Indigenous peoples

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Findings from the field

  • Indigenous Peoples' food systems are seasonal, adaptive, energy-balanced, reciprocal and circular systems. They are among the most sustainable in the world. They not only generate food but also supply building materials, medicines, clothing, and tools. For example, the Maya Ch'orti' food system in Guatemala uses plants, minerals and animal sources to extract medicine or poison for hunting, while in Cameroon the Baka people are renowned for their knowledge of more than 500 plants for medicinal uses.
  • The study shows the high levels of self-sufficiency and capacity of these food systems, not only to generate hundreds of food items from the environment without depleting it, but it also portrays the ability of these systems to cover 50% to 80% of the food needs of the communities. In the Solomon Islands, the MelaniesianSI people combine agroforestry, wild food gathering and fishing to generate 70% of the community’s food. In Finland’s Arctic region, through fishing, hunting and herding, the Inari Sámi people generate 75% of the protein they consume. More than half of the food consumed by the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples who live in the Colombian Amazon is produced in the chagras, giving the population a high degree of independence from the market. But the chagra is also considered a knowledge system representing the cultural heritage of each family and the place where mothers pass their knowledge to the youth. Furthermore, an estimated 81% of the food of the Baka people from Cameroon is obtained through hunting, gathering and fishing activities practiced in the forest, combined with shifting cultivation. Exchanges with other communities and other sources provide the rest.
  • Having low levels of food waste and low use of external energy sources are also two of the main characteristics of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. For example, the Kel Tamasheq peoples’ food system in Mali, based on pastoralism, produces almost zero waste thanks to a simple way of life in which domestic equipment such as pestles, mortars, plates and spoons are made from local wood, and bags are made from leather and other animal skins. The most important energy sources used by the Khasi peoples’ food system in India are human energy, firewood, electricity, charcoal and solar energy.
  • Indigenous Peoples maintain biodiversity of native species and often enhance the richness of domesticated species. Food systems are often comprised of wild, semi-domesticated and domesticated plants and animals. Their relationship with diverse local species contributes to maintaining the biodiversity of their surrounding ecosystems. For instance, the agri-food production system of the MelanesiansSI from the Solomon Islands is diverse and consists of small-scale agriculture, agroforestry, wild food collection of flora and fauna, and fishing. Food is mainly grown in home gardens and collected wild (70%), and increasingly by purchasing processed foods (30%).
  • Mobile practices like nomadism and shifting cultivation are key to preserve the surrounding ecosystem. For instance, the Khasi people (India) manage five lands for food. Land rotation, mixed cropping and some amount of agroforestry in the form of coffee plantations are a handful of the practices that increase heterogeneity in their food system. The Inari Sámi (Finland) reindeer herders follow the yearly cycle of the reindeer. The reindeer’s natural movement from the forests in winter to the treeless areas in the summer determines the yearly migration cycle.
  • The study also found a strong link between the survival of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and their ability to adapt to a changing climate, and the survival of Indigenous languages used to communicate knowledge orally from one generation to another. When an Indigenous language starts to deteriorate and the community forgets the names of plants, herbs and practices, traditional knowledge and food systems are weakened. For the MelanesiansSI (Solomon Islands) traditional knowledge guides their fishing, for example, the full moon is best to catch some species of fish, while the new moon is good for other species, and the seventh day is good for fishing in general. The Maya Ch’orti’ women (Guatemala) maintain rich knowledge on edible wild mushrooms and they are the only ones in the community to hold that knowledge. The Khasi people (India) have learned to read certain signs to determine the quality of the soil. Soil mixed with dew saw (red soil), dew iong (black soil) and particles of rocks which is fertile and good for cultivation. In Finland, for the traditional governance of the pasture areas, the Inári Sámi herders use their knowledge to determine the snow cover, forest structure, winds, predator situation and alternative pastures so that some areas could be left to grow back as land use rotates and shifts.