Indigenous Terra Madre: The Role of Youth, Women, and Ancient Methods

13 Oct 2019

On the third day of Indigenous Terra Madre Asia & Pan-Pacific in Ainu Mosir, the spotlight turned to the role of youth, women and ancient technologies in indigenous food systems.

Young Initiatives

There’s been a lot of talk about young people during the event, though the two most mentioned topics regarding indigenous youth seem to stand in stark contrast: on the one hand, there’s the despair caused by migration to cities for work and education, and the consequent danger that the abandonment of their ancestors’ lifestyles will lead to an irreversible loss of traditional knowledge. But on the other hand, there’s a powerful collective belief that the next generation can and will uphold the traditions they become responsible for through inheritance.

Meerim Sydykova of Kyrgyzstan offered an inspiring tale of her quest to found a Slow Food Youth Network not only in her home country, but across Central Asia. After visiting the We Feed The Planet meeting in Kobe, Japan in 2017, she took her first bold steps towards her goal, by adapting the Youth Network’s long-running Disco Soup campaign to her local environment. Part of doing that was renaming it Disco Dastorkon—a word used throughout Central Asia to describe a table full of traditional foods as one might offer guests at a party.


Meerim Sydykova

She’s also been active in promoting the values of Slow Food and the importance of preserving and promoting local traditional foods in schools both in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, involving local elders and guardians of traditional knowledge and facilitating the transmission of that knowledge to young people. As she put it herself, “it all revolves a central theme of reestablishing our relationship with the land. Once we appreciate the true value of the land and all that it gives us, then we can reflect on our role and responsibility in taking care of that land and preserving it for future generations. The more you instill these values in people at a young age, at home, at school, and elsewhere in the community, the more likely it becomes that they will carry them into adulthood.”

We also heard from Aritra Bose of Tamil Nadu in India, a young chef who works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve both through the Keystone Foundation and his shop-restaurant, Place to Bee. The misspelling is no accident of course, as the restaurant seeks to restore value to the local, indigenous “honey hunters” who risk their lives climbing steep cliffs to gather the sweet food of the bees for three months of each year. These honey hunters are now organized as a collective—Last Forest Enterprises—and their honey is sold commercially, as well as at Aritra’s restaurant.

Besides travelling from village to village to talk to farmers and try and convince them to continue or return to growing local, native plant varieties and collaborate in Participatory Guarantee Systems, Aritra focuses on working with young people in local indigenous communities—the Kurumba and Irula—and encourages them to maintain their culture through agriculture—stressing the importance of the local biodiversity and its nutritional superiority to processed, imported products.


Honey Hunters of the Nilgiris. Picture: Keystone Foundation

Lastly, Aritra organizes a Disco Soup of his, on the last Saturday of each month, taking vegetables destined for the trash from the local market, bringing them back to the restaurant and cooking them into a soup that is made available free to all. If that wasn’t enough, he also manages a local seed bank which is growing by the year as all the participating farmers bring back more seeds than they take.

The Role of Women

In our conference on the role of women in indigenous food systems we had the pleasure of hearing some truly remarkable stories. Wu Xue Yue is a woman from the Amis people of Taiwan, the largest indigenous group in the country with more than 200,000 people. Unusually, they are a matriarchal and matrilineal society, where women are not only the keepers of traditional knowledge relating to food and foraging, but also responsible for the household finances. Wu has written books about the wild vegetables that grow in their region of Taiwan, though is quick to humbly add, “there are over 200 varieties that grow there, and I have only written about 16 of them, so I still have a lot of work to do!”

Her story was one of hope and success, as in her lifetime Wu has seen the Amis people go from being an unrecognized group on the lowest rung of the social ladder to witnessing an established commitment by the Taiwanese government for reconciliation and recognition of their rights. In the past, the Amis people where banned from foraging for food in their traditional forest homeland, though this has now been overturned. As well as encouraging young women to get involved in the traditional activities that have been a source of pride and income for Amis people for centuries, she also campaigns against the use of pesticides and chemical inputs.


Panellists from the discussion on the role of women in indigenous food systems. Wu Xue Yue is on the far left and Shizue is second from left.

Shizue Ukaji is an 86 year-old grandmother and an Ainu elder. As she explained, “I’ve naturally been involved with slow food since my childhood, as this was the way things were by default. Now I wonder a lot of the wisdom my ancestors gave to me will survive in the next generation.” She recounted a plethora of wild plants and berries that the Ainu traditionally used both as food and medicine—which are largely interchangeable concepts in many indigenous societies.

“It was hard for us to pass on the skills to forage for all these wild plants to our children and grandchildren because our lands were stolen from us and built over. The Ainu people relied on being able to forage for these wild plants because we weren’t able to cultivate them conventionally either. A lot has been lost, and the most important work for Ainu women now is to recover that lost food culture, and revive it. I am hopeful that this can happen because a lot has changed in recent years. When I was a child it was difficult to be proud of being Ainu, but young Ainu people now are rightfully proud. So I hope they will take pride in this traditional knowledge too, and continue to pass it down from mother to daughter as it always was. I know that today, Ainu women are more positive, while in the past we were always humble and forced to be quiet. We lacked the skills to express ourselves but young Ainu women today are wonderfully active and able to speak their minds. This gives me a lot of hope for our future.”

Ancient Methods

In the final session of the day, Mohammad Allahyari Sadegh taught us a little about the almost 3000 year-old system of irrigation which has made the Khorasan region of Iran a blooming land of agricultural biodiversity, where fruits and vegetables grow in abundance and local breeds of sheep have been bred over the centuries. None of that would be possible without the qanat system of underground tunnels carrying water across the land, a naturally-arid region that would otherwise have remained a desert. The qanat are recognized as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, an FAO program which seeks to protect unique and vulnerable systems of food production.

As Mohammad put it, “The qanat are a critical technology for the food security of Khorasan. There are 20,000 farmers who rely on 473 different tunnels, which collect water in wells using gravity alone and represent a system of sustainable water management which can truly be said to have stood the test of time. Rural areas in Iran have long suffered the challenge of drought, but the greater challenger for us now is the average age of the farmers. It can feel like a retirement home in some parts of the countryside sometimes, as all the young people escape to the cities. That’s what we need to tackle to ensure the survival of our traditional food systems.”


Qanats in Iran. Picture: National Geographic

Azat Oraz of the Nokhurli tribe rounded out the day with an amusing yet serious tale of an ancient method that has allowed this tribe—the only only one which practices nomadic pastoralism in the Kopet Dag mountains of southern Turkmenistan—to continue making cheese despite frequent below-zero temperatures. These should, in theory, mean domesticated animals are unable to survive, let alone produce milk. Yet they do, and the herders use this milk to make a cheese that is on the Ark of Taste: Nokhurli Motal. So how have they managed?

“Manure. We have special buildings where we’ve allowed sheep manure to build up over very long periods of time, up to 2 meters thick. It’s the best insulation there is. The sheep stay inside these buildings during the harshest part of the winter as it’s only place warm enough for them to survive.” Their fresh milk is filtered through cheesecloth into containers of around 20 liters, and then rennet is added. The milk starts to thicken and the curd is mixed again in highly resistant cloth bags, which are then tied and twisted to squeeze out the excess whey. They are then put on large flat stones, with smaller flat stones on top which squeeze out the remaining whey. The cheese, snow-white and gelatinous, is traditionally eaten at breakfast. Given the difficulty of the production process, and the fact the cheese cannot be preserved for long, it is considered to be a true delicacy to be offered to important guests.


Delegates at Indigenous Terra Madre

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