Bioversity international


What is at stake?

To endure the effects of climate change and to address the challenges that humankind (indigenous or non-indigenous) will face as a result of unsustainable food production practices, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are probably amongst the best placed to provide insights, lessons and empirical evidence that could facilitate the transition towards more sustainable food systems. The analysis of the eight food systems5 provides nine salient insights whilst identifying obstacles that need to be considered.

1. The recognition of Indigenous Peoples within the countries they inhabit is important and enables them access to basic public services. Although Indigenous Peoples and their food systems have existed for thousands of years, with the creation of today’s modern states, several Indigenous Peoples across the world see their existence unacknowledged in national legislation and normative frameworks, despite the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and the endorsement by the countries.

Ten out of the 11 Indigenous Peoples considered in these eight profiles live in countries where they are explicitly recognised in the Constitution. These are: Cameroon, Colombia, Finland, Guatemala, India and Solomon Islands. The recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the Constitution and laws in the countries facilitates their access to essential public services. However, and as the analysis showed for the MelanesiansSI, the Baka, and the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua, legal recognition does not resolve the need for interculturality in public services and social protection measures for them to be effective and benefit Indigenous Peoples. Evidence from many of the profiles here demonstrates communities’ lack of satisfaction with development programmes, agriculture plans, school meals and education plans in which, apparently, they did not participate in the design and scope.

2. Indigenous Peoples have valid and tested contributions to make to sustainability. There are examples of: energy use, territorial management, waste included as inputs in the system, fallow practices and ecological management associated with culture and tradition to enable replenishment of the natural resource base, etc. The territorial management practices of Indigenous Peoples are carefully attuned to the ecosystems in which they live and has been able to successfully preserve biodiversity and create sophisticated food systems that generate food for communities for generations. Scientists are starting to acknowledge this whilst policymakers have not yet been able to translate this growing awareness into effective policy measures that protect Indigenous Peoples’ practices. There is potential to draw lessons on sustainability from Indigenous Peoples that can be extrapolated to other contexts and communities.

At the same time, despite their undeniable qualities, strengths and capacities of sustainability and resilience, in the last 50 years, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are undergoing profound changes, motivated by both internal and external drivers, that are transforming some of the ancestral practices at an unprecedented speed and rapidly altering their food systems, with some of them resorting to unsustainable practices whilst others are being abandoned. The threats to indigenous territories from external actors have drastically reduced indigenous lands, thus increasing the vulnerability of ancestral and orally transmitted knowledge that has persisted until recently.

3. Indigenous Peoples hold immense knowledge about wild and semi-domesticated plants. The vast knowledge of Indigenous Peoples on a huge diversity of wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated species of plants used for food and medicine in their diets and health systems is the best known to humankind. In some cases, pharmaceutical companies, in collaborative agreements with Indigenous Peoples, have developed new medicines that today are sold over the counter throughout the world. In other instances, Indigenous Peoples denounced biopiracy and lack of respect of their intellectual rights over their knowledge of plants used for medicines and foods. The respect, or lack thereof, of Indigenous Peoples’ intellectual property rights over their knowledge of plants has been one of the major constraints for Indigenous Peoples to share their knowledge about sustainability with non-indigenous scientists. The international community needs to address this issue guaranteeing Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Otherwise, important segments of knowledge and understanding of how nature and biodiversity works, accumulated over generations of observation of the natural cycles and interactions in the ecosystems, will be lost with the passing of the elders and the migration of youth to urban centres.

4. The importance of nomadism, mobile livelihoods and shifting practices to maintain biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples remind us that many of today’s livelihoods are mobile, itinerant, semi-mobile and nomadic. Often not well understood by practitioners and policymakers, the relationship between nomadic livelihoods and biodiversity conservation is an area of research that merits more dedicated analysis. Indigenous Peoples’ territorial management practices have not been well understood by non-indigenous scientists. Practices like shifting cultivation have been criticized for years as responsible for deforestation. However, areas subjected to shifting cultivation practices are still forested today whilst surrounding areas have been logged and the forest eliminated. More research is needed about the cycles of shifting cultivation. Evidence suggests that in almost all communities, reducing the period of time to complete the cycle caused by external actors’ pressures and increased demography has negatively impacted sustainability.

Relatively recent new drivers related to globalization, monetization, markets, migration, climate change and extractive pressures over the natural resources are either impairing, limiting or forbidding mobile and nomadic practices. In some cases, the mobile livelihoods will be irreversibly lost. Climate change is posing an insurmountable challenge in some cases, given the severity of reported climatic variability in some of the ecosystems. It is important to have more dedicated research to inform policies that today either do not support mobility or go against it altogether. The disappearance of mobile practices will have an effect on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and sustainability.

5. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are dynamic in time and subject to changes but today they are changing at an unprecedented speed. Whilst in the past, the dynamism of their territorial management techniques allowed them to adjust to changing migratory patterns and climate variations, the current situation and pressures are placing Indigenous Peoples in difficult conditions to counteract. They see how their territories and livelihoods are suffering a profound impact from migrants in and out of the communities, extractive industries, commercial agriculture schemes, youth’s changing habits and tastes, and climate change. These, coupled with the changes introduced by the monetization of the economy and the growing interest in selling foods and handicrafts in markets to acquire cash, are rapidly introducing new habits and tastes, and reshaping the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems from within.

The rapid monetization of barter-subsistence traditional economies is shifting preferences and changing habits, whilst redirecting livelihood efforts towards market-oriented activities. The traditional accumulation of capital in the environment and ecosystems is now shifting more and more towards cash accumulation to access a new plethora of available goods and services that are no longer transacted by barter exchange but through cash. This is having an impact on many of the ancestral collective forms of reciprocity and circular solidarity that have constituted their safety nets for centuries. Today, important practices rooted in the indigenous values of reciprocity and collective solidarity are being abandoned. Individualism is growing. This creates a real risk that several Indigenous Peoples’ food systems will disappear and become unsustainable by being detached from their natural resource base and the cosmogony and traditional knowledge that informed them for years.

6. The acceleration in the adoption of market-oriented activities for cash is profoundly transforming Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. Whilst access to markets and the monetization of the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems is neither negative nor positive per se, in the context of ongoing globalization, the improved access to markets is having a direct impact on the socio-economy of the indigenous communities. These positive and negative impacts affect the environment, the social fabric, and the transmission of traditional knowledge. The accumulation impetus has become a negative driver to maintain the food system’s sustainability, changing a basic principle of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Previously, the system accumulated capital in the environment in the form of natural resources that, when properly managed, generated foods, medicines and by-products. Now, the accumulation of capital has moved away from the ecosystem and into private hands, enabling cash generation to purchase externally manufactured goods. This shift towards the extraction of resources from the system affects the future sustainability of some of the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems that were analyzed, with community members already observing new extraction rates to cater to the market that go beyond the threshold limit that allows the regeneration of resources.

7. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems risk disappearance. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are today at a juncture in time where, unless properly analyzed and supported by the right policy interventions, risk disappearance or full assimilation by the dominant cultures mainstreamed in the globalization process.

Markets, along with climate change effects and pressures from external actors encroaching indigenous territories and ancestral lands, are probably the factors that are transforming Indigenous Peoples’ food systems at the fastest rate. These circumstances are causing the largest, long-lasting and, in some cases, irreversible effects on the continuity and sustainability of the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems.

An important open question remains as to how the transmission of knowledge is going to be maintained and ensure the continuation of some of the practices that support the territorial management and food systems. This concern was made evident during interviews with the communities.

8. The future of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems depends largely on the decisions indigenous youth are making. Indigenous youth face an unprecedented divide: on the one hand, they want to access education and pursue a professional life that allows them to participate in an urbanized and globalized economy. On the other hand, if they do not continue some of the traditional practices in their communities, the food systems and associated territorial management practices threaten to disappear.

New formulas are needed to allow indigenous youth to participate in both the globalized world and the local community. The importance of governments developing educational programmes with interculturality cannot be overemphasized. Initiatives and programmes discussed with elders and youth that blend traditional knowledge with new technologies could be the solution.

The future will largely depend on indigenous youths’ ability to reconcile traditionally sustainable and self-consumption food systems with the growing preference towards market-oriented food systems whilst maintaining elements of ancestral knowledge and sustainability. This reconciliation remains an open question and is directly linked to the preservation of ancestral languages and traditions, whose disappearance will hamper the survival and continuation of these ancestral food systems.

9. Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is more than a principle – it brings success. Free, Prior and Informed Constent is not only a right that Indigenous Peoples have in the UNDRIP, it is actually essential to ensure the success and performance of different governmental development and social protection programmes aimed at improving the well-being of Indigenous Peoples. From agricultural support programmes to education, all interventions benefit when there is consultation and consent by Indigenous Peoples.


In order to fully ascertain the way forward, deeper understanding of the many existing Indigenous Peoples’ food systems is needed to learn from them and inform many of their valuable contributions into the worldwide debate on sustainable food systems.

Further research is required to undertake a more complete and systematic inventory of the diversity of strategies and territorial management techniques elaborated by culturally diverse Indigenous Peoples in their relations with the diverse ecosystems they live in across the world.

A sustainability science approach should help better achieve this incorporation. Sustainability science seeks to examine the interactions between human, environmental and engineered systems to understand and contribute to solutions for complex challenges – climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and land and water degradation – that threaten the integrity of the life support systems (Lang et al., 2012). Most importantly, sustainability science is defined by the problems it addresses, not by the disciplines it employs. Contemporary research remains indeed too fragmented, too discipline-focussed, and singularly lacking in articulation between the results it proposes and the scale of the problems to be solved.

Along these lines, there is an urgent need to develop new collaborative research frameworks that bring together experts from different scientific disciplines but also from different cultures to co-create knowledge. This equates to promoting transdisciplinary, transcultural and co-constructed knowledge between scientists and key actors in society, with Indigenous Peoples at the centre of these efforts.

Further research is needed to highlight the role that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems can play in ensuring food security and nutrition security, mobilizing political support, sharing knowledge and good practices, discussing successes and challenges, and working to promote and preserve Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and the foods and services generated by them, with the ultimate objective of improving food systems, diets and nutrition for all. These interrelated interventions require the setting of a dedicated body that would carry them forward in a coordinated manner.

In this regard, a major outcome of the High-Level Expert Seminar on Indigenous Food Systems held in November 2018 at FAO to introduce the preliminary findings of the profiling was the creation in 2020 of a Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems.

Launched at the 27th session of the Technical Committee on Agriculture (COAG) of FAO, the Global-Hub brings together universities, research centres, Indigenous Peoples, UN agencies and other interested stakeholders to co-create evidence that builds on scientific and traditional knowledge systems of Indigenous Peoples, in order to influence policy discussions on sustainable and climate-resilient food systems in the context of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) and the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The overarching objective of the Global-Hub is to facilitate an exchange of evidence that aligns research and indigenous agendas for a more concerted implication in the food systems debate. The Global-Hub will concentrate on four activities pertaining to Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, their sustainability and climate resilience:

a knowledge-bearers’ platform, creating a space for sharing ideas and knowledge;

a knowledge platform; designed as a knowledge repository, it will be an online staple source of information;

advice in policy dialogues, providing reliable inputs to ongoing policy discussions;

creation of synergies to drive the design of multidisciplinary and collaborative research to fill the gap of knowledge and understanding of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and to prioritize studies to be carried out.

These four activities together form a coherent global programme with the intention to continue learning from Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, prolonging data gathering and reframing methodologies adequately, promoting them through carefully targeted advocacy, and preserving them through the provision of legal and technical assistance when needed. Lastly, the institutional support to self-certification or other labelling mechanisms is essential.

  • 5 Note from the editors: All references to the Indigenous Peoples in this section refer to the communities that took part in the fieldwork unless otherwise specified. These are: Baka in Gribe; Inari Sámi in Nellim; Khasi in Nongtraw; MelanesiansSI in Baniata; Kel Tamasheq in Aratène; Botia and Anwal in Namik; Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua in Puerto Nariño; and Maya Ch’orti’ in Chiquimula.