Bioversity international


Executive summary

This is the third FAO publication on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. The first one, “Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems: The many dimensions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health”, emphasized in 2009 the broad food base of nutritious and medicinal edibles by Indigenous Peoples. The second one, “Indigenous Peoples’ food systems & well-being: interventions & policies for healthy communities”, released in 2013 focussed on the communities’ health and nutrition, with particular emphasis on children. Both books were co-published by FAO and McGill University-CINE.

The objective of this third publication, co-published by FAO and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, is to acknowledge the contributions that Indigenous Peoples make to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and to advocate for these contributions and their associated food systems to be taken into consideration in ongoing discussions about sustainable and efficient food systems that could support better nutrition and health.

To achieve this objective, the focus of the research methodology, the subsequent fieldwork and the analysis has been to identify elements that make Indigenous Peoples’ food systems sustainable and resilient, signalling drivers affecting these two characteristics positively or negatively.

This book presents evidence that demonstrates the potential of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems to inform ongoing global debates about sustainability, climate resilience, territorial management, food systems and intercultural education, amongst others. The implementation of the same methodology in eight Indigenous Peoples’ communities, following months of participatory field research and data analysis, allows comparison across different food systems.

The analysis confirms the need for more systemized research at all levels on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. There is still much to learn with respect to the different solutions that these food systems can provide.

At the same time, the findings highlight the heterogeneity and richness of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and their unique territorial management techniques, whilst bringing upfront their concerns, threats and unique practices, many at risk of disappearing. The eight cases analyzed have helped identify four salient characteristics across Indigenous Peoples’ food systems:

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.

Whilst the evidence gathered confirms that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems preserve biodiversity whilst providing foods, livelihoods, nutrition and by-products for the eight communities, it also indicates that these systems are subject to globalization, trade, markets, monetization, regulations and mass media like any other food system. These global trends are modifying Indigenous Peoples’ food systems by introducing new opportunities, new products, new technologies and new livelihoods that are modeling the priorities, preferences and tastes of the members in the communities. Without entering into subjective affirmations on whether some changes are good or bad, it is widely observed that changes within the food systems have accelerated significantly in recent years.

Moving beyond the assumption that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are sustainable and climate resilient under all circumstances, it is important to avoid preconceived ideas and pre-empted approaches. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are highly dynamic and adaptive and should therefore not be romanticized.

The appearance of new actors along with globalization has led to the emergence of multiple interconnected drivers that need more dedicated research to fully grasp their effects on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. However, it is important to recall that in keeping the focus with the scope of this research, the drivers affecting Indigenous Peoples’ food systems identified during the fieldwork have been analyzed in terms of their contribution or damage to the sustainability and resilience of the eight Indigenous Peoples’ food systems analyzed.

This publication invites the reader to learn from the unique and common elements that make Indigenous Peoples’ food systems resilient and sustainable, how they can inform global debates, why they deserve respect and dignity, and what could be the consequences of the disappearance of these ancestral food and knowledge systems.


Forest food system of Baka people in South-eastern Cameroon

The Baka living in the tropical rainforest of South-eastern Cameroon are one out of a dozen groups of Congo Basin hunter-gatherers often referred to as “Pygmies”. The food system of the Baka is entirely dependent on the forest. An estimated 81 percent of their food is obtained through hunting, gathering and fishing activities, practised during incursions and movements in the forest, combined with shifting cultivation. Exchanges with other communities and the market provide about 19 percent of their diet. In total, the Baka use around 179 species for food. Outstandingly, the Baka are renowned for their knowledge of about 500 species of wild or ruderal plants used for medicinal, material, and spiritual purposes.

The livelihood of the Baka primarily consists of an alternation between seasonal excursions into the forest and sedentary activities carried out in permanent villages along the road. In Gribe, where the study was carried out, the Baka are engaged in a transitional post-forager lifestyle affected by an increasingly constrained access to the forest. Long-distance stays in the forest in search for food items (bushmeat, freshwater resources, insects, wild tubers, honey, leaves, fruits, nuts and all sorts of spices) and non-food products (medicinal plants, various materials for building and carving) are becoming increasingly challenging and diminishing, whilst sedentary activities in the village are increasing. Shifting cultivation to produce starches and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), home gardening, and agroforest plantations to produce cash crops (cocoa, coffee), as well as off-farm activities (labouring in exchange for crops, and salaried jobs in logging and safari companies) are all important activities.

The relationships between the Baka and their farming neighbours are based on complementarity. Through the adoption of a lifestyle that mimics that of their neighbours and under constant incentives by governmental agencies to abandon their age-old forager way of life, the Baka are now exposed to an acute risk of losing their expertise of the forest and their rich animist culture based on a connivance with the supra-natural forces who are the masters of forest resources. At the same time, Baka interest in NTFPs for the market is developing a new relationship with neighbours that goes beyond the traditional exchanges and barter. Despite this, the Baka are increasingly ostracized since they rarely have a voice in negotiations with the various stakeholders (authorities, private companies, protected areas managers) who meet and discuss, which in the end results in progressively reducing the Baka’s access to their ancestral forests.

Major changes occurring in recent years

Increased constraints in accessing the forest (creation of a national park, presence of logging and safari companies);

Progressive abandonment of hunter-gatherer mobile lifestyle and shift into more sedentary lifestyle with only seasonal expeditions in the forest;

FIGURE 0.2. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Baka food system in Gribe, Cameroon image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed foods. **Estimates based on data available.

Adoption of agriculture;

Improved road infrastructures and development of local markets with merchants coming from outside;

Increased demand for NTFPs, becoming a source of cash income.

Trends expected by the Baka in future years

Balanced livelihood between seasonal incursions into the forest and shifting cultivation in permanent settlements along the road;

Reduced dependence on the forest products and greater reliance on food and agroforestry products;

Loss of traditional knowledge regarding the forest and rising concerns about health implications (degradation of diet quality and loss of traditional healing practices);

Marginalization and no voice in the negotiations with other forest users (farmers groups, conservation NGOs, logging companies, safari owners);

Youth manifesting contradictory aspirations.

TABLE 0.4. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Baka food system in Gribe, Cameroon image


Reindeer herding food system of the Inari Sámi people in Nellim, Finland

This food system is practised by the Inari Sámi, the smallest group of the Sámi people, who inhabit the northern part of the Fennoscandia peninsula. The Inari Sámi live in the extreme North of Finland and the community that took part in this study is located in Nellim village. What characterises these inhabitants of the Arctic region is their lifestyle as traditional mobile reindeer herders, governed by seasonal transhumance to grazing lands. The food system of the Inari Sámi traditionally relies on fishing, hunting and wild edibles gathering. The reindeer is a keystone species that is central to the culture of the Sámi. Fishing, hunting and wild berry picking for sale are other salient traits of the Inari Sámi food system. Depending on the season, these activities are more or less prominent throughout the year. There are 26 species in their food system used for food, and one species has been identified for medicinal uses. Additionally, 30 percent of the food consumed by Inari Sámi comes from the market.

As revealed by their transitioning food system, the Inari Sámi community has passed through drastic historical episodes and regulations that have profoundly modified their daily life. State law regarding the regulation of reindeer herding, changing sources of feed and forage for reindeer, decreasing demography in Inari Sámi villages, the encroachment of processed food items, and new extractive activities in the region that are impacting wildlife habitats are some of the drivers modifying their territorial management and livelihoods. This is resulting in the weakening of the food system and traditional lifestyle of the Inari Sámi. Furthermore, the Arctic is amongst the areas of the world most exposed to climate change, which has significantly affected seasons, natural cycles and the related herding activities.

Major changes occurring in recent years

increased sourcing of food from the market in their diet, especially processed meat;

visible effect of climate change on the diet (new wild mushrooms);

reduced and limited access to land and pastures;

FIGURE 0.3. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Inari Sámi food system in Nellim, Finland image
Species count does not include stimulants. ** Estimates based on data available. No practice of barter exchange has been reported.
TABLE 0.5. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Inari Sámi food system in Nellim, Finland image

youth migration to cities;

damaging policies of acculturation and assimilation.

Trends expected by the Inari Sámi in future years

expected increase of forest exploitation leading to drop in reindeer herding and rarefaction of wild edibles (berries, mushrooms, etc.);

increasing soil degradation and lake eutrophication;

reducing populations of wild game and fish;

youth losing interest in reindeer herding;

persistence of traditional activities, but less prevalent;

increased dependency on the market for their diet.


Jhum, fishing and gathering food system of Khasi people in Meghalaya, India

The Khasi are a group of Indigenous Peoples that predominate in the eastern part of the hilly State of Meghalaya in northeastern India. Meghalaya is known to be the wettest region of India, and it is also recognised as a singular subtropical forest ecoregion that hosts a remarkable biodiversity. The village of Nongtraw, where the research took place, is inhabited solely by Khasi people. The food system of this matrilineal and Christian society relies on shifting cultivation in jhum fields, home gardening, livestock rearing (poultry and pigs), beekeeping and, to a lesser extent, on fishing, trapping and the gathering of wild edibles from the forest. In spite of its remoteness, the village of Nongtraw for a long time has taken part in the weekly market in the adjoining villages. These markets allow for important social interactions and are places where local produce, goods and services are bartered and traded. The Khasi have been traditionally open to contacts and marriage with other groups. This interdependent and open socio-economic approach is one of the reasons why the Nongtraw inhabitants obtain an important share of their diet from the market. In total, the food system of the Khasi people is based on 150 species and varieties of plants and animals used for food. In addition, there are at least 17 prominent species used for construction and materials, and medicinal purposes.

Daily wage labour and artisanal activities (especially basketry) are the main sources of cash income along with broom grass cultivation as a cash crop. Since the 1970s, the accession of Meghalaya to statehood and the related improvements in governmental facilities (electricity, pipes and storage tanks for water supply) and services (public transport, market, waste management) have improved the livelihoods of the Khasi, easing access to the cash economy and reducing uncertainty in the food supply, without damaging the traditional diet of the Khasi. Increased conservation initiatives have come up with regulations and responsible awareness to mitigate the pressure on agricultural lands and natural resources. The resilience of the Khasi food system has gotten stronger over time and this positive observation seems to stem from the strength of the self-governance and customary institutions in the community.

Major changes occurring in recent years

India’s overall public distribution system has changed the local subsistence system;

rice has supplanted local staples (millet and pulses);

reduced presence of wild foods in the diet;

increased cash income economy;

FIGURE 0.4. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Khasi food system in Nongtraw, India image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food. **Estimates based on data available. Barter exchange is not practiced anymore in the food system.
TABLE 0.6. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the Khasi food system in Nongtraw, India image

loss of food sharing and barter practices;

emergence of cash crop production (broom grass).

Trends expected by the Khasi in future years

no expected changes by the Khasi, who trust the resilience of their food system supported by the solid self-governance of their community.


Fishing and agroforestry food systems of the MelanesiansSI people in Solomon Islands

The term Melanesian federates a diversity of tribes that are now organised according to their followed Christian movements. The MelanesiansSI inhabiting the Baniata village live in remote conditions in Rendova Island located in the Solomon Islands archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Their food system relies primarily on the cultivation of tuber crops and banana in fields and home gardens. Inland agroforests of fruit trees and ngali nut trees as well as coconut plantations along the shoreline for the production of copra are prominent components of the food system generating cash income. In addition, the food system relies on bushmeat and fish. Hunting and fishing are fundamental activities embedded with cultural and traditional importance, despite becoming progressively less prominent within the food system. One fourth of the food resources are sourced from markets and local stores, where handicrafts and garden products are sold and highly processed and imported foods purchased. The Melanesian food system in Baniata consists of 132 species used as food, out of which 51 are aquatic species. In addition, multiple other species are used for non-food purposes, such as for clothing, construction and materials, medicine, or fuel.

Excessive logging and reliance on the market have been the major drivers of change for the food system in Baniata over the second half of the past century, resulting in natural resource degradation and a greater dependency and consumption of imported and highly processed foods. The reduction of the period for land fallowing and the intensification of agriculture have reached their limits. Increased pests and diseases along with climate change have impaired the health of the food system, resulting in further accentuating the dependency of imported highly processed foods. All of these factors are severely impairing the MelanesiansSI agri-food system in Baniata village.

Major changes occurring in recent years

colonization has impacted cultural and religious beliefs and encouraged introduction of new foods and crops;

monetization of the local economy and abandonment of traditional barter and exchange practices;

increased import of highly processed foods and health deterioration with increase of non-communicable diseases;

reduced yields for crops and increased crop damage by pests;

loss of traditional knowledge, in particular regarding hunting;

declining stock of marine fish.

Trends expected by the MelanesiansSI in future years:

concerns about their increased demography in a context of limited land resources and damaged natural resources;

imported rice anticipated to replace traditional tuber staple foods;

climate change is feared to negatively impact agricultural yields;

dependence on the market is expected to increase.

FIGURE 0.5. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the MelanesiansSI food system, Baniata, Solomon Islands image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food.
TABLE 0.7. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the MelanesiansSI food system, Baniata, Solomon Islands image


Pastoralist and nomadic food system of the Kel Tamasheq people in Aratène, Mali

The Kel Tamasheq are traditionally nomadic and Muslim pastoralists, part of an extensive ethnic confederation known as Tuareg people who inhabit vast arid areas of the Sahara and surrounding Sahel. The research for the analysis of the Kel Tamasheq food system was carried out in the village of Aratène, located in the region of Goundam Circle in the northern part of Mali. Besides the activities of rearing livestock, the Kel Tamasheq in Aratène also gather wild edibles from the surrounding dry vegetation and at least four species are used for fodder, medicine or construction. To a lesser extent, they also practise small-scale cultivation and vegetable gardening for food uses. The Kel Tamasheq source 35 percent of their food needs from the market.

The Sahelo-Saharian climate imposes strong ecological constraints and guides the seasonal activities in the food system, which alternates between moving with the livestock during the dry season, and dedicating the rainy season to sales, stocking of cereals and gardening for the market. Mobile pastoralism is the fundamental activity of the Kel Tamasheq. It shapes their culture and their way of perceiving and interacting with the natural surrounding environment. Livestock is diversified and aggregates sheep, goats, bovids, donkeys, camels and poultry. Their overall economy depends on the management and sale of livestock. Whilst men manage and sell the animals, women take care of the transformation and selling of livestock-derived products such as dairy products, meat and leather. Recent political disorders, like the rebellion in the 1990s, affected the daily life of the Kel Tamasheq, causing massive migration abroad, crumbling the economy, and creating insecurity and cattle rustling. The recurrence of droughts, mass flooding and sandstorms has increased, indicating more climate variability and uncertainty and affecting the availability of water as the most critical resource. This is translating into recurrent and severe losses of livestock. Therefore, hydro-climatic whims are the main threat to the resilience of the Kel Tamasheq food system. The increased rarefaction of emblematic flora and fauna are clear indicators of a dramatic climatic trend in the Sahelo-Saharian ecosystems, affecting arable and pasture lands alike.

Major changes occurring in recent years

drying up of water bodies, ponds, lakes and aquifers, causing severe water scarcity;

significant depletion of wild plants and wild game from successive climate shocks and decimation by armed groups;

land grabbing and land tenure insecurity;

increased reliance on markets for food and cash income.

Trends expected by the Kel Tamasheq in future years

increased uncertainty caused by climate change, droughts and political instability;

intensified exploitation of land for agriculture: concern about soil degradation and competing use of water sources and reserves;

increased reliance on “new foods” and gradual abandonment of certain traditional foods;

youth aspirations not to pursue the pastoralist lifestyle and induced loss of traditional knowledge.

FIGURE 0.6. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Kel Tamasheq, Aratène, Mali image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food. **Estimates based on data available.
TABLE 0.8. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Kel Tamasheq, Aratène, Mali image


Agro-pastoralist and gathering food system of the Bhotia and Anwal people in Uttarakhand, India

The Bhotia and Anwal are two native Hindu tribes co-inhabiting the Namik Valley of Uttarakhand, a state in northern India crossed by the Himalayas. The Bhotia are greater in number and are distributed over the Trans-Himalayan belt, whilst the Anwal are solely found in the hilly forested and remote area of Uttarakhand. Traditionally, the Anwal are mobile migrating shepherds, whilst the Bhotia were primarily involved in the Indo-Tibet trading route. Currently, the two groups collaborate through an integrated agro-pastoral food system in which the Anwal continue being migrating shepherds amongst Bhotia cultivators. Traditionally, the Bhotia and Anwal have always practised hunting and gathering of wild game and edibles. However, conservation policies have prohibited hunting activities and progressively restricted their access to forests, thus reducing their access to wild edibles species. In total, the food system relies on 29 species used for food. An additional 20 species are dedicated to non-food uses for fodder, construction and materials, and medicine. Today, the market covers an estimated 30 percent of the food needs.

Pulses, in association with maize and potato, are the major staples cultivated by the Bhotia, who also keep bees, poultry, cattle and buffalo. The Anwal take care of sheep and goat herds. Whereas fishing and hunting have always remained marginal activities, the inhabitants of Namik still devote great importance to the gathering of wild plants used as foods, medicines and raw materials for craft. Women are the main actors in the food system, as they carry most of the farming and gathering activities. The natural ecosystems provide fodder and grazing lands for livestock whose dejections serve as manure for the traditional cropping system. In this diverse system based on complementarity, barter is a relevant mode of exchange for the resilient circulation of goods. Yet the market remains necessary for enabling access to food items not generated within the system, especially rice, wheat, salt, sugar and cooking oils. Activities are paced along five distinct seasons, including the monsoon, which heavily affects the activities during the annual cycle. Road construction, protection of wildlife and access to markets have been the major drivers of change. The abandonment of foraging in the wild has accompanied a greater demand for marketed goods and a slow dismissal of lesser-used crops, reducing the diversity of the local dietary regime. As high-altitude ecosystems are more exposed to climate change, remote villages are increasingly sensitive to more occurring natural calamities, which now bring about stress and uncertainty.

Major changes occurring in recent years

reduced access to wild edibles imposed by national conservation laws;

diminished reliance on traditional medicine;

land degradation induced by climate change;

road construction increased connectivity that has been associated with migration to urban areas, introduction of new crops, and easier access to markets.

Trends expected by the Bhotia and Anwal in future years

increasing aspirations by youth to leave the villages;

concern about maintaining the transmission of traditional knowledge;

awareness of pros and cons of adopting new practices from modern agriculture: opportunities to test new crops along with concerns about increased utilization of chemical inputs;

progressive disinterest for livestock rearing;

increased consumption of highly processed food, meat and eggs in the diet.

FIGURE 0.7. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Bhotia and Anwal, Namik, India image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food.
TABLE 0.9. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Bhotia and Anwal, Namik, India image


Fishing, chagra and forest food system of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples in Puerto Nariño, Colombia

The Tikuna, the Cocama and the Yagua are three Indigenous Peoples fishers-groups living in the Colombian part of the Amazon Basin who are also present in other countries in the region. The three groups are not equally represented: the Tikuna are by far more numerous than the Cocama and the Yagua. The research took place in Puerto Nariño, the second largest municipality of the department of Amazonas situated at the confluence of the Loretoyacu and Amazon rivers. A major political feature in the Amazonian Colombia is the organization of the villagers into administrative indigenous communities, which retain a legal collective property right over their land. In this tropical rainforest ecosystem, seasons are delineated according to the flooding cycles, which are determined by the fluvial water level, flux and quality. The territorial management system that informs this food system is extremely elaborate and adapts to the flooding patterns and uniqueness of the environment. Fishing is a prominent activity in this food system and is practised in close articulation with the use — through cultivation, hunting and foraging activities — of forest lands that are not exposed to flooding (terra firma) and floodplain forests that are seasonally inundated (varzéa). To complement fish catches, these fishers seasonally hunt a great diversity of mammals, birds and reptiles. The chagra is their fundamental cropping and shifting cultivation system, which combines a great diversity of crops with maize and cassava as staples, but also other cereals, tubers, vegetables, spices, fruits and cash crops. The knowledge system related to the chagra is maintained and transmitted by the women. The food system of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples counts at least 153 species used for food, of which 68 are species of fish. Plantations of several multipurpose palm tree species (28 identified) provide a wide range of products used as foods and drinks, medicines, construction materials, and handicraft. Markets are essential for selling produce and buying goods, ensuring a good balance between the preservation of traditional dietary habits and the adoption of new exotic food products, many of them highly processed and imported foods. Today, the market caters to an estimated 25 percent of food needs. The present standardization of formal schooling exclusively in Spanish seems to be inducing a regression of the indigenous maternal languages and creating a perception of threat through acculturation.

Major changes occurring in recent years

increased presence and consumption of highly processed and imported foods fueled by the development of urban areas;

adoption of new, modern and less sustainable hunting and fishing techniques;

failed successive agricultural governmental development programmes based on new crops;

education and schooling have generated damaging policies of acculturation and assimilation;

children and youth now prefer processed foods, with the school feeding programme having played a role in this change of dietary habits.

Trends expected by the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua in future years

reviving the production and consumption of traditional foods;

involving children in food production activities, especially fishing;

being proactive in rehabilitating government programmes;

making school meals more adequate and including Indigenous Peoples’ foods and traditional diets.

FIGURE 0.8. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples, Puerto Nariño, Colombia image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food. **Estimates based on data available.
TABLE 0.10. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples, Puerto Nariño, Colombia image


Milpa food system of the Maya Ch’orti’ people in Chiquimula, Guatemala

The food system profile of the Maya Ch’orti’ involved the communities in six villages in the department of Chiquimula, in the dry corridor in Guatemala, in the eastern part of the country. The Ch’orti’ are part of the ancestral Maya civilization whose cosmogony remains vivid amid their adoption of Christianity. Their diet is primarily ensured by a mix of agricultural production, an agroforestry system, home gardens, and the milpa, a cropping system emblematic of Mesoamerica that combines the production of maize, beans and squash. Livestock rearing, stingless beekeeping, aquaculture (a combination of fish, gastropod and aquatic edible plant production), and the gathering of a broad range of wild edible plants efficiently complement the food system. Bushmeat and insects, which were non-negligible resources in the past, are eaten only occasionally today. As a result of limited land access and productivity issues, food production does not fulfill all the basic food needs and the market provides the missing goods, an estimated 45 percent of the food needs. In total, the food system of the Ch’orti’ is based on 143 species used for food of plants, mostly cultivated, and animal species. Fourteen species were additionally mentioned as having prominent uses for construction, fodder, dye, poison or medicinal remedies.

FIGURE 0.9. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Maya Ch’orti’, Chiquimula, Guatemala image
Species count does not include stimulants. *Includes plant and animal species, condiments, seasonings, and processed food. **Estimates based on data available.
TABLE 0.11. Estimates for food sources (%) and number of species/varieties/items for food use used in the food system of the Maya Ch’orti’, Chiquimula, Guatemala image

Their weather is characterised by contrasting wet and dry seasons with a small dry season in the middle of the rainy season, which constitutes a factor of climatic uncertainty and recurrent stress. The country’s chaotic political history throughout the 20th century and its associated episodes of violence, often targeting Indigenous Peoples, have heavily reduced access to land, degraded the natural resources, and impaired the self-sufficiency of the Maya Ch’orti’ food system. The rise of industrial production and export markets has decreased income opportunities based on local produce and value chains. The replacement of handicrafts by manufactured goods, and the abandonment of natural dyes by industrial chemical dyes, have deprived the community of their usual sources of incomes, reducing their purchasing power.

Major changes occurring in recent years

cheap and low-quality highly processed and imported foods have flooded markets;

agrochemicals introduced into the ancestral milpa cropping system;

decrease of animal-sourced foods (bushmeat, molluscs and crustaceans, insects), resulting in a less diversified diet.

Trends expected by the Maya Ch’orti’

optimism that the community will foster traditional food production and slow down the reliance on imported goods;

reinforcement of trade and barter within communities through local markets and to reset a virtuous local and self-sufficient economy.


From the analysis of the eight Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, a series of observations can be cross-referenced to inform researchers, practitioners and policymakers. Some of these observations can be summarized into the following clusters, which are further expanded in the key messages section and in the policy recommendations section, which follows an analysis of the drivers affecting the eight food systems.

Rights to land, territories, natural resources and mobile livelihoods

The way Indigenous Peoples consider natural resources, human needs and wildlife is unique. As much as possible in their territories, Indigenous Peoples mirror the processes they observe in nature.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems result from sophisticated territorial management practices that often incorporate an assortment of livelihood activities, such as gathering, hunting, fishing and farming. The recognition and respect of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, in particular rights to access land and natural resources, is critical to ensure sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous Peoples.

Mobility and mobile livelihoods comprise different territorial management practices such as shifting cultivation, mobile fishing, hunting, gathering, transhumance and nomadism. There is not sufficient understanding about the relevance of these territorial management practices in terms of biodiversity conservation. Most mobile and semimobile livelihoods depend in most cases on collective rights to communal natural resources, referred to as commons. There is also a need to better understand how collective rights to communal resources contributes to biodiversity and food generation in order to rethink public policies around mobility.

Biodiversity, multifunctionality of the system, energy and self-sufficiency

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems both depend on and contribute to the biodiversity present in healthy ecosystems within Indigenous Peoples’ territories.

Rather than tame the environment to their needs, notably through external inputs, Indigenous Peoples adjust their food generation and production to seasonal cycles and other natural patterns observed in the ecosystems.

Their food systems obtain a broad base of edibles that combine wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated plants, fish and animals that all together represent a vast biodiversity that is maintained and managed by Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems generate many nutrient-rich food items eaten in diversified diets. The food count of many Indigenous Peoples’ food systems can exceed 250 species used for food and non-food purposes (medicines, construction materials, handicrafts, clothing, dyes, fuel, traps, etc.).

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems present different levels of food self-sufficiency for the communities, with the market complementing remaining food needs and diets. The relevance of the market in terms of providing food is increasing, whilst levels of self-sufficiency in some of the communities are reducing. The level of food self-sufficiency in the food systems oscillated from about 55 percent to about 80 percent.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems reveal a low use of energy sources external from the system as they rely on the sun, wind, water and firewood for most of their energy needs, especially for processing, heating and cooking.

Continuity of traditional practices, adaptation and innovation

Indigenous Peoples maintain their native biodiversity and often enhance their domestic richness through an insatiable curiosity to test and acclimatize new resources.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are dynamic. Far from being frozen in an immutable and idealized past, they are in constant movement and have adapted over time to the environment through observation, recombining new ideas, and borrowing practices that they adapt to the local specificities.

The communities have all integrated the market to some degree in their food systems. The market supplied from about 20 percent to about 45 percent of community food needs in some cases and market dependency seems to be increasing for most communities. Despite the rise of highly processed and imported foods, traditional foods remain the preferred ones in the communities.

Different innovations and new techniques have increased efficiency in food production, sourcing and processing for some of the participating communities.

The delicate balance between change and dynamism, and traditional knowledge through observation of the environment makes Indigenous Peoples’ food systems unique and different.

Despite the arrival of highly processed and imported foods and the change of food taste by indigenous youth, traditional foods generated within their food systems seemed to be the preferred foods.

Governance, Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and development programmes

Indigenous Peoples have developed safety nets and solidarity mechanisms based on social organization and customary governance systems.

Traditional indigenous governance institutions and more novel community-based institutions support the continuity of the Indigenous Peoples’ food system and its natural resource base by delineating use of areas in the territory, enabling knowledge transmission, and strengthening the voice of the community in negotiations, amongst other means.

Communities capable of maintaining their traditional indigenous governance systems and institutions are better placed to maintain their social cohesion, allowing for the participation of community members in decision-making.

Development programmes, interventions and social protection measures seem to work when FPIC has been followed and the indigenous communities are involved. On the contrary, lack of FPIC results in unadapted proposals and low impact, with Indigenous Peoples tending to abandon the programmes.

Youth, education systems, interculturality, indigenous languages and traditional knowledge

The sustainability of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems lies in their foundation in ancestral heritage, frequently exercised through the transmission of traditional knowledge and their cosmogony and belief systems.

Indigenous women not only play a key role in Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, they are guardians of ancestral, dynamic and specific traditional knowledge that they transmit to young generations.

Indigenous Peoples are custodians of traditional and ancestral knowledge transmitted from generation to generation, in most cases through orality that is associated with celebrations, rituals and communal work.

Indigenous languages are essential to maintain the traditional knowledge systems and thus the food systems.

The current schooling and education is opening indigenous youth to new opportunities and preferences whilst altering oral transmission of knowledge and, in some cases, leading to aculturization and loss of their mother indigenous language.

School has been mentioned as having a direct effect on the food systems and diet of indigenous youth.

Globalization, income, barter, trade, processed foods and waste

Circular mechanisms based on solidarity and reciprocity such as barter, exchanges, collective work and sharing continue in some of the food systems despite having been abandoned in other food systems in favour of cash arrangements.

Indigenous communities sell items at the market to generate income and meet their demand of items not produced by their food systems such as allopathic medicines, education, transportation and communication.

Waste in the form of inorganic garbage was unknown in most indigenous communities until recently. The arrival of processed foods and consumer goods has created the problem of waste.