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Defining and conceptualizing food systems is an active topic of discussion with many approaches (HLPE, 2014). As an example, the scientific committee of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit is working on a definition for food systems that will bring diverse actors together around a common understanding to foster the transformation towards healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems (Von Braun et al., 2020).

In this publication, the editors and Scientific Editorial Committee were specifically focussed on highlighting the resilient and sustainable dimensions of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, so as to better inform the ongoing global debates. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems have been conceptualized in these ways:

“Traditional livelihood practices [which] include small-scale farming, pastoralism, shifting cultivation, fishing, hunting, gathering and other forms of wild harvesting, or a combination of such practices. Such traditional livelihoods provide for sustainable management of resources, biodiversity and ecosystems, and are based on traditional knowledge, reciprocal labour and traditional agricultural calendars” (modified from FAO TERM).

“Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are the result of harmonious relationships with Mother Earth. These are holistic relationships that integrate the identity, agricultural calendar and spirituality of a people, and have implications for both physical and spiritual well-being” (María Eugenia Choque Quispe, Member of the UNPFII, Plurinational State of Bolivia).

These holistic and relational views are implemented through Indigenous Peoples’ biocentric approach to their food systems. Instead of humankind or market production being the central focus, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems prioritize maintaining equilibrium within the ecosystem. As such, resources tend to be managed sustainably, with consideration given to all forms and inherent spirituality of life.

This is significantly different from other food systems, which place the food production at the centre through a more anthropocentric approach (FAO, 2017a; Kuhnlein, Eme and Fernández-de-Larrinoa, 2019).

For the purpose of this publication, the editors deliberately did not define Indigenous Peoples’ food systems but rather provided a set of elements commonly featured. The sum of these characteristics can be summarized as follows:

“Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are dynamic and changing and comprise a series of elaborated territorial management techniques that, rooted in unique cosmogonies and beliefs, have helped develop intricate bodies of traditional knowledge. This traditional knowledge depends on the oral transmission ensured through the use of Indigenous Peoples’ languages. These languages are key in ensuring intra- and inter-generational transmission of knowledge. They also inform ancestral institutions and customary governance systems that see ecosystems and the environment through a biocentric lens. The biocentrism in Indigenous Peoples’ food systems looks at all living beings in the ecosystem with spiritual importance and gives attention to the relations between the different elements that maintain the balance in the ecosystem. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems often include mobile livelihoods, which rely on collective rights to communal resources. Food generation is as important as food production, with activities that are productive, such as farming, aquaculture and rearing, and others that are not, such as fishing, hunting, harvesting and gathering. The broad food base of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems can consist of up to hundreds of species for food and non-food uses of wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated animals and plants. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems have been providing foods for indigenous communities for hundreds of years, yet they have also managed to preserve 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity (Sobrevilla, 2008). The social fabric and cohesion in Indigenous Peoples’ communities is intrinsically linked to communal practices and mechanisms that are based on the concepts of reciprocity, circularity and solidarity.”

Field research was conducted with eight diverse Indigenous Peoples’ communities to develop case studies, which helped to illustrate these commonly featured elements and characteristics of their food systems. The field research methodology followed a participatory approach that, at the community level, engaged and empowered Indigenous Peoples to share their experiences and points of view. This methodological approach was fundamental in pursuing the research goals that allowed for the blending of scientific and local knowledge (Lang et al., 2012). The details, methodology and approach followed during the fieldwork are described in the following section.

The communities and Indigenous Peoples’ food systems were selected for unique territorial management practices in different ecosystems and climatic zones. The research partners were selected for their capacity to carry out detailed documentation of the participatory field research with the Indigenous Peoples’ communities. The partners were mainly Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and community groups involved in other studies and research of these food systems.

Data collection

Field research activities were carried out in 2018 with the eight participating Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Prior to starting the research process, the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle was followed with each Indigenous Peoples’ community. To begin, the whole community was invited to an opening meeting where the background and objectives of the initiative were presented. After which, the research partners requested the community’s consent. With the consent of the community, the participatory research process began.

Each case study was developed through a series of seven discussions with community members on different themes (Table 0.12), complemented by semi-structured key informant interviews. Both types of dialogue were conducted by experienced facilitators familiar to the communities. The thematic discussions considered all the seasonal food sources used by community members, as well as the practices and issues community members faced in producing, wild sourcing, exchanging and obtaining food from the market. Whilst focussing on the details of the current-day food system, the discussions also explored how the food system has been changing over time. Details on the location, dates and number of participants by gender and age in the thematic discussions are presented in Table 0.13.

Whilst the general approach was consistent across all sites, the methods were tailored to local circumstances, priorities and values. Six of the thematic discussions (TD1-6) were held with gender-specific mixed-age groups. One discussion (TD7) was held with groups of youth (ages 13-15) and children (ages 7-12). Gender-segregated groups ensured representation of the knowledge of women and men. Including a range of ages, and especially elders, in the discussions was emphasized to document historical trends and provide opportunity for knowledge sharing across generations. The facilitators encouraged active and meaningful engagement. They worked to ensure that all participants were included, creating an atmosphere in which people felt free to express their opinions and experiences. Facilitators were careful not to dominate the discussions or add their own opinions.

Once the thematic discussions were complete, a closing meeting open to all community members was called to present the preliminary results and openly discuss reflections on the process and outcomes.

TABLE 0.12. Overview of thematic discussions (TD) held for the Indigenous Peoples’ food system profiling image


Based on the qualitative information collected in the thematic discussions, additional information from research partners’ longer-term data and broader literature, the case study authors analyzed the sustainability of the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems through five principles of sustainable food systems (FAO, 2014): (1) Provision of livelihoods, equity and social well-being; (2) Resource use efficiency; (3) Conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources; (4) Responsible and effective governance mechanisms; and (5) Resilience of people, communities and ecosystems.

The first principle of sustainability, “provision of livelihoods, equity and social well-being”, was explored with particular attention to food security, diet quality and opportunities for income generation. The food insecurity experiences scale (FIES; Saint Ville et al., 2019) and the minimum dietary diversity score for women (MDD-W; FAO and FHI 360, 2016) were applied to explore food security and diet quality, following a modified approach. The discussion groups reflected on how often people in the community consume different food groups (Box 1), and whether community members had experienced different conditions of food insecurity in the past year (Box 2). Challenges and local practices for ensuring food security and diet diversity were discussed with a focus on seasonal resources use and food storage practices. Reflections on the adequacy of income-earning opportunities were developed in consideration of occupations, sources of income, and agri-food value chains in which the community participates.

BOX 1. Food groups considered in the food system profiles

  • Starches (cereals and tubers)
  • Pulses
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Orange-/red-fleshed fruits and vegetables (Vitamin-A-rich) Orange-/red-fleshed fruits and vegetables (Vitamin-A-rich)
  • Other vegetables
  • Other fruits
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk and milk products
  • Insects and other small protein foods

Source: FAO and FHI 360, 2016.

BOX 2. Conditions of food insecurity evaluated in the food system profiles

  • Worrying that you would not have enough food to eat
  • Not having access to healthy and nutritious food
  • Eating only a few kinds of foods
  • Skipping meals
  • Eating less than you thought you should
  • Not having enough food in the household
  • Feeling hungry but not eating

Source: Saint Ville et al., 2019.

Aspects of the second principle of sustainability, “resource use efficiency”, were considered with a focus on soil, water, energy and waste. The analysis sought to identify practices that maximise food obtention per input, recycle resources in the system, and minimise waste. The use and dependence on external inputs for maintaining soil quality and meeting water and energy demands was considered. Energy inputs to agroecosystems consist of ecological energy (from the sun) and cultural energy, including biological sources (human labour, animal labour, manure, etc.) and industrial sources, such as fossil fuels, hydrological power, etc. (Gliessman, 2007). The evaluation focussed on cultural energy and the role of tools in supporting productivity and minimising drudgery in food production and sourcing.

The third principle of sustainability, “conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources”, was reviewed with attention to cultivated biodiversity, wild-sourced plants and animals, and natural areas in the landscape. The presence and area devoted to traditional varieties and breeds as compared to introduced ones was examined, along with motivations for maintaining these resources. Practices followed in sourcing wild foods to ensure their continued supply were highlighted, as well as activities to protect and restore natural areas in the landscape. Building on these themes, the assessment of the fourth principle of sustainability, “responsible and effective governance mechanisms”, went further in reviewing the traditional and novel institutions guiding natural resource access and use. The communities’ empowerment in decision-making regarding resources they depend upon was in focus, as well as equitability in opportunities for participation for women and men, and all persons within the community.

TABLE 0.13. Dates, location and participants of the thematic discussions held for each profile image

The initiative devoted special attention to assessing the fifth principle of sustainability, which is the “resilience of people, communities and ecosystems”. Within a food system, resilience is the capacity to ensure food provisioning by preventing, mitigating or coping with risks, adapting to change, and recovering from shocks (FAO, 2014). Resilience was evaluated with reference to a set of 13 behaviour-based indicators that link core aspects of social-ecological systems (Cabell and Oelofse, 2012 - Box 3). The presence of these indicators in an agroecosystem “suggest that it is resilient and endowed with the capacity for adaptation and transformation” (Cabell and Oelofse, 2012). The assessment included some aspects of the participatory assessment of Indicators of Resilience in Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes (Bergamini et al., 2014), in which community members score their own system on a scale of 0 to 5. Inputs were also taken from FAO’s Self-evaluation and Holistic Assessment of climate Resilience of Farmers and Pastoralists (SHARP), which assesses the 13 indicators defined by Cabell and Oelofse (2012) following a more quantitative approach (FAO, 2014). Here, a qualitative evaluation of the elements, practices and processes that confer resilience in the focal food systems explored multiple topics. These included experiences with climate shocks, levels of self-sufficiency in food production, accessibility of the community, knowledge generation and transmission, land use diversity, food group diversity, and redundancy in food provisioning through the presence of multiple species, varieties and sources for nutritionally distinct food groups (Box 3).

BOX 3. Indicators of resilience considered in the food system profiles

1. Exposed to disturbance: The system is exposed to discrete, low-level events that cause disruptions without pushing the system beyond a critical threshold.

2. Globally autonomous and locally interdependent: The system has relative autonomy from exogenous (global) control and influences and exhibits a high level of cooperation between individuals and institutions at the more local level.

3. Appropriately connected: Connectedness describes the quantity and quality of relationships between system elements.

4. Socially self-organised: The social components of the agroecosystem are able to form their own configuration based on their needs and desires.

5. Reflective and shared learning: Individuals and institutions learn from past experiences and present experimentation to anticipate change and create desirable futures.

6. Honours legacy: The current configuration and future trajectories of systems are influenced and informed by past conditions and experience.

7. Builds human capital: The system takes advantage of and builds “resources that can be mobilized through social relationships and membership in social networks”.

8. Coupled with local natural capital: The system functions as much as possible within the means of the bio-regionally available natural resource base and ecosystem services.

9. Ecologically self-regulated: Ecological components self-regulate via stabilizing feedback mechanisms that send information back to the controlling element.

10. Functional diversity: Functional diversity is the variety of ecosystem services that components provide to the system.

11. Optimally redundant: Critical components and relationships within the system are duplicated in case of failure.

12. Spatial and temporal heterogeneity: Patchiness across the landscape and changes through time.

13. Reasonably profitable: The segments of society involved in agriculture are able to make a livelihood from the work they do without relying too heavily on subsidies or secondary employment.

Source: Campbell and Oelafse, 2012; Choptiany et al., 2015

The analysis involved identifying all foods by their scientific names to enable assessments of the diversity in the food systems and increase accessibility of this information to a wider audience. During the thematic discussions, foods were typically listed in the local language. The researchers were familiar with the translation of most local names to scientific names or to the name in a more widely spoken language. Ethnobotanical literature was also consulted to support the translation of local names. In cases where the identification was unknown, community members were asked to gather specimens or to describe the features of the food to support its identification. The identifications were verified by the Editorial Committee and controlled for synonyms with reference to The Plant List (2013) for plants and Catalogue of Life (Roskov et al., 2019) for animals and fungi. Unless otherwise specified, the lists of foods presented throughout this book reflect the results of this process. As specimens were not examined in all cases, it is acknowledged that some degree of error is possible in the identifications. It was thought relevant to highlight indigenous and local names with a specific formatting, in bold, italic and minuscule, in an attempt to give the adequate recognition to indigenous and local terms in this publication.

Case study format

Each of the eight Indigenous Peoples’ food systems profiles in this book is the result of the analysis of the thematic discussions held with the communities in the field, complemented by additional knowledge from the literature and author observations. Each case study first presents the Indigenous Peoples’ community and describes the current status of their food system and major changes that have occurred over time (Section I). It then provides an analysis of the sustainability principles of the food system and how they have changed over time, considering interlinkage between elements and processes that contribute to these potential changes (Section II). Finally, major highlights of the food system are summarized and community reflections on the sustainability and climate resilience of their food systems are presented along with their future perspectives (Section III). Given the great scope of topics, the complexity of socio-ecological interactions in Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, and the limited time for developing the case studies, the results of these case studies can be seen as a start point to be followed up by more in-depth studies.