On October 12, Slow Food joins the Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean in celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
To mark the event, members of the “Decolonize Your Food” campaign spoke to five Indigenous activists from the Slow Food Indigenous Peoples’ Network.
The food systems of Indigenous peoples are sustained by a vast tapestry of riches, and yet rather than be respected these riches are being replaced.
Colonization goes beyond encroachment upon the land. It involves the gradual eradication of culture, identity, and—something that forms the foundations of both—food. We all bear responsibility for recognizing the threats posed by food colonization. Our choices have ramifications for Indigenous peoples as guardians of food heritage, and the favoring of industrially farmed produce over Indigenous food varieties dilutes diversity in our diets.
But we also believe that change is achievable, that everybody has the power to decolonize their diets—and that the first step towards doing this is to take the time to become informed.
This belief is what drives our Decolonize Your Food campaign: an awareness-raising initiative to protect Indigenous foods from extinction, recognize the unique relationship Indigenous peoples nurture with their ancestral lands, and encourage people to discover the Indigenous origins of everyday foods and the territories and communities where they are produced.
Voices from the Network
To better understand the importance of decolonizing our food, we spoke with five activists from the Slow Food Indigenous Peoples’ Network.
They discuss the interconnection between their identities, food and ancestral lands, and how these connections are made and renewed in their everyday lives.
Cultivating with Care
For Edgardo Méndez Gómez, a Tsental man from Oxchuc, in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, part of his Indigenous identity is rooted in the land:
“As Indigenous peoples, we are closely related to the land and nature, because that is where we carry out our work, that is where we obtain our food.”
This concept of working the land carries none of the exploitative connotations we associate with industrial agriculture.
For Edgardo, working to derive food from the land becomes a way to show care, and to feel cared for, both personally and for their communities. Arsenio Tun Caamal, a young Maya-speaking man from Yucatán, expresses a similar concept:
“Slow Food has started working with my community on managing and caring for the land so that they realize that by making compost, natural fertilizers, insecticides, and organic repellents, they can improve the situation for their crops. There’s mutual benefit in being rooted to the land: more fertile, nutrient-rich soils means more people in the community have healthier food.”
Interconnections of Life and Land
Xochitl Aguilar González, a young Otomí woman from the Estado de México, relates it to understanding that she is a part of, and can affect the food and life chain:
“It is not only what you eat that matters, but how you produce it, what you feed your animals, and how that influences the food you eat. For example, if an animal is giving you manure, you will generate compost that will be useful for your fruit trees and then you will eat the fruits. As everything is a chain, we all must do our part.”
Unfortunately, such respectful, regenerative practices are far from the norm. María Daniela Tun Caamal, a young Maya-speaking woman from Yucatán, and part of the Yucatán Hairless Pig Slow Food Presidium, told us about how intensive agriculture affects her land and water, and the work she is doing to demonstrate that an alternative is possible:
“Genetically modified pig farms contaminate our water sources. We use water from cenotes, natural pits, which are all interconnected. This means that not only are those near the pig farms contaminated, but the others come to be contaminated too.”
“That is where the idea for my project arose: to reintroduce and breed hairless pigs, a fundamental breed in the preparation of local dishes, in a silvo-pastoral system. There, the animals stay for a certain time in an area and then they move to other places, so that there is time for the manure they generate to be incorporated into the soil, but not in excess. That is the way farms should work.”
The encroachment of intensive and industrial food production is not unique to Yucatán.
In the semi-desert region of Mixteca in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Indigenous Mixtec communities grow maguey plants, from the heart of which they extract aguamiel, a sweet amber-colored liquid that they can drink fresh, ferment, or turn into pulque mixteco, a slightly alcoholic beverage.
Mixtec communities appreciate not only the rich taste of pulque mixteco. They value its healing properties and high nutritional value, considered particularly effective in the treatment of diseases and for strengthening the immune system. But in many communities it is being displaced by beer and industrially produced soft drinks, which are stripped of health benefits, and devoid of cultural currency.
Working with and eating from the land is also a part of understanding how it is a place of connection and identity, too; a connection that is constantly remembered and renewed through celebrations and rituals.
For Xochitl these rituals can take the shape of blessing the best seeds, or offerings made by giving back food to the land where it came from:
“We do what our grandparents used to: bring an offering for [Mother Earth] as if it were for a human. We bring her pulque, chicken, rice, mole, something delicious, filled with good intentions, filled with the knowledge that you have dedicated your energy to preparing it properly. And then we bury it on a plate in the middle of the land. This is to return the vitality to Mother Earth of what she gave you last cycle so that this year she will continue to give you.”
Celebrating the land is a key part of Xochitl’s individual and communal identity.
“We conserve this through dance and rituals […] related to the agricultural cycle. For example, there is a men’s dance called the je’chus (who dress as women). The men represent good, and do a series of steps to symbolize sowing the land. They dance as if they were stepping on a snake, which represents evil, or more accurately the harmful factors we are exposed to, such as plagues, droughts and hail.
Meanwhile, for Adelaida Bolom Gomez, a young Maya woman, the land is also a space where memory is shared, and kept alive through growing the seeds from her elders:
“We organize an activity called “the word circle”, where we invite all the elders of our community to share the stories of their arrival, and how the seeds we grow now arrived in our community.”
Territories of Taste
Of course, these connections to the land do not end with working. It continues to the moment of eating, to the recipes, the flavors, and the beliefs when preparing and eating the food too. Working with the land brings liberation, independence from industrialized foods, safe in the knowledge that even if you don’t have something, your community will.
As Daniela puts it:
“I don’t really need food that comes from outside. To return to the way things used to be is to be able to produce one’s own food and improve the community’s economy. If I don’t have something and my neighbor does, I go and exchange it. We are diversifying what we have without waiting for what might come.”
Decolonizing Food: Indigenous Reflections
Independence, security, health and identity are what tie these people to the land and its food. So what, for them, does decolonizing food taste like?
“It tastes very much like culture to me. It’s beautiful because it would be like taking back what we produce directly from the land.” – Adelaida
“It tastes like eating something that will nourish, something that will give me energy all day long and something that was made with great delicacy, with great sacrifice, something that represents me as my identity.” – Xochitl
“It tastes like soil, like the smell of fresh rainfall, like the herbs that grow in the mountains, like diversity.” – Lizet Bautista Patzi
These reflections communicate the essence of a food culture that goes beyond the plate, and expresses explicit understanding that without land there is no food.
We are inseparable from the soil we work with, from which we eat, and that we cherish. Decolonizing our food means recognizing this. It means nurturing this awareness, acting on it, and maintaining a connection between us and the land through our every meal.