Climate Crisis Is Threatening Indigenous Food Systems, UN Report Warns

There is high risk for the food systems to disappear if nothing is done.

A pair of hands holding a fruit that has been sliced in half. Soloman Islands.

Chris Vogliano

The Indigenous Bhotia and Anwal peoples in Uttarakhand, India have a unique way of preserving the wild plants that they harvest from a nearby forest. By community discussion, they pick a section of the woodland and decree it off-limits for three to five years in the name of local Jungle God Bhumiya Dev, allowing the plants to regenerate. 

This is just one example from a new United Nations report detailing the remarkable sustainability of Indigenous food systems from Melanesia to the Arctic, and how forces like globalization and the climate crisis are newly menacing ways of life that have survived for thousands of years.

“Our research confirms that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are one of the most sustainable and resilient in the world, but their sustainability and resilience is challenged due to emerging drivers,” Anne Brunel of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who helped prepare the report, tells Treehugger. 

Unique and Common 

The new report came out of a 2015 meeting between FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Team and Indigenous leaders from around the world. During this meeting, the leaders asked FAO to do more work on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. This led to the creation of an FAO working group on the issue and, eventually, the most recent report.

Published in collaboration with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the report is based on close collaboration between its authors and an international cross-section of Indigenous communities. It features eight case studies detailing the food systems of the Baka in Cameroon, the Inari Sámi in Finland, the Khasi in India, the Melanesians in the Solomon Islands, the Kel Tamasheq in Mali, the Bhotia and Anwal in India, the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua in Colombia and the Maya Ch’orti’ in Guatemala. All of the profiles were written with the active participation of the communities they detailed, respecting both their Free, Prior and Informed Consent and their intellectual property rights. 

“The objective was to highlight the unique and common characteristics of sustainability and climate resilience of Indigenous People’s food systems,” Brunel explains. 

Khasi women fishing in summer.
Khasi women fishing in summer. Lyngdoh NESFAS/Alethea Kordor

The eight food systems studied in the report differed by location and type, from the Baka in Cameroon who gather and hunt 81% of their food from the Congo rainforest to the Inari Sámi in Finland, a nomadic group of reindeer herders in the far north. However, the report concluded that all of these food systems shared four common characteristics: 

  1. They are able to conserve and even enhance their surrounding ecosystems. It is not for nothing that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is preserved within Indigenous territories. 
  2. They are adaptive and resilient. The Kel Tamasheq in Mali, for example, were able to recover from drought because their nomadic, pastoralist system allows them to move through the landscape without depleting resources and the breeds they herd have evolved to withstand scarcity and high temperature.
  3. They expand their communities’ access to nutritional foods. The eight communities in the study were able to meet 55 to 81% of their food needs through their traditional systems.
  4. They are interdependent with culture, language, governance, and traditional knowledge. The religious forest-preserving practice of the Bhotia and Anwal is only one example of how these food systems are embedded within the cultural and political organization of Indigenous groups. 

Despite the diversity and long history of these food systems, they are now changing at “an unprecedented rate,” the report authors noted. This is due to a multitude of factors, including the climate crisis, violence from extractive industries, biodiversity loss, increased interaction with the global market, loss of traditional knowledge, migration of youth to urban areas, and the changes in taste that go along with globalization. 

“There is high risk for them to disappear if nothing is done,” Brunel says of these food systems. 

Case Study: Melanesia 

One of the communities featured in the study is the Melanesian people who live in the village of Baniata in the Solomon Islands. 

“Indigenous Solomon Islanders have long supported themselves and their communities by living off the vibrant agrobiodiversity provided land and sea,” chapter co-author Chris Vogliano of Massey University tells Treehugger in an email. “Historically, Solomon Islanders have practiced fishing, hunting, agroforestry, and the cultivation of diverse agri-food products in harmony with the land.” 

Their food system is anchored by tuber crops and bananas grown in fields and home gardens and supplemented by inland agroforests, coastal coconut plantations, hunting, and fishing. These activities fulfill 75% of the communities’ dietary needs and provide them with 132 different food species, 51 of them aquatic. 

Fire roasted and betacarotene rich Fe’i banana.
Massey University/Chris Vogliano

However, this largely sustainable existence is under threat. In the second half of the 20th century, the major drivers of change have been extensive logging and increased reliance on the market. Environmental change and the introduction of imported, highly-processed foods act in a feedback loop, as resource depletion and new pests make traditional foods more scarce. On top of this, the Melanesians live in a part of the world highly vulnerable to the climate crisis. 

“Indigenous Solomon Islanders, along with other small Pacific Island countries, are experiencing the troubling impacts of the climate crisis first hand,” Vogliano explains. “Solomon Islanders have long lived in tune with the natural cycles of the land, ocean, and weather patterns. However, findings from this report indicate that traditional ways of life are being threatened by the climate crisis due to rising sea levels, increased temperatures, heavier rains, and less predictable weather patterns. These changes are having immediate impacts on the quantity and quality of food able to be cultivated and collected from the wild.”

But the experiences of the Baniata community also offer hope for the future: researching Indigenous food systems in collaboration with the communities that practice them can actually help preserve them. 

Over the process of collaborating on the report chapter, “community members realized that they have lots of knowledge to share and that if they don’t do anything, knowledge will be lost,” Brunel says.

The Future of Food

In general, Brunel recommended three actions for protecting Indigenous Peoples' food systems. Not surprisingly, these actions emphasize giving Indigenous communities the support and respect they need to continue managing their territories with the sustainability and resilience they have already demonstrated. They are:

  1. Respecting the lands, territories, and natural resources of Indigenous Peoples.
  2. Respecting rights to self-determination.
  3. Co-creating more knowledge of Indigenous food systems with the people who practice them.

Learning about Indigenous knowledge isn’t just important for the long-term survival of these unique and sustainable systems. Indeed, it can provide a helpful guide to the rest of the world as we try to figure out how to feed the Earth’s population without exhausting its resources. 

“Indigenous Peoples’ wisdom, traditional knowledge and ability to adapt provide lessons from which other non-indigenous societies can learn, especially when designing more sustainable food systems that mitigate climate change and environmental degradation,'' Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Anne Nuorgam, who is a member of a Sámi fishing community in Finland, wrote in the report foreword. “We are all in a race against time with the speed of events accelerating by the day.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems." FAO, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, 2021.