Standing Up for Indigenous Food Systems

27 Oct 2012

A conference on the rights of indigenous peoples to choose what they grow and eat at the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre opened yesterday with a poignant story from Phrang Roy, an indigenous man from northeastern India who is a leading expert in indigenous issues and coordinates the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty.

“In 1975 while I was working with the Indian government, I was responsible for feeding just under 1 million people in drought stricken area. By introducing fertilizers, high-yield varieties and water, we were able to produce enough food to feed everyone within a year, and I was awarded the ‘best organizer of the Green Revolution’. I then moved on to West India to do the same thing with a group of indigenous people, and they refused the technical package we had adopted. The importance for them was to be in control of their vulnerability. They were eager to increase production, but they wanted to do it in a relevant and sustainable way, based on the knowledge they had gathered through history… I was young and proud of my degree and success. I had my career ahead of me and wanted to push. When I look back now, I’m so glad that they were tougher. Thirty years later I looked back at the areas I worked with during the Green Revolution and saw decreased biodiversity, poor soil quality and only a marginal increase in rice production from the 1970s.”

Roy, moderator of the conference “Indigenous Peoples and Local Food Sovereignty – A struggle for self-determined development”, was joined by representatives of indigenous peoples from North America, Argentina, Malaysia, East Africa, Russia and the Pacific, who spoke about the circumstances facing their communities.

José Esquinas-Alcàzar, Direttore del CEHAP (Cátedra de Estudios sobre Hambre y Pobreza) presented the notable example of Benin, which until 30 years ago produced enough food through small-scale farming. Following the advice of international organizations, the government shifted to the more lucrative production of cotton, abandoning its small-scale farming culture. When the 2008 food crisis hit and the price food-staples tripled, wages were no longer sufficient to buy food. For the first time, starvation swept the country, and is still today in a terrible situation, he said. “These farmers are now saying ‘Oh my god, what have we done? We can no longer produce our own food.’ But now its too late, the land is sold. The country has not only lost its food sovereignty, but its political sovereignty. There is no political sovereignty without food sovereignty.”

The lineup of speakers also told of inspiring initiatives to preserve their cultures, and protect them from threats and difficulties they face in being the masters of their own destinies. One project in Argentina is working to improve the health of indigenous women through education, and a forward-thinking NGO in Papua New Guinea is using film and television to increase awareness of the local ingenious food culture.

“With good intentions, those with technical power and knowledge have dominated indigenous people for a long time. Meanwhile, these peoples have been silently fighting for their rights,” said Roy.

“We are still alive, our traditional wisdom and culture is still alive,” echoed Galina Tunekova from Russia’s Shor People, appealing to the international community, “but for it not to disappear we need your help to preserve it.”

Find out more about Slow Food’s work with indigenous peoples at

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