The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University (in the UK) recently hosted a workshop to “collectively strengthen relationships, learning/analysis and collaboration for people who are involved in research and knowledge work that advances movements for agroecology and food sovereignty”. This blog post is part of series of posts written by attendees to convey some of the ideas that unfolded during the workshop.

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This post is based on what Indigenous Peoples (IPs) have shared with me and urged me to build on in the nearly 30 years of work I’ve been honored to do with them, mostly in their communities and in the policy-making arenas of dominant societies.* During that time I’ve seen that, at the heart of IPs’ actions to assert their inherent right of self-determination and their food sovereignty, is the relationship that IPs have with their lands and territories. This relationship includes the millennial interdependence between IPs’ cultures and the biodiversity within their territories.

I’ve also seen and been part of IPs’ efforts to broaden and deepen relationships among themselves and with non-Indigenous allies, especially as trade liberalization, imposed development and other stressors increasingly threaten IPs’ agroecological foodways.

The various ecological and political crises now in effect are rooted in an economic system that relies on the rupture of relationships, including within human communities and between humans and the natural world that we’re a part of. A component of that economic system is industrial agriculture.

In this post I aim to elaborate my belief that, to build or spread food sovereignty, there is an increased need for diverse Peoples, communities and social movements to strengthen relationships and coalitions with one another. Our exchange of knowledges, strategies and practices will keep producing tangible results, and on the less tangible but equally important side, our solidarity will reinforce our resilience in the face of increasing unpredictability.

A sketch of agroecology

Agroecology is considered to be a way of life of small-scale food producers, and an approach to producing and eating food that leads to food sovereignty. Some of its characteristics are that it:

  • is driven by local contexts, and community-level decisions and action;
  • relies on local knowledge and resources;
  • requires local communities’/IPs’ access to and control of land, water, seeds and other productive resources;
  • respects diversity and the web of life that connects all species, including humans;
  • supports the struggle for climate justice;
  • and prioritizes relationships that protect and strengthen community and environmental well-being

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are agroecology

The knowledge systems and foodways of IPs sustain their communities and environments, and continue to be a foundation and inspiration for “agroecology” as a concept that prioritizes relationships among humans, and between humans and the natural world that humans are a part of.

Numerically, IPs are a small percentage of global population, but represent over 75% of the world’s approximately 6,000 cultures in 90 countries. Thousands of years of co-evolution with their respective ecosystems accounts for such extraordinary cultural diversity. And about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in IPs’ territories, thanks to the interdependence between IPs’ culturally-based knowledge systems and “resource” management practices and the plant, animal and other species whom they consider to be their relatives – or, in some cases, their ancestors.

IPs’ food systems are enactments of food sovereignty, and assertions of Tribal/Indigenous self-determination. Whether based on farming, fishing, hunting, herding, gathering – or a combination of these – IPs’ food systems are at the heart of community well-being and cultural continuity. They sustain bonds between generations, and between IPs’ and their ecosystems.

IPs’ knowledge systems, spiritual practices, institutions, and other components of their ways of life sustain their own food systems and enable dynamic conservation of the majority of global biodiversity.

Many species (including humans) currently face a looming existential threat which, according to overwhelming consensus by scientists, humans are largely responsible for. The comprehensive 2019 UN-IPBES study on the state-of-the-planet reports that a million plant and animal species are under threat of extinction at a rate 1,000-10,000 times greater than the rate would be expected to be if there were no human impact.

The human-caused climate crisis and its record heatwaves and droughts, rainfalls, glacial and sea ice melts, and other extreme impacts, are thought to be principal drivers of biodiversity decline. And the climate crisis is accompanied by other, inter-linked crises such as:

  • the water crisis (e.g., acute climate-related shortages; toxicity; poor management; and privatization and commodification, including the corporate purchase of water rights and depletion of ground water);
  • dramatic spikes in deforestation, particularly in the Amazon;
  • loss of rural livelihoods, often resulting in migration to cities;
  • extreme global inequality, along with the associated risk of “climate apartheid”;
  • and governance crises, including the:
    • spread of right-wing populism, nationalism, and pre-fascist tendencies
    • devolution of governance in spite of major uncertainties
    • de-regulation of industrial practices, and the gutting of agencies designed to protect the environment and human beings

IPs have contributed least to the world’s current crises but, especially in fragile ecosystems, suffer frontline impacts such as complete displacement as climate refugees. IPs continue to be among the most politically marginalized, yet they – and the securing of their land and territorial rights – are central to building a more just future.

Tangible and intangible benefits of extraordinarily concerted action

Economic systems for short-term profit, and imposed development (and conservation) schemes, have been rupturing many relationship configurations: in and between communities; between communities/individuals who produce food andthose who eat it; between communities/individuals and their respective environments, their own economies, their seeds and other necessities for producing food.

Particularly in recent decades, resistance to the neoliberal paradigm, and to industrial agriculture specifically, has generated alliances and coalitions across diverse social movements and sectors, and at different scales. In parallel, IPs have been protecting and revitalizing their own food systems and territories, exchanging experiences and strategies, and strengthening bonds with one another. But agroecological food systems, especially those of IPs, are under even more pressure in these times of global instability and uncertainty. And the criminalization of and lethal violence against protectors of land and environment have increased; within a recent 15-year period, killings have doubled and become widespread throughout more countries. Consistently, about 40% of those killed have been from IPs’ communities.

The current times make it even more vital to exchange agroecological knowledge, practices and support, while still respecting IPs’ protocols for safeguarding their knowledge systems and ways of life.

Building trust among diverse groups can take time. But trust is central for IPs and movements focused on food sovereignty to have strong and effective coalitions with one another, with other movements (e.g., for post-carbon economies), and with allies in diverse sectors such as academia, health, education and independent media.

Our collective action toward food sovereignty could help avoid catastrophic levels of climate warming and build transformative futures. And our solidarity will make us more resilient for what’s ahead of us.

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*This post is also based on what I’ve written in thematic briefs and reports for international policy debates, in frameworks to protect IPs’ rights, and in book chapters – including one on Food Security Policy, Evaluation and Impact Assessment (edited by Sheryl L. Hendriks, forthcoming in Fall 2019, Routledge).