“Nature is not a commodity”: Can the world learn from indigenous peoples’ food systems before they disappear?

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These findings were then distributed to his family, who are distributed in 24 villages in tropical Ecuador, stretching from the Andes to the Amazonian lowlands. The Shure tribe to which he belongs has lived there for centuries.

The 24-year-old Jimbijti (called Shushui by his family) grew up in the jungle with armadillos, monkeys, and pythons. He deeply respects nature and recognizes its fragility. Jimbijti says the community knows that they can make money by developing the land—such as extracting and selling salt from rare brine springs. But it chose not to.

“We eat enough, but not too much,” he said. “This will be disrespect for everything and cause a complete imbalance.”

This attitude is true among most of the indigenous peoples in the world and is essential to protecting the natural world. According to data from the World Bank, although indigenous people account for only 5% of the global population and only occupy less than a quarter of the world’s surface area, their territories have about 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
In contrast, modern food practices have caused nearly 60% of the global biodiversity loss.
Phrang Roy, who belongs to the Kassi indigenous people in northeastern India, said that in order to ensure the future of the planet, the world must learn from the practices of indigenous peoples. He is one of the authors of a report on the food systems of indigenous peoples led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2021, which warned that these unique traditions are facing increasing threats.

“When we face all the crises of climate collapse, rising inequality and loss of biodiversity, this is very important for modern times,” he said.

The Shure people live in the jungle mountains across Ecuador and Peru. The picture shows Tomás Unkuch from the Shuar community in Chupias, Santiago Province, Morona, Ecuador.

Give back to nature

There are 476 million aborigines in the world, living in various regions from the Arctic to the Sahara Desert, and their customs and traditions vary greatly. But the core of the philosophy of many indigenous groups is the idea of ​​giving back to the planet.

“Based on balance and cooperation, indigenous peoples and (nature) live in harmony and connect with each other,” Roy said.

In the Roikasi community at the foot of the Himalayas in northeastern India, people are used to making tea with water in the morning and then heading to the fields. Roy said that people then sprinkled the ashes from the fire on public crops as “compost or fertilizer for the land to show their approval.”

Qassi people live in matrilineal society, and their titles and wealth are passed from mother to daughter.

When the Baka people in Cameroon collected honey from the hives high above the trees, they scattered fruit tree seeds along the way to mark the way to the hives. According to the FAO report, this contributes to the regeneration of the area and the spread of biodiversity, offsetting the disturbance of vegetation during honey harvesting.

This focus on cultivation and regeneration is in stark contrast to modern agriculture, which usually aims to obtain the highest yields for maximum profits.

For example, fallow land (leave the soil unplanted for a period of time) has long been a tradition of indigenous peoples. But in modern agriculture, it has always been regarded as a wasteland. Roy explained how economic development in India has promoted the conversion of indigenous fallow land to the production of single crops, such as rice, year after year.

The Baka, usually hunter-gatherers, forage for mushrooms in the forest.
Only in recent decades, as the impact of modern agriculture on the environment has been exposed, some governments have only realized the ecological benefits of this approach. The EU now rewards farmers for fallow to improve biodiversity.

“In these fallow lands, there are a lot of nutrient-rich wild foods that are important for trees, bees, pollinators and birds,” Roy said. “We can’t just extract everything, we need to add it even when we use it.”

Indigenous people’s knowledge of wildlife is also vital to a sustainable future. According to FAO research, some indigenous food systems use more than 250 species for food and medicinal purposes. Many of them are considered “neglected” or “underutilized” by the United Nations, but may help feed the growing world population.

being threatened

But this wisdom and knowledge is in danger of disappearing completely. Indigenous peoples find themselves on the front lines of climate change, and many people live in areas affected by rising temperatures or extreme weather events. Development, land grabbing, deforestation, and natural resource extraction are also major threats and targeted crimes. Global Witness, a non-governmental organization, reported that 227 environmental defenders were killed in 2020, and more than one-third of them were indigenous people.

The influence of modern culture and the increase in market access have also had a devastating effect. Nowadays, indigenous people rely more on agricultural products on the global market. FAO points out that almost half of the food of some groups comes from the global market.

Traditionally, Shure people have been self-sufficient and autonomous. The picture shows Sayda Unkuch and her son Kaar Mashingashi in Chupias, Ecuador.

Jimbijti witnessed this firsthand in the Shuar community. He said that since mining companies entered the area, canned and processed foods have been introduced. His community now eats chicken, chocolate, butter and sardines, which has never been done before.

This is not just a change in diet, but also health and lifestyle. “People are becoming lazy,” and gaining weight, he said-adopting a more sedentary rather than a nomadic lifestyle.

“Our culture is undergoing a very strong transformation,” Jimbijti said. “We are losing our roots.”

save

In order to save these cultures, Roy urged countries to protect indigenous people’s “land rights” and “traditional knowledge and language rights.” He said that if the local language starts to deteriorate because it is not taught in local schools, community members will forget the names of plants and herbs and ancient customs.

Although indigenous rights have improved in the past two decades, there is still a long way to go with the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other treaties.

The FAO report calls for a more inclusive dialogue with indigenous peoples and their participation in sustainable management decisions. It concluded that “the world cannot sustain itself if it does not listen to the opinions of indigenous peoples.”

Roy believes that the biggest lesson to be learned is the value system of indigenous peoples: the world view of “land and nature are not commodities”.

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