This year’s International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples focuses on the rights and contributions of diverse knowledge systems to many aspects of our lives. Indigenous and rural communities have developed and maintained integrated systems for people, food and nature for centuries. Farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, horticulturalists, foresters and landless peasants maintain ecosystems and livelihoods in some of the world’s most challenging landscapes. Despite this fact, indigenous, traditional, place-based and local agriculture and land management are seen as inferior to “modern”—often industrial—practices. And yet, by acknowledging the interdependence between the well-being of humans and the land, and instituting practices that positively affect both, indigenous communities are often on the cutting edge of sustainability.
The contributions of traditional knowledge to global development and sustainability
We have an ethical obligation to develop a more nuanced understanding of the scientific and technological contributions of these communities—of rich citizen and practitioner science and accomplishments—in today’s complex and globalized world. One such laudable attempt to integrate and recognize these contributions is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an extensive, peer-reviewed publication created by hundreds of experts from all over the world that explores the multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder nature of our global food system. Amongst many other suggestions, IAASTD calls for the development of “culturally appropriate modes of assessing traditional and local AKST (agricultural knowledge, science and technology) contributions to achievement of development and sustainability goals.”
There are many examples that exhibit the knowledge, practices and contributions from these communities and their scalable potential. In many Asian countries, golden weaver ants have been used for biological control of insect pests in fruit, nut and timber orchards since as early as 304 CE—decreasing the need for harmful chemical pesticides. This type of integrated pest management is now being promoted by the Africa Rice Center in West Africa and is seen as an important component to many types of sustainable and other beyond-industrial agricultural systems.
In rural Tanzania, traditional ngitili agrosilvopastoral systems are being reestablished on a large scale. In ngitili, green areas are cordoned off during the wet season to conserve biodiversity, reduce environmental degradation and provide livestock fodder during dry months. In 15 years, ngitili has rehabilitated 350,000–500,000 hectares (roughly 1,300–2,000 square miles) of Tanzanian woodlands, and possibilities for scaling up are being explored.
For centuries, Persians have hand-dug holistic groundwater management systems called qanats that take greater landscape processes into consideration for sustainable water withdrawal in arid regions. Sloping tunnels are dug to connect underground reservoirs in nearby mountains with farms, villages and other human developments. While this practice is largely associated with modern-day Iran, where there are over twenty thousand active qanats, other water-scarce countries like India, Morocco and China have adopted the method as well.
A final example can be found in the Andean cosmovision, which defines communities of people, nature and spirits and important interactions between these entities on individual farms and larger landscapes. That is, the health of one determines the strength of the other, and all must be considered for sustainable land management. On every continent, examples like this one shed light on the contributions of indigenous peoples to modern sustainable agriculture. These integrated systems already consider landscapes to be multifunctional and complex, a viewpoint that many organizations—including the co-organizers of the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative—are trying to encourage on a larger scale.
The rights of local communities and indigenous peoples
The contributions of indigenous people are many and are increasingly recognized, but what about their rights? The rights and practices of indigenous peoples are not only undervalued and largely excluded, but are often threatened by “development” objectives and the profit motives of interest groups—usually located outside of landscapes and with goals contrary to the necessary multifunctionality that supports local residents. Determining how to protect these advancements, lands and rights to dictate their own practices—all while avoiding cultural misappropriation—is a contentious and challenging issue, but one that shows positive impacts on the large scale. For example, a new report by the World Resources Institute shows that strengthening the rights of indigenous and local communities over their forests plays a major role in mitigating climate change.
While communities facing similar challenges can share information with one another—as in the knowledge sharing about golden weaver ants between Asia and Africa—they also need effective processes for sharing their expertise with national policymakers and the international community. Current asymmetries of power do not allow for these processes, further suppressing indigenous knowledge and marginalizing these perspectives in research and development. While some organizations build upon the collaboration between local and formal knowledge, science and technology, more cases of bringing traditional knowledge into high-level settings are needed. Producers of indigenous knowledge systems must be included in important decision-making processes and governance.
Advocacy for food sovereignty and other agricultural rights-based action exists at many scales around the globe—encouraged by organizations like Via Campesina and Navdanya, and called for by the Nyéléni Declaration and the most recent UN Special Rapporteur to Food, Olivier De Schutter. These groups and individuals call for the right to culturally appropriate, safe and healthy food and the right of producers to define their own food and agricultural systems—that is, what and how they produce. The country of Mali, indigenous Awajun communities in Peru and local government municipalities in the Philippines have adopted the concept of food sovereignty to support the rights and contributions of indigenous peoples, but scaled-up approaches are still underdeveloped and existing advances are marginalized.
Indigenous producers have the right to maintain their lands, traditions, genetic resources, in situ conservation practices, foods and natural resources. In fact, these resilient and adaptive approaches to agriculture and land management play a necessary role in moving forward as our systems become increasingly variable and complex in the context of a changing climate. Institutionalization and affirmation of these rights are necessary for realizing sustainable and climate-smart agriculture, integrated natural resource management, social justice and resilient livelihoods in diverse landscapes. Today, as we strive for an agriculture that sustains natural and cultural resources, our “integrated landscape approaches” often times already function in existing indigenous communities and may benefit from harkening back to more traditional practices and perspectives.Jes Walton is a member of EcoAgriculture Partners’ communications team. She has a dual masters in International Affairs, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace and has worked extensively with agrarian communities in West Africa.