FAO in North America

Indigenous Experts from North America Call for a Formal Place in the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit

Illustration by Alyne Spencer Gonçalves

North American Indigenous Peoples and the UN Food Systems Summit Leadership exchange expertise and visions during High-Level Expert Seminar.

22 December 2020 – “The Food Systems Summit is going to do everything we can to ensure the voices of Indigenous peoples are heard, that we are learning from you and that we are putting the Indigenous peoples’ food systems front and center in the work that we are doing,” said Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, in her opening remarks at the High-Level Seminar held virtually on 15 December 2020. Dr. Kalibata’s remarks emphasized the Summit’s strong commitment to learning from, listening to and connecting with Indigenous peoples leading up to and during the Summit.

The High-Level Expert Seminar on North American Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, towards the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) provided a platform for experts to present and discuss the critical importance and contributions of North American Indigenous peoples’ food systems in relation to the primary objectives of the 2021 Food Systems Summit. The Seminar was co-hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Liaison Office for North America, the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, and the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

"Our endeavor is to host a platform for Indigenous peoples of North America, UN agency experts and leaders in the field to exchange ideas and expertise, to strengthen Indigenous peoples' voice and leadership as we approach the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit," said Vimlendra Sharan, Director of FAO North America, as he welcomed the “galaxy of distinguished” guests and speakers.

The Seminar convened 185 participants and speakers from 11 of the 13 Canadian provinces, 30 out of the 50 United States, and was joined by additional people calling in from 25 countries. Participants included North American Indigenous peoples’ organizations and representative bodies, academic and research institutes, government agencies of Canada and the United States, along with UN agencies, and Indigenous experts from around the world. The Seminar was opened and closed with spiritual ceremonies held by Indigenous Knowledge Keepers of North America. 
Geoffrey Roth, the North American expert of the UNPFII and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, emphasized in his welcoming remarks the timeliness of the Seminar. “To have these conversations and be able to provide these recommendations is very important, especially about food. It is the building block of life. When we are not able to take care of ourselves it is what causes the health disparities and the devastation we are seeing in our communities [during the COVID-19 health crisis].” Roth challenged all participants to go beyond the inclusion of Indigenous peoples at the UNFSS and further “conceptualize provocative recommendations to our UN partners.”
The full-day Seminar featured high-level remarks on the UN Food System Summit and technical presentations on the Summit's five Action Tracks that informed the formulation of a statement through breakout working groups. The Seminar’s Indigenous technical committee prepared a final statement that encompasses the North American Indigenous peoples' perspectives, inputs, and recommendations in relation to the Action Tracks of the UN Food Systems Summit. The final statement will be made public on the FAO North America and FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit websites, delivered to the UNFSS secretariat and the UNPFII as input towards the Summit.

Indigenous Peoples' Leadership Critical for the Future of Food

The event was opened with high-level remarks from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, UN Food Systems Summit Leadership and national Government dignitaries from Canada and the United States, co-facilitated by Geoffrey Roth and Dan Gustafson, Special Advisor to the FAO Director-General. Special Envoy Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Chair of the Scientific Group, Professor Dr. Von Braun, and Food Systems Summit Dialogue Curator, Dr. David Nabarro collectively expressed their strong support and appreciation for the Seminar. Government dignitaries, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis, Representative Deb Haaland, and USDA Office of Tribal Relations, Director Diane Cullo also underlined the importance of the deliberation.
Canadian Ambassador to the UN Rome-based Agencies and Chair of the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples in Rome, Alexandra Bugailiskis, set the tone for the seminar to be an open, sincere, and enriching day centering North American Indigenous peoples’ food systems. She emphasized that as a co-convener of the Group of Friends of the UN Food Systems Summit, they have stressed the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples' traditions, knowledge, and views from the seven-socio cultural regions are taken into account and well placed in all mechanisms of the UN Food Systems summit. 
Ambassador Bugailiskis shared examples of Indigenous-government collaborations, such as the new Food Policy in Canada, which acknowledges how historic government policies disrupted the food systems of Indigenous peoples. It ensures, she explained, "that the unique rights, interest and circumstances of the First Nations, the Métis Nations and Inuit are acknowledged, affirmed and implemented. It supports Indigenous food self-determination, meaning the ability of Indigenous peoples to define their own food systems and it takes a holistic approach that acknowledges that food is more than a product for Indigenous peoples."
Congresswoman Deb Haaland [NM-1], who a few days later was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior in the United States’ history and one of two Indigenous women ever elected the U.S. Congress, spoke from her experience as a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and as a lead policy-maker in the country. "The wealth of contributions of Indigenous People to global food security, their land and resource management strategies, their safeguarding of the vast majority of the world's food crops, must be recognized in our approach to policy-making," said Representative Deb Haaland. Further emphasizing that food systems are an integral piece of who they are, a fundamental part of their Indigenous identity and central to their relational existence with regenerative practices. 
Professor Joachim von Braun, Chair of the UNFSS Scientific Group, noted that “We in the Scientific Group, acknowledge the deep knowledge of Indigenous Peoples about their food systems. Scientific and local knowledge communities can learn from each other." Dr. von Braun underscored his strong interest in collaborating with Indigenous peoples and their vast knowledge systems and experiences with food systems. Emphasizing on a practical note that when it comes to writing evidence-based strategic papers for the Summit’s agenda the Scientific Group “does not want to write about you, we want to write with you [Indigenous peoples] and support you with evidence-based documents.”
Máximo Torero Cullen, FAO Chief Economist and member of the UNFSS Scientific Group, called for the active engagement of Indigenous peoples in the Summit, as they not only represent 476 million people worldwide but also safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. “Until now, Indigenous Peoples’ participation and contributions to international debates have been limited in comparison to the great knowledge they hold. FAO will continue working with Indigenous peoples and organizations to ensure that their knowledge and food systems are acknowledged and given the space in the global debate about food system transformation,” underlined Torero Cullen.  
Indigenous knowledge systems not about the past, but the future

Following the high-level remarks, a panel of seven Indigenous experts set the stage moving into the technical presentations of the Seminar exemplifying how systems of knowledge come together and complement each other., “Indigenous knowledge is not about the past. Indigenous knowledge is about the future. Our knowledge systems must inform the future of food in the world, knowing it is still operable,” stated Dr. Kamanamaikailani Beamer, Professor at the Center for Hawaiian Studies in the Hui ‘Āina Momona Program at the University of Hawai‘i.

“The true way to food freedom is through empowerment. Solutions without Indigenous voices are no solutions at all,” stated Marlene Wakefield, member of the Seneca Nation and Research and Resources Director for the Tribal Food Sovereignty Advancement Initiative at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

Panelists spoke to the central importance of Indigenous peoples’ rights and essential practices for building the capacity of Indigenous-led research across fields and bridging systems of knowledge in complementary ways. Further recognizing the accelerating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation of homeland ecosystems pose existential threats for all inhabitants and thus require a cooperative commitment to bold action steps.

As emphasized by Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough, International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, “Our health is intimately tied to the health of the animals and the overall Arctic environment. However, we are seeing rapid and dramatic changes that threaten our food security.”

This panel was co-facilitated by Jane Lokomaika’ikeakua Au, Program Director of ‘Āina Momona and Pacific Representative and vice Co-Chair of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP) Facilitative Working Group, and Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, Chief of the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit.

From the First Nations fisheries of the Atlantic coastal waters to the confluence of rivers in British Columbia, to the Inuit homelands of the circumpolar region to the Islands of Hawai’i and reaching to international Indigenous researchers in New Zealand and Jakarta, speakers gave a strong voice to the vast knowledge systems and Indigenous leaders who are essential in the transformational work for the future of sustainable, equitable, nutritious, diverse and resilient food systems. 

As emphasized by Chief of the FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit, Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, “In the context of the UN Food Systems Summit and in the spirit of leaving no one behind, it is critical we engage with, listen to, respect the expertise and collaborate with the Indigenous peoples of North America. Their regional leadership is fundamental in achieving the objectives of the Summit and Sustainable Development Goals.”

Indigenizing Actions Tracks of the UN Food Systems Summit

Marlene Wakefield and Ken Paul, Lead Negotiator and Research Director of Fisheries for the Wolastoqey Nation, led guests and speakers through a series of technical presentations on each of the five action tracks of the UN Food Systems Summit with an Indigenous lens towards each track. The action track segments included a speaker from the leadership of the UNFSS Action Track technical committees, an Indigenous expert on the subject, followed by an expert from the UN anchoring agency for that action track. 

Leadership from the Action Track technical committees spoke from Concern Worldwide, EAT Forum, World Wildlife Fund International, and CARE USA. Indigenous experts from McGill University, University of Hawai’i Mānoa, Mi’kmaq Fisheries, the Intertribal Agriculture Council and the Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. presented their expertise and perspectives on one of each of the five action tracks. UN agency experts from FAO, the World Health Organization, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the World Food Programme, spoke to the action track their agency is anchoring. The five UNFSS action tracks with Indigenous lens included:

1. Ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for allTraditional Economies of Indigenous Peoples – The Interrelated Dimensions of Healthy Food. 
2. Shifting to sustainable consumption patternsIndigenous Management of Resources to Sustain Indigenous Food Security. 

3. Boosting nature-positive production at scale
Sacred Relationship to Environment and the Critical Role of Lands, Territories, and Resources of Indigenous Peoples. 

4. Advancing equitable livelihoodsRecognition of Indigenous Human Rights to Maintain Equitable and Culturally Relevant Food Systems. 

5. Building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stressesEmpowerment of Indigenous Peoples, Nations, and Communities to Ensure Adaptation and Resilience.

The highly informative technical presentations generated an abundance of content and questions to delve deeper into during the five breakout groups facilitated by members of the Seminar’s Indigenous technical committee. Professor Airini, Dean, Faculty of Education and Social Work, Thompson Rivers University, BC, and Brian Keane, Board Chair, Land is Life, opened the afternoon session by explaining the process and importance of the break-out groups. They then received extensive feedback and inputs shared by facilitators, notetakers, and participants in the subsequent plenary discussion. 

Towards the UN Food Systems Summit

Martin Frick, Deputy to the Special Envoy for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, provided in the closing session an explanation of the real significance of the Summit beyond the event itself and he issued a strong invitation for Indigenous peoples to engage in all the processes and events. He stated that “The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit is not just a point in time, it is a year-long engagement process. We have indigenous champions and focal points, and Indigenous peoples can also organize independent dialogues to make sure their voices are heard.” 

Marcela Villarreal, Director, Partnerships & UN Collaboration, FAO reiterated in her closing remarks, “The important part is that we work together to ensure that the voices of indigenous peoples are effectively heard, which means taken into account. Not only heard, not only participation in dialogues but really taken into account in what we expect is a discussion on the future of food systems for the world.”

Geoffrey Roth in reading out a draft version of the final statement stated that “As we prepare for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, we share our distinct perspectives, knowledge, research recommendations in relation to the action tracks and objectives of the Summit. We do so with humility and, also, with an expectation to be heard.”  

Key messages from the expert seminar include:
  • Indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems are key for all five action tracks of the UNFSS.
  • Indigenous peoples’ representatives should have a formal role in the UNFSS, and governments should ensure their participation in national dialogues / Indigenous peoples, including women and youth, should have equal opportunities to participate in local, national, and international processes and policy discussions, such as Food System Dialogues, the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and other decision processes affecting food systems, climate change, and biodiversity
  • Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination need to be respected and actualized worldwide
  • Indigenous peoples, Summit stakeholders, and UN Food Systems Summit leadership have tremendous opportunities to continue intense collaborations through bridging systems of knowledge in preparatory dialogues, evidence-based strategic papers, and formal roles for Indigenous peoples at the 2021 Summit.

Useful Resources

Statement on North American Indigenous Peoples Food Systems 24 December 2020



Twitter moment

UN Food Systems Summit 2021

Introductions with North American Indigenous Peoples and their Food Systems

Special Issue of FAO North America Newsletter for Indigenous Peoples Day