Nothing is as ironic as the fact that we indigenous peoples, who brought so many foods to the world, lack the means to escape poverty and malnutrition. Having control over what we produce, how and when we do it, and power over its distribution will allow us to build sustainable livelihoods. We call that food sovereignty.
By Tarcila Rivera Zea, Director of the Centre for Peru’s Indigenous Cultures (CHIRAPAQ)
For the women and men who work the land to have complete and equal control over the resources they need and the food they produce, a series of conditions would have to be met. Without them, any attempt to think about that scenario would be pointless.
“In our society being a peasant is viewed as better than being indigenous.”
Control over the economic, social, and political resources that make production economically feasible and sustainable—and then turn that into livelihoods that allow producers to support themselves—means having the power to decide how those resources are used. At this moment indigenous peoples do not have that power. However, before exploring how we might get there, let’s be clear about who the actors are in this drama.
Peasants and Indigenous PeopleIn our society, a strong social distinction has been drawn between peasants and indigenous people, whereby being a peasant is viewed as better than being indigenous. People often understand indigenous as “Indian” or “cholo”, words that convey social and cultural scorn. “Peasant” refers to an occupational category, whereas “indigenous” means a social condition. In this sense, while it is true that a large proportion of peasants are indigenous, in practice they are not the same thing, a distinction that gets translated into laws, policies, and people’s perceptions.
The word “peasant” refers to a job, and the economic aspects predominate over any holistic link to the land. One can be a peasant and practice agriculture using industrial inputs or other methods that damage the land. In contrast, “indigenous people” refers to a cultural totality in which agriculture is an important part of our daily activities and reflects different social, spiritual, economic, and political relations.
“Indigenous agriculture is based on ancestral knowledge and practices, which ensure genetic diversity according to the varying geography.”
Indigenous agriculture is based on ancestral knowledge and practices, which ensure genetic diversity according to the varying geography and in response to different climatic, environmental and social conditions. Evidently, indigenous people use industrial inputs, given market pressures and the lack of alternatives to respond immediately to the climatic impacts, which range from pests to water shortages. But ancestral practices for managing land, water and climate variances are gradually coming back, a process we call “indigenous geographies.”
From the perspective of indigenous peoples, agriculture ought to be the foundation for sustainable land stewardship, as well as a source of food sovereignty and of germ plasm diversity, which has proven useful for combating malnutrition.
Building the PresentAt this time, indigenous organizations are developing different models of farming based on our cultures, with the intent of drawing from them concrete proposals for building sustainable livelihoods. During this process, control over the resources needed to make these proposals viable is of utmost importance.
“If indigenous peoples gain complete and equal control over farming resources and over the food produced, the situation would be utterly without precedent in our history as part of the global system.”
We are completely conscious that any solution must emerge from the encounter of our cultures and traditions with global cultures. This dialogue between cultures must take place under conditions of equality and that is the scenario we are working toward. It is why we talk about “farming systems” and not about transposing our culture to all of society.
If indigenous peoples gain complete and equal control over farming resources and over the food produced, the situation that would arise would be utterly without precedent in our history as part of the global system. It would mean for our societies:
At the ecological level:
- Living things would be raised with respect for the land’s natural ways of renewal
- Biodiversity would fit the different geographies and support sustainable harvests
- Production would be based on smallholdings, linked by production chains that would allow them to supply local and regional markets
- People would have a rich, healthy and diverse diet
- Diversified food systems would exist, and
- Biodiversity would be strengthened, given that agro-ecological pest control would reinforce native biological chain.
At the social level:
- The conflicts and social divides that have characterized our societies would be healed
- Agricultural work would be considered dignified, and the role of indigenous peoples would be redefined
- The social value of labour in organic and sustainable production, in harmony with nature, would be reinforced
- Indigenous peoples would see a substantial improvement in income and living standards, which would allow them to invest more in education and professional training to improve indigenous economic systems, and
- Food sovereignty would be achieved, with livelihoods based within different geographical spheres and linked to complementary activities, such as traditional fishing and herding.
At the political level:
- Decision-making power over production and marketing would bring substantial changes to the economic system regarding land tenure, with the right to territory as a cornerstone
- Countries could proceed to change the social and political paradigms they live by, and
- Indigenous peoples and agriculture would be at the heart of the design, content, and rollout of national sovereign efforts to achieve internal development.
Our vision for the future puts us in a scenario where the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples will no longer exist. Indigenous peoples will have improved their living conditions by producing organically and in this way will have contributed to the recovery of ecosystems. Germ plasm diversity will be a guarantee of a diet rich in nutrients and suited to geographical locales. Production and distribution systems will feed the entire population.
“Improvements in the quality of life of indigenous peoples would also contribute to strengthening the position of indigenous women as the ones who create and care for life.”
Legislation and the constitution would reflect this new reality by securing territorial property rights and encouraging food sovereignty. The agricultural frontier could be broadened based on diversified production, where science and technology would help deepen indigenous knowledge so it can be applied elsewhere, respecting its spirit and style.
Improvements in the quality of life of indigenous peoples would also contribute to strengthening the position of indigenous women as the ones who create and care for life, placing them in positions of leadership and representation for our peoples.
Power to make sovereign decisionsThis entire process can be summarized in the concept of food sovereignty. It implies in first place, control over production systems to be able to decide what, how, and when to produce, as well as control over the cultural environment in which that happens. It also implies control over what is produced and where and how that is placed in different markets. In recent decades, experiences show that such processes require an agriculture that is diversified and sustainable, one that respects Mother Earth.
CHIRAPAQ, the Centre for Peru’s Indigenous Cultures, carried out a food sovereignty program during the decade of the 1990s in the region of Vilcas Huaman in Ayacucho. We did so right in the middle of the war that affected our country, and right in the war zone. It involved:
- Reestablishing diverse varieties of potatoes, corn, beans, and medicinal plants
- Resurrecting farming methods and technologies, expanding farming into new areas, and establishing water sources
- Renewing organic pest control methods and fertilizers that have increased yields and diversified family diets
- Reintroducing native small animal species
- Improving the nutrition of participating families, with a consequent improvement in school performance of boys and girls
- Strengthening community organizations
- Valuing and making evident the work and contribution of women and girls.
The primary basis of this initiative was the linking of traditional farming cycles, water management, and the in-the-field improvements of the crops cultivated. While it is true that improvements in nutrition and in the quality of life of the communities involved in the program were achieved, the scope was still quite limited.
Between Reality and PotentialAccording to the latest studies, food insecurity is concentrated in regions where indigenous peoples live and in poor urban communities made up mostly of indigenous migrants and their descendants. Nothing is as ironic as the fact that indigenous peoples, who provided the world with so many different kinds of foods, do not have the means to use our knowledge to escape from malnutrition and poverty.
We indigenous people have been building mechanisms to address our poverty, but the central issue – power – requires structural changes in our societies, regarding who belongs, who contributes to development, and what development models and economic systems can make society viable.
“To speak of the future of agriculture is to speak of about the future of the earth, of indigenous peoples, and of humanity as a whole.”
It is not mere rhetoric to say that a pachacuti (big change) is needed to transform our situation. The world as a whole needs a paradigm shift, and in the current circumstances agriculture – as a visible expression of our love for Mother Earth – shows us just how hard this will be. To speak of the future of agriculture is to speak of about the future of the earth, of indigenous peoples, and of humanity as a whole.