Editor's Note [Volume 21 No. 7 (2021)]

Indigenous People's Contribution to Food Systems Transformation

Across the world, there is an estimated 370-500 million indigenous people. They are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy, or from which they have been displaced. Indigenous peoples are often discriminated against, marginalized, and vulnerable. They include groups like the Maasai in East Africa, Pygmies of Central Africa, the San in Southern Africa, Berbers of North Africa, the Maya people of Central America, Australian Aboriginals, Maoris of New Zealand and many others. Over the last 20 years, indigenous peoples’ rights have been increasingly recognized through the adoption of international instruments and mechanisms at the UN and the African Union. In 2017, the Ogiek community in Kenya received a favorable judgment from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to return to their ancestral land, the Mau Forest. Campaigns to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, especially related to land and access to natural resources which they depend on for food are numerous. The Sengwer people in Kenya’s North Rift Valley inhabit the Embotut forest but are forcibly evicted by the Kenya Forest Service for allegedly destroying the forest. Yet, the government has no proof of this. It is known that indigenous peoples conserve ecosystems- the natural resources they depend on for food and livelihoods. Indigenous peoples’ food systems are biodiverse, nutritious, climate-resilient, and low carbon. They often have lower natural resource requirements compared to more commercial and intensively farmed crops. But often, indigenous food systems are viewed as “backward” and unproductive, rarely supported by governments, research, or the private sector. Traditional and indigenous foods such as millets, sorghum, yam, Bambara nut, teff, amaranth, baobab, wild mushroom, quail, insects (such as crickets and termites), cow’s blood, and so on, have over time been neglected in favor of more popular exotic foods. In recent times, indigenous food crops such as African indigenous vegetables, cassava, millet, and cowpea are being researched and popularized resulting in an increase in their consumption. Embracing indigenous foods has several benefits, for example, increased food and dietary diversity, ecological and regenerative production systems, affordable food processing and preservation techniques such as - drying, smoking, fermentation to increase shelf life and nutritional value of foods, and the traditional knowledge attached to indigenous foods enhances respect for people’s cultural identities. Indigenous food and culture are being lost mainly due to a lack of effective knowledge transfer from the older generation to the youth and sometimes as a result of actions employed to increase the productivity of food crops like maize. In western Kenya where I work, it has become increasingly difficult to get wild mushrooms and termites. To quote a young man who now farms oyster mushrooms: “the fertilizer we are brought here has made the wild mushroom and tsiswa (termites) disappear.” I am not sure if the events are linked but he is convinced of it. UN Food Systems Summit Dialogues continue to generate potential solutions on how to produce nutritious food sustainably and equitably while enhancing ecological health. The White paper on Indigenous Peoples food systems provides evidence of how these food systems are sustainable and resilient. More efforts are required to document indigenous food crops, preserve genetic resources (seeds) of indigenous crops, promote indigenous foods and traditional diets in school curricula and media, and highlight the climate-resilient benefits of indigenous food systems. Food systems transformation will require all of us.

Mary Njeri Karanu*
Assistant Editor, AJFAND

*and Program Officer – Rural Outreach Africa. Currently coordinating a Right to Adequate Food project in Kenya.


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