August 9, 2013

Indigenous Peoples and the Diversity of Food

Today is International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. This year’s theme around building alliances is a reminder that indigenous people are often left out of political decision making processes that directly affect their lives and livelihoods. Today, it is vital to acknowledge the importance of indigenous peoples’ contributions to our collective knowledge of global human-modified and natural systems.

Indigenous people, who have inhabited the same lands for generations, have a very intimate knowledge of its processes in their specific location, such as an understanding of inter-annual variations in weather or the cycles of certain plant and animal species. Protecting indigenous knowledge is of critical importance for preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and respecting the wealth of knowledge that has accumulated and been passed down over generations. Therefore, issues of land preservation, land rights, and respect for the cultural and historical significance of ancestral land are at the forefront of indigenous knowledge issues.

Supporting natural resource management efforts can also aid in the preservation of indigenous knowledge and lands. Seed saving is a way of preserving seed and plant biodiversity, especially in regions where agricultural biodiversity is threatened. In-situ seed conservation (outside of national and international seed banks) and active seed exchanges are of particular importance, even more so for poorer farmers who may not necessarily have access to modern seed varieties (see Lipper, Anderson and Dalton 2009). Many of the traditional crops grown by indigenous people are more resilient to extreme weather and to pests or diseases. Crop varieties of this sort will likely play a major role in adapting to climate change and other pressures on agriculture in the coming years.

Some organizations and initiatives are promoting the management of such crop genetic resources. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, for example, states that the open exchange of genetic resources are “essential for food security”, and even recognizes the enormous contribution of indigenous peoples around the world to crop genetics conservation. In Australia, for example, the traditional diversity within the Australian aboriginal diet is quite profound, and through the preservation of lands and culture, could contribute to the further preservation of crop and wild food genetic resources.

The Australian government, after a long and painful history of mistreatment of the aboriginal people, is now working with aboriginals to help preserve their lands and their rights. For instance, the government established a program called “Working on Country”, which aims to assist aboriginal groups in conserving the environment through financial and training support. The establishment of protected areas further helps sustainably conserve aboriginal lands that are culturally meaningful and environmentally important.

In the context of landscape management, conservation of crop genetic resources can also be important for adapting to landscape diversity. For instance, what kind of maize systems will grow best on slopes? Seed saving, when combined with a holistic integrated management approach to the planting of crops, is a good way to promote agricultural diversity, and can be considered as part of a whole system rather than a distinct and stand-alone activity.

As climate change and extreme weather events threaten existing ecosystems, our current agricultural models must adapt. Indigenous people can play a major role in maintaining the variety of locally adapted crops, and contributing to the ever more pressing need to search for ways to increase our agricultural productivity and adaptability, as population grows and we confront new challenges. A more holistic approach to agriculture and to integrated landscape management that features equity and inclusion for indigenous peoples is necessary for the future.

Photo credit: United Nations Photo
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