Bioversity international

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS Rights to land, territories, natural resources and nomadism

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

Internal positive driver – Indigenous languages essential for traditional knowledge and food systems

About 4 000 out of the approximately 6 700 spoken languages today in the world are indigenous languages (UNDPI, 2018). The research has shown that indigenous languages are key in sustaining the food system and knowledge of the environment. The participating communities were aware of the importance of their languages to maintain their culture and livelihoods. Indigenous Peoples’ languages are particularly rich in naming plants and wild and semi-domesticated animals, describing the biodiversity and ecosystems and their interactions and behaviours within the ecosystem. For the Inari Sámi, their observations and relationship with the surrounding biodiversity is reflected in their traditional knowledge and language such that they have different words and terminology to characterise whitefish and their behaviour. The Sámi Education Institute is a positive example of intercultural education that integrates and teaches Sámi language, Finnish and traditional skills. It was noted, by many examples in the case studies, that when these indigenous languages disappear, so too does the body of knowledge that was generated through the use of this language. This is especially true for the cultures founded on orality, as are the majority of the indigenous languages in the world. The International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) stresses that these are the languages at the highest risk of extinction. It is fundamental to come up with intercultural education programmes that support the ongoing efforts in Indigenous Peoples’ communities to keep their languages alive.

Internal positive drivers - Preservation of traditional knowledge

The eight participating communities hold unique and rich traditional knowledge on local resources that supports their resilience and adaptive capacity. One of the key factors that has helped them maintain this knowledge is their respect for elders, who are responsible for passing on this knowledge to younger generations. This intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge stood out as a fundamental element of resilience across all eight food systems. This is particularly the case for the Kel Tamasheq, who perceive their food system and diet based on meat, meat products and dairy as part of their identity, which depends on the transmission of their traditional knowledge. Interestingly, for the MelanesiansSI, the profiling exercise catalysed their awareness about the need to revive their traditional knowledge and its transmission from the elders to the youth. The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua perceive mothers as the guardians of the knowledge system of the chagras, where this knowledge is passed on to the youth during different activities. The Fishing Conservation Guidelines was prepared by artisanal fisherfolk and elderly knowledge holders in the context of the Community Fisheries Agreement, and it was used to carry out educational work with the younger generations. The Maya Ch’orti’ women specialized in wild mushroom harvesting, maintaining rich knowledge of the place and time when fruiting occurs.

Several of the profiled food systems indicate that despite migration of the youth from the community and decreasing interest for traditional practices, some youth still take great interest in the traditions, culture and production systems. In Nellim, the Inari Sámi youth are important actors in maintaining the cultural subsistence fisheries. The MelanesiansSI youth in Baniata village compose electronic music to pass on the knowledge of traditional recipes. In the village of Nongtraw, a group of 16 Khasi youth have formed a cooperative society for marketing the traditional millet, selling both raw and processed millet to cater to the market.

Language and traditional knowledge are in essence adaptive and dynamic, whilst at the same time, as the MelanesiansSI mentioned, fragile if not properly used, maintained and transmitted.

Internal negative drivers - Globalization decreasing youth’s interests in traditional practices and knowledge

Migration is affecting all eight indigenous communities. Youth are increasingly migrating away from the communities, usually to urban areas. The youth expressed their wish to leave the community and learn a profession following the attraction and calling to participate in the market economy and urban culture. Often, this phenomenon is catalysed by the attendance in school, where kids develop aspirations and change their cultural and food habits. This phenomenon is leading to a decreasing interest in ancestral practices, less capacity to maintain and carry forward Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, and, sometimes, an abandonment of the land, as is the case for the Bhotia and Anwal. In Nellim, when an Inari Sámi moves outside the Sámi homeland area, their legal right to use nature in certain areas is lost, thus young people lose their connection to their traditional fishing areas. Baka women anticipate that their children will no longer forage in the forest as their parents did in the past. In Mali, the situation is more dramatic, where some youth migrate to cities to learn a profession, but sometimes end up getting involved in armed groups.

There is an overall consensus that, if not addressed in a multifaceted and coordinated way, the transmission of traditional knowledge within many Indigenous Peoples will deteriorate drastically, resulting in some cases in the loss of rich oral traditions that will disappear with the passing away of the elders. Whilst migration, particularly to the cities by the indigenous youth, seems unstoppable, the transmission of traditional knowledge could be preserved through different initiatives.

Internal negative driver - Difficulties for intra- and inter-generational transmission of language and knowledge

In all eight food systems except in the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua food system, Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge systems remain undocumented and depend on oral transmission to be preserved. The language, culture, beliefs and cosmogony of entire Indigenous Peoples’ nations depend on the ability to effectively transmit oral knowledge. Many of the case studies exposed current vulnerabilities and risk factors compromising the traditional oral knowledge systems. One such factor is when indigenous languages are forgotten by a community. As depicted in the food system profile of the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua, when an indigenous language starts to deteriorate and the community forgets the names of plants, herbs and practices, the Indigenous Peoples’ food system, its associated territorial management practices and their traditional knowledge is weakened, and in some cases condemned to disappear and vanish. The wealth of knowledge that Indigenous Peoples across the world have about the environment and biodiversity is codified in the use of indigenous languages that are maintained almost exclusively through orality.

Another related and influential factor found is that as some indigenous youth become less interested in traditional knowledge, a large threat exists regarding the future of these oral knowledge systems as their elders pass. This dynamic can generate frustration within the community, as for the MelanesiansSI, where the elders perceive that the youth are not interested. School and education seem to play an influential role in this occurrence. It is reported that when attending school, MelanesiansSI kids have a higher desire to leave the community and learn a profession than when they participate in their community’s livelihoods’ activities. Similar trends were seen for the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua, whose children attend school and spend less time with their parents learning fishing techniques. The effects of schooling that lacks intercultural education can be understood as a negative internal and external driver that is affecting the future resilience and sustainability of Indigenous Peoples’ cultures, languages, knowledge and food systems.

External negative driver - School feeding changing the tastes of indigenous youth

In various ways, all profiles have shown indications of weakened ties between indigenous youth and their indigenous customs and traditions. There are several emerging factors when examining youth’s decreasing interest for traditional practices. One of them is linked to the impact of school feeding and access to new imported and often highly processed foods that reshape indigenous youth’ food tastes away from their traditional foods. School meals are part of the schooling and education in several countries. This is the case for the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua’s kids, who have acquired increased preference for highly processed food as a result of their participation in school feeding programmes. In Solomon Islands, one quarter of the MelanesiansSI kids interviewed declared their preference for processed foods over traditional ones. Paradoxically, youth and the elders agree that their indigenous traditional food systems, meals, livelihoods and ways of life are healthier, tastier and preferred to the new imported habits. However, they see themselves caught up in the divide between the need for education to access better prospects for the future or continuing their lives without education.

All the Indigenous Peoples participating in the research saw the education of their children as positive, yet they were concerned about the open question of how to ensure traditional knowledge transmission that guarantees the continuation of their ancestral food and knowledge systems.

External negative driver - Lack of access to education and the need for culturally appropriate education

All indigenous communities have mentioned the effects that education programmes and missionaries have had on their livelihoods. Often these interventions not only denied the beliefs and customs of the Indigenous Peoples, but also created assimilation and reeducation programmes that undermined the essential role of ancestral beliefs, culture, spirituality, languages, habits, customs and, very importantly, foods within the system.

The eight examined food systems suffer the absence of education programmes integrating and building on indigenous values, beliefs and traditions. There was either no access to schooling services or, when they did arrive, interculturality was not considered.

Despite this, education is seen as essential by most of the parents interviewed, who want their children to attend school whenever possible. At the same time, parents reported that where it was available, schooling has had a detrimental impact on their customary systems and the transmission of traditional knowledge, advancing the loss of their language and a change of food habits and tastes in the youth towards highly processed and unhealthy foods.

Schools have been mentioned by most communities as one of the main entry points affecting their food habits, beliefs, self-esteem and traditions.

The lack of consideration of indigenous knowledge seems to have also been the norm when missionaries arrived, converting the communities into other religions and denying Indigenous Peoples’ notion of holiness embedded in nature and the environment. For instance, the Inari Sámi and Khasi beliefs based on animism and shamanism were substituted by Christianism. The Inari Sámi as well as the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua were denied from using their native languages or engaging in their cultural practices. As a result, it is now rare that indigenous languages are the dominant languages within a community; worse, they can be nearly extinct, such as for the Inari Sámi. These educational and religious assimilation processes have also created a sense of inferiority, guilt and embarrassment when exercising their customs and traditions, and speaking their languages.

The reconciliation of school and education with the maintenance of traditional knowledge is fundamental to ensure not only the transmission of ancestral territorial practices, but also for the survival of indigenous languages, culture, beliefs and cosmogonies. Intercultural schemes of schooling and education are possible and there have been some positive examples mentioned during the field research.

This includes some of the experts providing assistance to other Indigenous Peoples through cooperation arrangements. Another example, as mentioned with the indigenous language programmes, is the Sámi Education Institute, which offers unique vocational upper secondary education along with short courses in Finnish and Sámi. The Institute promotes traditional knowledge and practices such as herding, fishing, handicrafts and cooking in Sámi languages.

It is important to undertake policy interventions to ensure that education is not seen as a zero-sum game. Instead, schooling should be able to reinforce the cultural heritage of the communities whilst providing youth with the needed skills for professional lives. Interculturality is essential in education programmes with Indigenous Peoples.

Dedicated research and new policies discussed with Indigenous Peoples to support the schooling of Indigenous Peoples without condemning their indigenous language, culture and foods are more needed than ever.


Set up national committees composed of experts from ministries of education and indigenous leaders who can discuss and design intercultural education plans in Indigenous Peoples’ territories. These intercultural educational plans should blend mainstream education along with traditional knowledge, ensuring that the indigenous languages are preserved and, along with them, the food systems and livelihoods. Ideally, interculturality should inform all educational plans and curricula in more than 90 countries where Indigenous Peoples live in the world.

Through this national committee on intercultural education, analyze the time and frequency of the classes and the schooling. It should not collide with the traditional calendar for livelihood activities that follows nature’s seasonality and cycles. Rather, it is important to reach a schedule of lectures that does not clash with the transmission of traditional knowledge that takes place in association with many livelihood-related activities. The classes and lectures can be taught with the support of parents in the indigenous language as well as in the language spoken by the professors.

Through the Ministries of Education and the governmental agencies responsible for the school feeding programmes, set up a mixed committee with the indigenous elders, women and representatives to jointly decide which foods will be part of the school menus. The recipes and foods should come from the community by involving the parents in the school meal programmes, ideally purchasing their local production of indigenous foods.

Together with universities and indigenous organizations, within the overall context of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), undertake a mapping of the indigenous languages spoken and characterise their importance to maintain Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, identifying centres that can document and support these languages to avoid their disappearance.


Promote that interculturality informs all educational plans and curricula in more than 90 countries where Indigenous Peoples live in the world.

Through the United Nations Permament Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), take up the issue of school feeding and analyze the impact it is having on Indigenous Peoples’ health, food taste, habits and culture.

Through FAO, together with research institutions, undertake a study on the impact of school feeding programmes on the nutrition status of indigenous youth.

Through FAO, together with research and academic institutions, develop guidelines with indigenous organizations that can inform governments on how to preserve traditional knowledge and food systems.

Together with governments, support initiatives driven by the community and Indigenous Peoples on documenting traditional knowledge with funding and mechanisms to ensure that the traditional knowledge and languages are not lost. Many Indigenous Peoples have started to document their traditional knowledge into participatory encyclopedias and compendiums of documents such as the Matsé people encyclopedia of indigenous medicine.6


Engage with documentation of indigenous languages to ensure their survival.

Co-create curricula for protecting and preserving traditional knowledge, together with indigenous organizations. Museums, libraries and almost all forms of transmission of knowledge through written means have an associated university degree that ensures that the knowledge is preserved. In the case of traditional oral knowledge, this is lacking, and within the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), it is important to have important academic institutions come up with a curriculum and a methodology discussed and approved by Indigenous Peoples.


At the national level, through the national commission of Indigenous Peoples and indigenous leaders, create a working committee that analyzes how to preserve indigenous languages and traditional knowledge both inter- and intra-generational.

Blend oral traditional knowledge with written codified guidelines. The examples of the drafting of traditional knowledge encyclopedias, such as the ones initiated in the Amazon region, could be expanded to other areas of knowledge. The new forms of technology and data management can assist but should be assessed by indigenous youth to ensure the respect of FPIC and guarantee the safety and restricted access, in some cases, of the codified information and knowledge.