Climate Action

Climate change threatens age-old indigenous food systems, says UN

An Indigenous woman from the Pataxo Ha-ha-hae tribe holds up a dead fish near Paraopeba river

Food systems used by indigenous communities are among the most sustainable in the world. Image: REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Fabio Teixeira
Slavery and Trafficking Correspondent, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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  • The UN has said that climate change and economic pressures are negatively impacting the traditional food gathering techniques of indigenous communities.
  • These food systems are said to be among the world's most sustainable, due to their efficiency, avoidance of waste and the way they adapt to the seasons.
  • However, climate change is causing problems such as drought and loss of wildlife amongst indigenous communities.

From the Arctic to the Amazon, the traditional food gathering techniques of indigenous communities are under threat from accelerating climate change and economic pressures, the United Nations said.

Food systems used by different indigenous peoples were found to be among the world's most sustainable in terms of efficiency, avoiding waste and adapting to the seasons, said an analysis by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Because their diets rely mainly on renewable resources found close to home, indigenous communities adjust land use according to seasonality. Until recently, "waste" was an unknown concept in their food systems, the report said.

It cited as an example Finland's Inari Sami people, whose diet depends heavily on fish and reindeer meat.

The community relies on ancestral knowledge of the land, as traditional reindeer herding is based on the animals' annual migration cycle. The herders know where to take the reindeer every year so they can graze in a sustainable manner.

They also use expert knowledge to adapt fishing methods according to the season or weather conditions, the report said.

But such traditional practices are at risk due to climate change, as well as the growing availability of imported processed foods, said Yon Fernandez-de-Larrinoa, head of the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit.

"Climate change is adding a new layer of incredible pressure upon indigenous people and their food systems," Fernandez-de-Larrinoa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

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He said indigenous food systems were being hit by drought, loss of wildlife and the disappearance of wild plants, changes in rainfall and seasons, erratic weather patterns and migration shifts.

The Inari Sami have started feeding supplements to the reindeer they herd because the animals can no longer sustain themselves on lichen during winter, the report said.

"The lichen that the reindeer would normally be able to find under the ice, they can no longer find. The reason is very simple: the ice has melted," said Fernandez-de-Larrinoa.

The report also looked at the impact of climate change on different indigenous communities in Cameroon, India, the Solomon Islands, Mali, Colombia and Guatemala.

In some cases, an increased monetization of the local economy led indigenous communities to move away from barter, food sharing and communal systems.

The opportunity to make money made some communities switch from sustainable practices to over-fishing or over-hunting, leading to a loss of biodiversity, said the report.

Communities have also become more dependent on processed foods bought in local markets.


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"The acceleration in the adoption of market-oriented activities is profoundly transforming indigenous peoples' food systems," Maximo Torero, the FAO's chief economist, said in a statement.

Losing the ancestral expertise of indigenous communities would deprive the rest of the world of valuable knowledge as more sustainable food production is sought globally, the FAO said.

"We need to combine innovation and technology with traditional knowledge," said Fernandez-de-Larrinoa.

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