Ancestral seeds, ecological knowledge, native food systems… These were just some of the many subjects discussed by the indigenous network at Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet. The 100-plus delegates represent around 80 groups from over 40 countries. They took turns speaking, talking about knowledge passed down from parent to child over generations, of economies that seem marginal but in fact sustain millions of people, of gender, ethnic and generational inequalities.
The first to speak was Janet Mate, a Ukonzo from Uganda: “We live in the Kasese district, in a mountainous region between the Rwenzori National Park and the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Traditionally we ate mustard seeds, rapeseed, mushrooms, leaves, yam and manioc, wild goat meat… The women have always had more limitations compared to the men. For example, they were not allowed to eat eggs, chicken and some other foods. But things are slowly changing. Thanks in part to the motivation of the community’s women, we are rediscovering the importance of returning to traditional crops.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Leah Lekanayia, a young nomadic herder from Kenya, near the Tanzanian border, and a member of the Maasai ethnic group. In her culture too, women were traditionally relegated to a lower status and excluded from many activities. But Leah has taken her future into her own hands with all the courage of a warrior, and has even become a spokesperson for her people’s needs. “There are around 800,000 Maasai in the world, and they have always been nomadic livestock herders. But recently our situation is changing for the worse. The market wants to change us, to make us settle in one place. Many Maasai are no longer able to use their own community lands and are forced to move to the city slums, where they lose the chance to use the resources on which they have always relied in the past. This situation must be changed. If you want to turn a herder into a farmer, you have to give them the necessary means and education. But most of all, to those who want to change us, I say that Africa does not need food. What we need is empowerment.”
The next to speak was Lee Ayu, from the Akha tribe in Thailand. “My people live in the north of the country, near the border with Burma. I went to study and live in the city and I received a degree, and since then I have always questioned what could be the best and most effective educational method in my village, where it is still very difficult to have the opportunity to study, to travel and to come into contact with different ideas and cultures. I found the answer in… coffee. This crop, which was not particularly important for us, has become the focus of a social responsibility project, which unites production and education. We have worked to improve the quality of the product, to make it increasingly appealing to the market, and this growing popularity has meant that myself and other young graduates like me have gradually been able to improve the living conditions of our people. We must do two things together: understand how to protect and safeguard our cultures and continue to cultivate our roots and to treat nature well, and at the same time understand how to ‘go out’.”
The importance of education was also touched on by Sergio Garcia, of the Sateré-Mawé, an indigenous group from Amazonia. “I continue to thank my father for having educated me in the traditional values, and I’m convinced that education is essential to asserting our rights. Capitalism educates people in individualism, but indigenous peoples don’t have this principle and cannot accept it. Capitalism treats us differently, it doesn’t even consider us a people, and yet we represent the future of the planet. We must be autonomous, not manipulated, bought or blackmailed by anyone. Our response lies in our food, in the waranà and the ecological sanctuary that we watch over, and also in the Free Academy of the Warà, which wants to promote and defend our culture, our history and our knowledge.”
Another central theme discussed during the meeting was the protection of biodiversity and traditional seeds in order to stem the flood of commercial hybrids, GMOs and monocultures. Alicia Rocha Velazquez, a Mixteca from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, had this to say: “Many are moving away from traditional crops, but we continue to protect the milpa system [a Mesoamerican agroecosystem which involves planting corn, pumpkins, beans and other crops together in the same plot, without the use of pesticides and fertilizers] which has long characterized our people, and to set agroecology against an agriculture that is heavy and polluting.” Alicia’s concluding words repeated what many others had said during the course of an intense, content-rich meeting: “Let’s sow our seeds!” In Mexico, just as in Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere.
Today the indigenous delegates taught an important lesson about the planet’s resources and respect for nature, cultures, women and men and communities. They offered a lesson for the future, a future that speaks in the plural and knows how to dialog with the past.
In November this year, Slow Food will hold the second Indigenous Terra Madre event in northeast India.
Translation: Carla Ranicki