservation of these systems.

Both the Maya and the Karen Peoples in Burma have adopted rotational agricultural strategies in their forests to ensure food production. This practice does not imply converting their forests into exclusive cultivation areas; rather, it is based on cycles of natural rotation and restoration that span long periods.

Saw Paul Sein Twa, of the Karen Social and Environmental Action Network (KESAN), highlights the role of leaders in guiding the community to collectively care for lands and forests in a sustainable way. “Emphasis is placed on teaching how to take care of natural resources, facilitating their use through diverse agricultural systems, where the main premise is responsible care. The commitment to the protection of lands, forests, and waters encompasses present and future generations,” he shared.

In the specific case of the Koeveneg Peoples, as Chepkorir describes, the careful management of their territory involves dividing them into zones for different activities, such as extracting bee panels, collecting plants and herbs, and harvesting fruits. This approach respects the cyclical processes of food production dictated by nature, avoiding excessive exploitation of the same place or the entire area.

Furthermore, pastoral communities develop food systems that include careful grassland management. According to Chepkorir, they migrate from one place to another respecting the natural cycles of the soil and ensuring the restoration of essential resources such as water. This practice contributes to the sustainability of the production of foods such as milk and meat.

Challenges facing change and preservation
However, these systems face threats that impact Indigenous food systems. Climate change has generated a considerable impact on these systems worldwide. Extreme climate events, such as droughts, floods and heat waves, are affecting agricultural production, causing food shortages and biodiversity loss.  Saw Paul Sein Twa from the Karen Peoples in southeastern Burma said, "In the natural park where we have community rice crops, they have been negatively affected by natural disasters." The armed conflict and the military junta in Burma is also another factor that hinders the development of practices that guarantee the sovereignty and food security of their communities. 

Kovei added that unpredictable changes in weather patterns and events such as prolonged droughts adversely affect bees, crucial in honey production."Kovei also highlighted the violation of the right to land and territory, pointing out the influence of factors such as carbon offsets. He highlighted that "in Africa, Kenya generates the majority of compensations and intends to expand them, which affects land ownership and access of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral territories." He added that "carbon trading is endangering the survival of Indigenous Peoples in their territories due to government agreements with companies, without consulting the communities or granting them benefits as guardians of the forest."

These factors influence forced evictions of communities, such as the Ogiek Peoples in Kenya, for conservation projects. This, according to Kovei, leads to the loss of their territorial landscapes, fundamental to their traditional food systems.
Sara Moncada, from the Indigenous organization Cultural Conservancy, in relation to the Yaqui Peoples in Northern California, mentioned that the pressures on the Yaqui Indigenous territories make the development of their agricultural practices difficult. They continue working for the recognition and vindication of the rights over their ancestral territories.

Pedro also highlighted that in Guatemala, there is a corrupt system that enacts regulations that disadvantage Indigenous Peoples, for example, the Monsanto law that favors the privatization of native seeds and others related to the privatization of water.

Logumek Women Group received Indigenous vegetable seeds as part of OPDP’s agroecology project. Photo by: VICTORIA UWEMEDIMO/AEF.

Resilient responses and community strengthening
Despite the challenges that hinder the development of food systems, organizations continue to make progress in strengthening them through specific projects. The Agroecology Fund has contributed to community participatory research and documentation projects on the food systems of the Ogiek Peoples. These efforts are channeled through the Ogiek Peoples Development Program, which seeks to preserve and transmit this knowledge to new generations. In addition, pilot projects have been supported in communities to improve their economic situation and support their claims to the land.

Among the actions led by the OPDP is the exchange of community knowledge, as mentioned by Kovei, who highlighted how "Hunter-gatherer communities in Kenya have managed to revive their traditional food systems."
In Burma, Karen communities have restored an extensive network of fish conservation areas to protect rainforests. In addition, they are developing practices for seed preservation and exchange.

In Mesoamerica, the Coordinator of Territorial Women Leaders has been working hard to strengthen agroecological practices based on Indigenous ancestral knowledge. They have achieved local agroecological production ventures that benefit family economies, offering technical support and promoting the implementation of family gardens in their communities. Pedro highlights: “Family gardens not only help manage food but also guarantee a nutritious diet.”

In California, Cultural Conservancy is focused on access to land for its communities and restoring landscapes to grow traditional seeds. This approach not only supplies local communities but also urban centers. In addition, the knowledge of the elderly is being rescued to guide production towards conscious eating. Moncada, from the Cultural Conservancy, explains: “A small project can have a big impact. We have restored tribal ties that have little access to fresh food in North San Francisco. There are children who have never tried fresh fruits. We have introduced them to natural Indigenous foods and, for the first time, they have learned to plant and grow crops to take home.”

“Addressing climate change and other challenges that the world currently faces must also involve addressing food production in an agroecological manner based on the principles of Indigenous Peoples and the way in which the land is respected,” concluded Chepkorir.

--Isapi Rúa is a Guaraní communicator based in Camiri, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

The full conversation can be accessed here. 
Original Content Author Isapi Rua, Available in Spanish 
The Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems and Agroecology: Synergies and Convergences. Translated to English and edited for brevity by Agroecology Fund. 


Top photo: Daniel Kovei, planting trees. Photo by Ogiek Peoples Development Program.