Indigenous Peoples are the custodians of 80 percent of the remaining world’s biodiversity (Sobrevilla, 2008). This conservation of biodiversity occurs in territories they manage through ancestral practices emanating from traditional knowledge transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Indigenous Peoples have a specific approach to biodiversity conservation where the health of the food system, local ecosystem and humans are all intertwined. The management of the natural resources follows a biocentric approach rooted in their cosmogony, beliefs and in the understanding that all living being are important and deserve consideration. Humans are not at the centre of the system, but rather are responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the balance between the different elements in the ecosystem. Indigenous storytelling and collective practices reinforce these beliefs and apply them in the territory.
The richness of biodiversity is the heart of healthy Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. This biodiversity generates a broad food base, which in some cases exceeds 250 edibles for food and medicinal purposes, consisting of different species, varieties and breeds consisting of wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated species of plants, animals and fish. For instance, the Khasi, thanks to their shifting cultivation or jhum, generate 60 species, with their food systems providing a total of 150 food species. The system of the MelanesiansSI obtained over 238 foods from about 132 food-providing species, out of which 51 are aquatic species. The forest food system of the Baka consists of over 179 food species coming from animals and edible species and varieties of plants, many of which are wild tubers extracted whilst hunting and gathering. The Baka are renowned for their knowledge of more than 500 plants for medicinal uses. The food system of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua generates 153 food species used for food, of which 116 are from the wild and 68 are species of fish. Through their ancestral milpa system, the Maya Ch’orti’ cultivate 101 species that are edible, out of the 143 that the food system generates. The Sámi diet is rich in seasonal wild berries. The majority of the profiled food systems depend on the biodiversity present in healthy ecosystems in the indigenous territories to provide such a broad food base.
Besides the wild edibles, these food systems also show an important intra-specific diversity, resulting from the management of the community members. For instance, the Baka food system presents 28 varieties of plantain and 18 varieties of cassava, which appeared over the years. The food system of the Khasi counts 13 varieties of potato, 7 varieties of cocoyam, and 7 varieties of sweet potato.
The extended acceptance by scientists and policymakers of the vast knowledge that Indigenous Peoples have over wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated species contrasts sharply with the lack of dedicated policies in place to protect this knowledge.
The eight analyzed Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are multifunctional, generating food, medicines, shelter and energy, and supporting culture, social and spiritual manifestations. By-products of food crops and animals are used for packaging and conservation of foods. Leaves, lianas, vines, roots, barks, animal hives, skins and animal parts are used for utensils, tools, housing, dressing and packaging.
Multifunctionality is to be understood with a cyclical approach, where leftovers of by-products are reintegrated into the system mirroring the processes observed in nature. Multifunctionality is observed at two levels: a single species can support various uses, and one or more ecosystems can provide a diversity of services, foods and products. For example, the food system of the Bhotia and Anwal is based on various interlinked ecosystems that generate a plethora of ecosystems services, and where the forest plays an essential role in the spirituality of the community. The forest provides firewood, timber for construction and tool making, medicinal plants, and leaves used in farming. Since all of these materials are biodegradable, organic garbage and waste was not considered a problem. Instead it is seen as a resource that is recycled into biomass for fertilization or as bio-pesticide. The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua also consider organic waste an important resource used as organic fertilizer. Another example of the multifunctionality of these systems by the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua is the myriad uses of palm trees for food, crafts, medicines, construction, fibre, rituals and kitchen utensils. This multifunctionality is rooted in understanding the food system in its totality, giving special attention to the relationships between the different elements.
The traditional governance systems in each community integrate advanced ecological protection and management measures within their traditions and customs that are kept alive through storytelling and tales informed by their beliefs. These governance systems have been in place for generations, much before the conceptual framing of ecology and environmental protection. Six out of the eight profiled food systems rely heavily on deep ancestral spiritual beliefs and a cosmogony that sees all elements in nature as alive and worthy of respect and protection. The maintenance of biodiversity and natural resources could be seen as an unconscious result of communities’ activities and norms influenced by their cosmovision entailing that water, land, forests and wildlife are worshipped and protected as sacred elements with their own spirituality. The Khasi and MelanesiansSI have sacred areas in their territories where it is taboo to enter, entailing a traditional and incidental form of ecosystem protection. The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua believe that the mother of the lake, represented by a large snake or anaconda, protects the Tarapoto lakes and surrounding flooded forests, providing a dimension of sacredness and respect for the natural environment. Before being colonized, animism and shamanism were openly practised as the primarily belief of the Inari Sámi, respecting the divinity of all-natural objects. The Baka recognised the role of a forest spirit called jengi in defining resource availability, whilst their food taboos and implicit rules maintain home ranges for different residential groups that have likely contributed to prevent overharvesting. When dreaming, the Baka receive the knowledge about their forests and resources thanks to visits from the forest spirits. The Bothia and Anwal worship Bhumiya Dev, the God of jungle, which makes them protect forest areas for five years to restore them in his name.
The connection between Indigenous Peoples’ cosmogony and biodiversity protection through traditional knowledge and customary governance practices is a fundamental element of the sustainability of these food systems. The lack of dedicated research and policies that, through interculturality, support the continuation of these governance practices is a matter of concern.
Despite the reported weather variability associated with climate change, the integration of seasonality in their food practices is an important characteristic of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. This seasonality contributes to their resilience and self-sufficiency, ensuring numerous foods that guarantee dietary diversity. These systems generate foods consisting of animals, fish, plants and fruits – wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated – obtained through gathering, hunting, fishing and farming. The blend of territorial management and production techniques results in food systems capable of generating a broad base of foods from local fields, forests, pastures and waterways.
The eight communities show a high level of self-sufficiency, with food provisioning ranging from 55 to about 80 percent, whilst the market supplements foods to varying degrees. The food system of the Baka has important counts of foods from hunting, gathering, fishing and farming, with some foods sourced from the market primarily for interest and novelty. On the contrary, the Maya Ch’orti’ depend on the market, which has provided a lifeline for food security that has bolstered the local production of maize and beans. The Kel Tamasheq depend on the market to complement their diet, otherwise consisting of dairy, meat and meat products. Out of the eight food systems, the Kel Tamasheq, the Inari Sámi and the Bhotia and Anwal are the ones with the lowest food count, with 25, 26 and 29, respectively. The remaining six systems oscillate between 130 and 180 food species. The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua generate their food following the flooding cycles in the Amazon watershed, combining hunting, harvesting, fishing and chagra cultivation plots. This territorial management practice consists of a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables, hunted wild animals, household small livestock, and purchased foods like frozen chicken, with 81 percent of their protein intake coming from their fisheries. The food system of the MelanesiansSI generates a wide diversity within many food groups, such as 30 fruits, 18 vegetables, 28 leafy greens, 17 legumes, 12 eggs, 51 types of seafood, and 14 other animals. The jhum system of the Khasi had a total of 60 species, including 22 species of fruits, 17 species of vegetables, and 9 species of cereals and other starches.
The fact that eating habits follow seasonality has been a strength of the various food systems, enhancing food diversification, self-sufficiency, resilience and dietary diversity. However, lately this seasonality is also becoming a weakness due to the effects of weather variability from climate change on food generation and production.
The eight Indigenous Peoples’ food systems reveal a low use of energy sources external to the system. These systems rely on the sun, firewood, wind and water for most of their energy needs, especially for processing, heating and cooking. Aside from solar energy, human labour and wood for cooking are the main sources of energy from within the communities and across the sites. Daily tasks rely on the labour force from families, with men and women holding distinct responsibilities. Communal and collective work involving different groups in the community are essential in most food systems and help to reduce drudgery, especially when combined with celebrations and storytelling. However, all communities indicate a constant rise in the use of non-renewable and externally sourced energies that is expected to increase.
The use of energy sources, such as gas, petrol and electricity, from outside the food systems is increasing, reducing drudgery, increasing mobility and improving efficiency in the work. The role of fossil fuels is mainly for transportation, such as the motorized boats used by the MelanesiansSI and the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua for fishing and reaching the markets, or vehicles used by the Maya Ch’orti’ to access markets, along with fuel for tractors in their milpa plots. The Inari Sámi use snowmobiles to lead the herd during the round-up process. The use of gas and kerosene kitchens is increasing in the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua communities. Meanwhile, the micro-hydel power plant established by the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) in the Namik village and managed by the Village Urja Committee is a good example of adapted low-cost technologies that could be managed by the community to increase the energy supply of Indigenous Peoples in isolated areas. Along with the increased demand for fossil fuels and electricity, the dependency on cash to purchase these relatively new forms of energy is also increasing.
Overall, the participating Indigenous Peoples have stated a progressive reduction of the biodiversity in their territories. From the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua in the Amazon basin to the Sámi in the Arctic region and the Kel Tamasheq in the arid Sahel areas, this is a matter of concern. For instance, the cutting of forest on Inari Sámi ancestral lands has shrunk and degraded the remaining habitat of hanging lichen and species of birds and mammals. Since the 1980s, the population of wild species, such as taiga bean goose, has drastically declined, and mountain hare and willow grouse have also declined. This collapse has created room for other species to increase their population, like small predators. Similarly, the Khasi observed, along with the loss of dense forest, the disappearance of many of the large animals that the community once hunted, such as deer and Chinese pangolin. This process started in the 1980s and has consequently forced community members to reduce their hunting and gathering activities. In the Sahel, the degradation of the environment in Aratène has increased due to the different climate shocks and disturbances experienced since the 1970s, as well as the advance of the desert. Large parts of the wild flora have already disappeared, limiting the gathering of wild edibles. Hunting activities completely stopped about 20 years ago with the progressive extermination of the wild fauna by armed groups. Due to deforestation and the advance of the agricultural frontier at the national level, the forest area where the Maya Ch’orti’ used to hunt has progressively been reduced. Populations of wild edible plants and animals have declined over time, to the point that community members do not perceive hunting as a viable food source anymore. The analysis of the eight food systems did not found evidence of any community where biodiversity has been maintained. In all instances, the environment has deteriorated and biodiversity declined. Climate change seems to be an important culprit, going hand-in-hand with deforestation and extractive activities from external actors.
• Create an inter-ministerial body with representatives from Indigenous Peoples and the Ministries of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, Environment and Culture that could have an integrated look at food systems.
• At the global level, together with the UN, recognise that as of today, Indigenous Peoples across the world are amongst the best experts in preserving biodiversity, having proved this consistently over time as research gathers more evidence about it.
• Design at the national level, and in agreement with indigenous representatives, mechanisms of retribution for Indigenous Peoples under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) discussions for the payment of carbon dioxide sequestration and for ecosystem services.
• Recruit Indigenous Peoples as parks personnel to allow them to continue with their ancestral practices whenever parks and protected areas overlap with their territories.
• Start a dialogue process with Indigenous Peoples with the aim of issuing legislation that protects wild foods in their territories, restricting consumption and illegal harvesting by external actors.
• Through ministries of energy, increase access to renewable energy technologies for Indigenous Peoples without resorting to importing technologies from far-away non-renewable sources whilst respecting FPIC principles.
• Consider biodiversity conservation and schemes for ecosystem services that build upon Indigenous Peoples’ governance and traditional knowledge systems to support their inclusion as main actors in the management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation.
• Issue a statement that recognises that, as of today, Indigenous Peoples across the world are amongst the best experts in preserving biodiversity, through a UN declaration supporting Indigenous Peoples, their livelihoods and territorial management practices that made possible the preservation of biodiversity across the planet.
• Issue a statement to request the end of violence and displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their ancestral lands, territories and natural resources.
• Recognise Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge and their customary governance in relation to biodiversity conservation as the world´s intangible heritage.
• Together with research institutions and governments, increase their analysis of the use of renewable and non-renewable sources of energy in Indigenous Peoples’ communities, making recommendations under SDG 7 and 13.
• Together with foundations and NGOs, consider funding and supporting renewable and community-managed energy supply schemes, particularly for indigenous communities living in isolated areas.
• Undertake dedicated work to understand the multifunctionality of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, in particular: the complex territorial management systems sustaining and enhancing biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, the linkages between indigenous cosmogony and environmental and biodiversity conservation, and the capacity to generate by-products that are organic in nature and therefore biodegradable.
• Upon agreement with the Indigenous Peoples and their communities, undertake micro- and macro-nutrient analysis of the traditional food items consumed by Indigenous Peoples to understand nutrient composition of food items.