FAO in North America

Message from the Head of Indigenous Peoples Unit on North American Indigenous Peoples' Food Systems

Yon Fernandez-de-Larrinoa, Head, Indigenous Peoples Unit, FAO

It has been a great pleasure to have been involved and participate in the seven brainstorming and introductory meetings with indigenous peoples from across the United States and Canada that were organized by FAO North America over the past two months.

I would like to thank every single participant and organization that put their chores and community responsibilities aside for some hours, and found time to talk, discuss and share their knowledge with the FAO colleagues in North America and with the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit in Rome. Thank you all for the opportunity to learn so much about your work, your peoples, your communities, your families and the challenges faced. I also would like to thank the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), specifically North American representative Geoffrey Roth, for assisting with the facilitation of these brainstorming sessions.

The time could not have been more propitious for FAO North America to reach out to research centers, universities, indigenous peoples’ organizations and foundations working in the North American region on indigenous peoples’ food systems. With the announcement of the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, we are reminded of the critical importance to better understand the way we eat and the food systems we have created throughout human history.  

As documented in the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, there are still 690 million people who face hunger and 750 million people exposed to severe levels of food insecurity across the world.

To guarantee their right to food and to ensure they have stable access to nutritious foods of their preference, researchers, practitioners and scientists have come to understand that the world needs more sustainable food systems that are capable of generating food without compromising the environment; capable of feeding the people without perpetuating the causes of climate change.

The last two months of intense brainstorming with indigenous peoples’ organizations in North America, has reminded us that Indigenous Food Systems have been generating food for hundreds of years without depleting the environment. The fact that indigenous peoples today have preserved 80 percent of the remaining biodiversity in their territories that constitute 28 percent of the earth´s surface and 11 percent of the world’s forests, is the living proof of the sustainability of their territorial management techniques and indigenous food systems.

Despite this growing acknowledgment and realization, still non-indigenous scientists and researchers understand little about indigenous food systems, what makes them sustainable, their knowledge systems, and the cosmogonies that inform sophisticated territorial management practices that provide food while protecting the environment.

During our dialogues, indigenous scientists, experts and leaders in North America, shared with FAO the impressive work being done on indigenous food systems in the region. From the Arctic hunting-fishing systems, to the southern plains hunting-gathering-cultivation systems, the stories and initiatives shared, priorities expressed, and research presented confirmed once again the centrality of indigenous peoples´ knowledge to inform the challenges humankind is facing.

We also heard first-hand accounts about how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. The pain shared by Navajo leaders about how the pandemic is ending the lives of elderly and youth, remained with us all as we listened in silence trying to grasp what would the future prospects be without so many valuable knowledge holders. Sending condolences for the losses of so many indigenous women and men seemed far from matching the mourning of those indigenous peoples’ communities hit hard by the COVID-19.

Before and amidst the pandemic, from coast to coast - indigenous experts, students, chefs, researchers, scientists, academics, organizations, representative bodies and partnering government agencies are building tremendous momentum across North America to revitalize indigenous peoples’ food systems. This work is critically important, and from FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, we commend your widespread dedication. 

As we move towards the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, it will become increasingly evident how crucial it will be for indigenous leaders to collectively convey their messages.  It is fundamental that the indigenous peoples in North America organize their voices. As Dr. Agnes Kalamata’s, UN Special Envoy for Summit, stated, “I am unwavering in my commitment to ensure the voicesof Indigenous peoples are elevated and given an equal platform.”

From the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, we will continue our work in support of the more than 476 million indigenous inhabitants living in more than 90 countries. We will continue working to ensure their voices are heard at global, regional and national levels and their contributions considered to deliver on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. As FAO, we are aware of the importance of indigenous peoples´ traditional knowledge and the importance of respecting the world's indigenous peoples’ food systems, particularly before many of them disappear. Together, we can reflect and learn from indigenous peoples how to transform the ways much of the world produces, consumes and relates to food.

My colleagues and I, are also unwavering in our commitment to continuing to work alongside indigenous peoples, UN agencies, and governments to operationalize the 2007 UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples, Free Prior and Informed Consent, the UNSWAP on indigenous peoples and the 2010 FAO Policy on Indigenous Peoples.

Following the recent introductory meetings in North America, we look forward to opening new spaces of dialogue between decision makers and indigenous peoples related to FAO’s mandate. Let us continue working alongside one another, as we are doing with the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples in Rome, in order to make our food systems more sustainable for healthier lives presently and in future generations.

Yon Fernandez-de-Larrinoa, Head of the Indigenous Peoples Unit, FAO

Yon Fernandez-de-Larrinoa is the Head of the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit in Rome. As an Agricultural Economist from the UAM with a MABD on entitlements and food security, he started working in the Policy Assistance Division in FAO in 1998. In 2002 he worked in the Emergency Division, joining the Partnerships division in 2010, where he led the civil society team. Since 2014, he has been coordinating FAO´s work on indigenous peoples.