Indigenous food systems prove highly resilient during COVID-19

Indigenous Peoples’ local agroecological food systems bring valuable lessons of resilience for policymakers heading to next month’s UN Food Systems Summit.

Cass Madden's picture
Insight by 
Cass Madden
Cass Madden is the coordinator and project manager for the secretariat of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples
26 August 2021
Food year: exploring the policies and practices to transform our food systems
A series of blogs shining a light on the critical issues for food policies around the 2021 Food Systems Summit
Two people pour liquid on a plate of potatoes.

In the Potato Park of Cusco, Peru, farmers celebrate their most precious crop every year on May 30, on National Potato Day. This images shows farmers making a traditional offering of chica, a fermented corn beer, and coca leaves in thanks for an abundant harvest of native potatoes (Photo: copyright Enrique Granados)

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt in early 2020, people around the globe were left struggling to support themselves and their families, without work or transport, and facing shortages of products from toilet paper to basic foodstuffs.

The pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of global food supply chains that rely on long distance transportation, and of farming systems that depend on access to markets to purchase external inputs and sell products. But it also highlighted the tremendous resilience of the self-reliant biocultural food systems of Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Indigenous mountain communities – from Peru to Kenya to Tajikistan, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea – were able to ensure the food security and health of their communities thanks to their localised, biodiverse, circular food systems founded on ancestral knowledge and cultural values.

This is the latest blog in the 'food year' series that explores policies and practice to transform our food systems. Read the first blog setting out practical ways for the summit’s convenors to regroup after getting off to a rocky start.

These communities have maintained and strengthened their Indigenous food systems through participation in community-to-community learning exchanges organised by the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples (INMIP), a global network of Indigenous farming communities spanning 11 countries.

INMIP has worked for nearly a decade on collective organisation and intercultural exchange to create momentum for global food systems transformation, seeking to reorient industrial and globalised food systems towards sustainable, local and native alternatives.

This work has united communities around emblematic crops – such as potato in Peru, cowpea in Kenya or aromatic rice in India – thT form the basis of biocultural food systems that have sustained Indigenous Peoples for generations.

These crops not only sustain Indigenous farmers in centres of origin, but today are among the world’s most important sources of calories.

INMIP farmers are experts in producing these globally important crops, maintaining and enhancing their genetic diversity to adapt to climate change. But the knowledge, innovation and resilience of Indigenous producers has become increasingly invisible as these crops have become more and more industrialised.

Reviving traditional practices

As urban populations around the world suffered the parallel disasters of COVID-19 infections and food shortages, these Indigenous farming communities reaped productive harvests. The economic and health crises were particularly strong in cities, where people live far away from food producing landscapes. In the global South, many city residents are themselves former farmers, who left behind their lands chasing the promise of economic opportunities.

But the neoliberal economic model, reliant on massive global markets that consolidate wealth in the hands of a few while individuals (and even states) scrape by, failed these urban migrants the world over.

The pandemic exposed their vulnerabilities: no formal employment contracts to guarantee them state protections, no formal housing to keep their families isolated and safe, and insufficient economic resources to afford adequate food. Thus, global urbanisation was reversed, with migrants abandoning cities and returning to the lands they had left behind.

INMIP farmers in India’s Eastern Himalayas reported that “despite the many challenges that the pandemic has brought, we see a positive side: many returning urban migrants using ancient and traditional practices started growing native food crops, preparing meals using native crops and wild plants and even began marketing some of these products to support their livelihoods. They are earning profit from ancient practices and knowledge, proving that one does not need to move to the city to have economic opportunities”.

INMIP communities reported few infections and no COVID-19-related deaths. The power of nutritious, native and local food has become obvious as the pandemic has endured. INMIP draws on the traditional farming knowledge held by Indigenous communities around the world which has maintained productive and balanced food producing ecosystems for thousands of years.

Our increasingly uncertain world with multiple and interconnected challenges – from climate change to food insecurity to pandemics – highlights the resilience of Indigenous farming communities more than ever before.

INMIP communities have responded to climate change, nurtured solidarity economies – prioritising social profitability over purely financial profit – and developed strategies of caring for the environment, particularly conserving biodiversity, food-producing habitats and natural water systems.

“Healthy lands produce healthy foods and farming native crops is much better because we know these strengthen our immunity and resistance to diseases like COVID-19,” says Ricardina Paco Condori, a farmer from the Parque de la Papa (Potato Park) in the southern Peruvian Andes.

Lessons for an alternative future of food

As the world looks towards post-COVID-19 recovery, these Indigenous communities share important lessons about resilience in the face of shocks and challenges.

The upcoming UN Food Systems Summit presents a crucial opportunity to reimagine our food system – one that contributes to a world that is healthy, just and sustainable for all. But the summit has been co-opted by corporate and green revolution agendas, pushing a belief that we can engineer ourselves out of any crisis, while sidelining the Indigenous and traditional food knowledge that has sustained our species for all of time.

Why should we rely on genetically modified crops, chemical fertilisers and artificial growing environments – whose long-term consequences for our already suffering planet are grim – when Indigenous and smallholder farmers around the world are implementing innovative solutions that preserve biodiversity, biocultural heritage and increase resilience and productivity?

INMIP invites us all to think about our relationship to food, to the natural world, and to the interspecies relationships that sustain us. The success of these communities in confronting the largest global crisis in a generation – not just surviving it, but thriving despite tremendous obstacles – proves that an alternative world is possible.