Food Sovereignty Stories, a panel discussion at the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples conference
In late October 2016, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples held their bi-annual conference in Lima, Peru with an emphasis this year on Buen Vivir, or Sumak Kawsay, the social philosophy of good living principles that indigenous communities around the world share in common. Groundswell International partners teamed up with other Indigenous leaders and scholars to speak on a panel about food sovereignty. Panelists included Groundswell partners Rosalía Asig of the Qachuu Aloom “Mother Earth,” a local Guatemalan organization; Ross Mary Borja of EkoRural, a local Ecuadorian organization; and Groundswell founder Steve Brescia; alongside Quechua and Maori scholars Mariaelena Huambachano of Peru and Rachel Wolfgramm of Aotearoa/New Zealand, University of Auckland; María del Carmen Tenelema of the New Generation Associacion, of Tzimbuto, Ecuador; and Kyle Whyte, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a professor at Michigan State University.
Food sovereignty. The determination of people to healthy, local food but moreover to defining their own food and agricultural practices and celebrating their own distinct lifeways.
María del Carmen kicked the panel off by describing how many men have left her community for the cities to find work and how the women, left behind, have become the managers of their gardens and caretakers of their animals. She spoke proudly of herself as a young woman farmer, “In our chacras we work and grow strong, the quality of life is so much better than in the city.” She also talked about ancestral seeds and returning old varieties in attempt to re-establish agricultural biodiversity in her region, including oka, medicinal plants and native potatoes. She was firm about farming ecologically through use of compost and no chemicals, “We help each other in the community. We are reclaiming our rights to food sovereignty and healthy lives.” Ross, from EkoRural, shared how once the family and community is fed then people share their extra produce in alternative markets called canastas comunitarias where they sell directly to citizen consumers in the cities, not through intermediaries.
Rosalía Asig is leader of the Guatemalan Asociación Qachuu Aloom. Like Carmen’s network of women farmers, farmer members of Qachuu Aloom do not rely on chemical inputs, weary of the dependence that this creates. “We don’t have to buy from the supermarket when we grow our own food but when the youth leave to work they lose this understanding. One needs to remember that they can provide for themselves in their community. With the harvest we share with our neighbors. Each year the government does a study about consumerism that portrays us as poor because we don’t buy extra stuff. We are not poor.” Qachuu Aloom is also focused on recuperating native seeds, specifically heritage corn and amaranth, and on protecting the knowledge of traditional farming practices. Rosalía emphasized the need for communities to control their own production guided by their own cosmo-vision. She asked this question: “What can we do to respect and conserve native seeds with regard to agriculture and the ancestral practices of our elders?” It is a question that guides her work. Rosalía acknowledged how the context of Guatemala is difficult, as most people are victims of the armed conflict, which seriously disrupted the social fabric. Yet her perspective is more comprehensive, and goes back to colonization, of which the civil war and industrial agri-business are further iterations. Colonization, and later the civil war, destroyed the cultivation of amaranth. Government programs to this day, Rosalía explained, are really just paternalistic, giving grains or flour that people don’t use and that isn’t high in nutrition. Amaranth, high in protein, helps counter malnutrition. It also adapts well to regions across the country, and Qachuu Aloom is actively recuperated amaranth alongside yucca, camote, native bean varieties and medicinal herbs. “We are against monoculture,” she stated, “this is another means of colonization…Those responsible for the transnational companies – mining, palm oil, hydroelectric, etc. – are responsible for climate change.”
Quechua scholar Mariaelena Huambachano spoke about her comparative research project on food sovereignty and Indigenous knowledge that she undertook with Maori tribes and Quechua communities in the highlands of Peru. She has worked for years on an Indigenous research framework called the “khipu” model, drawing on the Kaupapa Maori framework. Maria Elena described how through her research she has found that the Buen Vivir or good living principles of ecologies and economies of well-being have many strong parallels between both Quechua and Maori worldviews/cosmovisions. These two unique Indigenous groups share a common worldview of life and stewardship that is based on similar core values.
Rachel Wolfgramm shared the Maori understanding of food sovereignty through three Maori words: Mana, which means power/authority, Kai, which translates generally as food and Ora, which implies well-being physically, mentally and spiritually. Mana Kai Ora otherwise meaning food sovereignty. In her words and with regard to her own research: “Mana Kai Ora is timeless and relational in ecologies/economies of well being from Maori and Pacific perspectives.” Across the Pacific Maori tribe’s food sovereignty is very diverse, Rachel explained, while also very much ocean-based and reliant on fishing. She also spoke about the stark reality today of oceans being exploited by corrupt corporations and countries vying for resources. All the while, increasing toxicity is poisoning fish.
Kyle Whyte brought a North American perspective to the discussion, pointing out how there are over 600 tribes in the U.S. alone “so you can imagine, with regard to food sovereignty, that we are talking about thousands of foods and plants.” Kyle hails from the Great lakes, a region of expansive fresh water and a water based lifestyle that is also threatened by pollution. He emphasized how historically tribes used to get together to network, trade and share ideas, something he is actively trying to revitalize through inter-indigenous exchanges where people come together to learn and experience diverse Indigenous food ways firsthand. Gatherings that bring elders together with youth and have also included non-indigenous scientists to learn from Indigenous communities. “We need to do our own research on our own terms,” Kyle emphasized, and similar to Rosalía, he re-framed climate change in the context of colonialism, speaking of tribal lifeway historically, “Our whole way of life was adaptable and resilient to change, it is colonialism more than climate change that is challenging us now, the policies that opened up our lands to destruction, to the causes of climate change.” He further shared a desire to see North American food sovereignty networks learning from Pacific, Latin American and African networks. It was a shared opinion across the panel that there is a need for more community to community exchanges, with the panel itself a testament to the shared wisdom as well as analogous threats to our rivers, forests, oceans and agriculture in all corners of the world.
This blog post was written by Sonja Swift, a friend and ally of Groundswell International. Sonja is freelance writer, writing is her creative medium for grappling with the complexity of our times. She also serves on the board of Swift Foundation, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples and co-directs the Windrose Fund. Sonja has field experience from across the Americas covering a range of issues including food sovereignty, agricultural diversity, extractive industry resistance, and indigenous land rights. She calls home between San Francisco, California and the Black Hills, South Dakota.