For thousands of years Indigenous people have survived by hunting, fishing, foraging and harvesting in ways that sustain them while maintaining an equilibrium with nature.
But a major report from the United Nations warns that this balance is being severely tested by climate change and by incursions into Indigenous lands—many of them illegal. And as these food systems come under threat, the world risks losing not only the tribes, but their service as crucial protectors of biodiversity and key allies in the fight to slow global warming.
“The Indigenous food systems that have proved themselves to be resilient for hundreds of years are facing pressures. One is climate change, which is reducing wild plants, water and biodiversity,” said Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa, chief of the Indigenous Peoples Unit at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. “The other is anthropocentric pressure from agriculture and mining.”
In the report, published Friday by FAO, the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, researchers add to a plentitude of recent academic evidence showing how critical Indigenous people are to the wellbeing of the planet.
Nearly half a billion people are members of Indigenous groups, living across 90 countries and occupying more than a third of Earth’s protected land. Their residence across these territories preserves an astonishing 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
But as the resources and lands Indigenous people rely on for food are either taken from them for agriculture, mining or other resource extractions, or as climate change alters their landscapes—reducing available water or forcing shifts in animal migrations, for example—their survival and tenure on the land becomes less likely.
“They’re being forced from their homelands,” Fernandez de Larrinoa said. “What we’re seeing is these territories that used to be much larger, where they had replenishment capacity, are becoming smaller and smaller.”
The researchers looked deeply into the food systems of eight different groups across Africa, Asia, the Arctic and Latin America to understand how they were able to feed themselves and if that ability was changing. They found that these groups were able to meet the majority of their food needs without depleting resources, while also providing other materials for buildings, tools and medicines. Their food systems, the authors found, are among the most sustainable in the world.
But climate change is threatening to reduce the biodiversity on which these food systems depend, which, in a kind of vicious cycle, threatens the people who are the best guardians of biodiversity. Maintaining biodiversity, meanwhile, is critical to controlling future pandemics because zoonotic diseases tend to emerge from species that thrive when biodiversity declines as natural habitats are compromised.
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Though the report doesn’t address carbon emissions directly, previous research has underscored how Indigenous groups are critical to the protection of carbon-rich ecosystems, making their residence on these lands essential for controlling runaway climate change.
“We cannot destroy biodiversity and ecosystems and feed ourselves,” Fernandez de Larrinoa said. “Sooner or later we’re going to have more effects from climate change and pandemics.”
“Most food systems in the world are very good at producing food, but not conserving biodiversity,” he added. “Humankind can’t keep expanding the agricultural frontier in the Amazon or the Sahel,” the semi-arid region that stretches across Africa, below the Sahara.
The authors tried to find lessons for the rest of the world in the resilience and self-sufficiency of Indigenous food systems. They discovered that Indigenous people waste very little food, use very little external energy and adhere to seasonal patterns of plant growth and animal migration—all of which puts less pressure on the ecosystem around them.
“From reindeer herding to gathering wild plants and berries, Indigenous peoples generate and collect food in complex, holistic and resilient ways whilst always respecting the need to preserve the biological diversity that generates and maintains harmony in nature,” wrote Anne Nuorgam, chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in her introduction to the report. “Eating and feeding but without destroying. Eating and feeding but maintaining biodiversity.”
While shifting to these kinds of food systems would be impossible for most of the world’s populations, the report still holds takeaways, including for policy makers as they head into a major UN conference on biodiversity later this year.
“You can’t preserve biodiversity and the environment if you don’t support Indigenous food systems. That’s the very essence of maintaining biodiversity,” Fernandez de Larrinoa said. “Whenever policy makers and governments try to protect biodiversity and the environment without protecting food systems, it doesn’t work.”
The report also contains messages for consumers. Some are simple bits of advice.
“If you follow the foods that are available in your area, you’ll have a nutritious diet and be in balance with nature,” Fernandez de Larrinoa said.
Others are more nuanced.
“Indigenous food systems come from a different perspective. Nature is balanced and maintained,” he said. “We think of food as a commodity. They think of it as spiritual.”