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The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Addresses Food Sovereignty and Food Security

arton3890A half-day dialogue on food sovereignty was held at the beginning of the second week of the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). By videolink, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, shared the results of his investigations on the situation of indigenous peoples globally with regard to food security and food sovereignty. Indigenous peoples face increased pressure on land, and their access to resources is continually threatened by large-scale development projects that contribute to displacement. Additionally, food insecurity and extreme poverty disproportionately affect indigenous peoples. As communities lose control over their food systems and shift to “Western diets” heavier in saturated fats, salt, and sugars, they often suffer from adverse health effects caused by this “nutrition transition.”

In accordance with the right to food, States are required to respect the rights of all individuals to feed themselves in dignity. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Mr. de Schutter pointed out, takes this a step further, stressing the collective aspects of the right to food in combination with the right to maintain and strengthen institutions, cultures, and traditions, including the pursuance of subsistence activities and the right to access land and resources. The normative content of the right to food includes the cultural acceptability of available food. Guideline 10.10 of FAO’s voluntary guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security (2004), affirms States’ responsibility to address the cultural aspects of nutrition and diet.

The Special Rapporteur heralded the recent adoption (11 May 2012) of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). A landmark in the recognition of collective rights and customary forms of tenure, this statement explicitly recognizes indigenous communities and States’ obligations towards them. Finally, he welcomed the increased recognition of the importance of agro-biodiversity and local agri-food systems in providing the diversity necessary for better diets and better health, as this was another opportunity to enhance indigenous peoples’ food security and food sovereignty.

Also by videolink, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, emphasized his organization’s commitment to involving multiple stakeholders and the importance of engaging “new actors, in the construction of the world we want.” The full participation of civil society, social movements, and indigenous peoples is particularly important to FAO, he explained while citing their influence in the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance. Mr. Graziano further stressed his commitment to the effective implementation of FAO’s Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (2010), rooted in concepts enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Following her Director-General’s statement, FAO’s Director of Gender Equity and Rural Employment Marcela Villareal also celebrated the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance. She emphasized that chapter 9 of this document focuses entirely on the rights of indigenous peoples and calls upon States to recognize indigenous communities’ legitimate tenure rights to their ancestral lands, and the collective, social, cultural, spiritual, economic, and environmental values of their lands, fisheries, and forests. This document, Ms. Villareal concluded, represents the first instrument to place tenure rights in the context of human rights.

Saudata Aboubacrine, of the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, highlighted the relevance of this discussion especially for indigenous peoples facing a food crisis in the Sahel. Providing a historical overview of the framework for food sovereignty, Ms. Aboubacrine focused in particular on the Nyeleni Declaration (adopted in Bamako, Mali, in 2007) and FAO’s Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which together established fundamental principles including on self-determination, free prior and informed consent (FPIC), tenure rights, collective rights, and gender equality. She also referred to FAO’s civil society mechanism (CSM) for food security, created in October 2011, which she described as the only body that engages civil society, private and public sectors, the World Bank, NGOs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and other stakeholders on this subject. Going forward, she recommended FAO and relevant stakeholders to implement direct support for indigenous peoples, to ensure their direct involvement at the grassroots level, including in the provision of emergency assistance to the people of the Sahel.

Secretary-General of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), Joan Carling, identified specific challenges of indigenous peoples in Asia regarding food security and sovereignty in relation to traditional livelihoods, resource management, land rights, dignity, and culture. The destruction of indigenous peoples’ land and resources, the prohibition of historical practices including “shifting cultivation” (also known as “slash and burn” or rotational agriculture), and the adverse effects of climate change form three key problems for many South and Southeast Asian indigenous communities. Ms. Carling concluded by recommending the legal recognition, protection, and enhancement of sustainable livelihoods and resource management systems of indigenous peoples, along with the protection of their local economies and food security and the provision of funds for climate change adaptation.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, stated that the slow food movement has sought to preserve agriculture and food biodiversity as a tool for ensuring the future of the planet. To halt the progressive loss of biodiversity, the movement emphasizes the inalienable right of peoples to control their own land and its cultivation and harvesting. Its Terra Madre network promotes dialogue, cultural exchange, and solidarity centred around the right to food, including respect for workers and the right to produce food using traditional and cultural practices. According to Slow Food, the global imbalance of quality food – where obesity and the over one billion undernourished people coexist – illustrates the failure of our industrial production-based global food system. This paradigm must be replaced, Mr. Petrini concluded, by a food system that protects the environment and the dignity of field and food workers, through the reintroduction of local food products and the participation of all, including women, the elderly and indigenous peoples, for the common good.

The final introductory statement was made by Maria Luisa Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations. Underscoring her country’s commitment to the food and nutritional security of indigenous peoples, as well as their importance in the promotion of sustainable development, Ms. Viotti detailed several relevant national initiatives. In addition to the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer programme, which provides a monthly stipend to Brazilian families living below the poverty line, the Government of Brazil enacted a National Food and Nutritional Security system which acts at federal, State, and local levels with the cooperation of civil society organizations, and a multi-stakeholder food security programme for indigenous women and children in two regions of Brazil. Much still remains to be done, Ms. Viotti acknowledged, but Brazil is open to constructive dialogue and cooperation with the Permanent Forum.

Sharing the results and recommendations of a study on shifting cultivation and the socio-cultural integrity of indigenous peoples (document E/C.19/2012/8), Raja Devashish Roy, member of the Permanent Forum, explained that this form of agricultural production is important for indigenous peoples’ social and cultural, but also economic, civil, and political rights as it is directly linked to indigenous peoples’ identity, spirituality, history, traditions, and other aspects of culture. The study recommends that the Permanent Forum organizes seminars and meetings on different aspects of shifting cultivation, including at the forthcoming 12th session, and for Member States and UN agencies to recognize the importance of this mode of cultivation for the identity and integrity of indigenous peoples. Adding his comments on the study, Permanent Forum member Simon William M’Vibodoulou recommended the elimination of discriminatory agricultural practices for indigenous peoples. He called for the incorporation of NGOs, universities, and indigenous populations themselves to study and disseminate knowledge regarding the importance of shifting cultivation as a means of subsistence and socio-cultural integrity for indigenous peoples.

In the discussion that followed, the representative of the Global Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus advocated the full inclusive participation of indigenous peoples in discussions that affect their human right to food. Mechanisms at local, regional, national, and international levels should be created to implement article 10 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which relates to FPIC and access to land for cultivation and food source sustainability.

The Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus continued in this vein by sharing key recommendations regarding the essential role of indigenous women in food production and security. These include: that FAO implement indigenous women’s land and water tenure rights; that FAO and other partners establish local seed banks managed by indigenous women; that the Permanent Forum promotes protection of indigenous cuisine, food sources, and methods of production; that States implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples regarding tenure rights, access to natural resources including adequate, appropriate, and sustainable foods; that FAO, States, and other agencies provide economic aid for indigenous women’s food projects; and that all indigenous peoples are ensured direct participation in processes of FAO, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and other bodies.

From regionally specific perspectives, the representative of the Pacific Caucus emphasized the fundamental human right of all people to access, produce, and consume healthy and safe food, and in particular those foods of cultural and customary import by indigenous peoples. Hjalmar Dahl of the Arctic Caucus, speaking on behalf of the Saami Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, raised concerns about the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on indigenous peoples’ food sources. He advocated that standard indicators of food insecurity be created, to ensure appropriate responses by the international community. Member of the Permanent Forum Anna Naykanchina, from the Russian Federation, spoke on food-related challenges of indigenous peoples in her region. Under Russian Federation law, indigenous peoples do not receive sufficient access to fishing, she stated, and proposed new legislation threatened to further limit their access. Ms. Naykanchina emphasized the importance of FPIC for indigenous peoples.

A representative of the government of Bolivia called the issue of food security “an indigenous emergency” as hunger, poverty, and lowered life expectancy have resulted from a imperialist-driven shift away from traditional indigenous food sources and practices. The new Bolivian constitution, instituted two years ago, tries to strengthen identity, particularly within Article 447 on food security and food sovereignty, by stating goals for rural development including prioritizing the consumption of agricultural products produced in Bolivian territory. The Permanent Forum should urge Member States to support and include indigenous peoples in the upcoming International Year of Quinoa (2013), he concluded, while reaffirming commitment to support the cultural values and traditions of indigenous peoples in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The representative of Ecuador also called for State policy that supports a productive food model, one that makes greater use of available and renewable natural resources. The concept of buen vivir, he illustrated, is built on the basis of a broader vision of development – an economic model that promotes inclusive economies together with production principled on full life, biodiversity, equality, integration, social cohesion, universal rights and human capacity, and harmony with nature. The representative concluded that the entire population has the right to food, in accordance with their own cultures, and emphasized the fundamental role played by women.

Argentina, while maintaining its reservation to the concept of food sovereignty, indicated its support and promotion of food security and the right to food as a fundamental, individual, human right. The representative shared Argentina’s support for the development and enhancement of agricultural production, access to training, and technical additions to production for indigenous communities.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which aims to enable rural poor people to overcome poverty by investing in rural agricultural livelihoods, considers the right to food a policy issue, which it tries to realize through financial support to development initiatives, people-centred investments, and a targeted approach to development, building on the initiatives and assets of rural communities. The Fund will hold an indigenous peoples’ forum in Rome in February 2013, where indigenous peoples will be invited to assess IFAD-funded projects and to develop a joint approach on food sovereignty and the right to food.

Side Event: Food Sovereignty and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Immediately following the half-day session, a side event was held to address the issues raised with a more in-depth focus, in the context of the legal protection of indigenous peoples’ food sovereignty.

Marcela Villareal of FAO expanded upon her earlier remarks, reiterating the major breakthrough represented by the Voluntary Guidelines and reformed role of the Committee on World Food Security. Related to food security and sovereignty, Ms. Villareal informed participants that currently under preparation are Guidelines for Responsible Agriculture Investment (RAI) to address, in part, landgrabbing – an obstacle to food sovereignty and the realization of the right to food. Additionally, FAO will open offices to directly engage with stakeholders, including indigenous peoples, and address the implementation of FAO’s Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

Expanding upon the integration of indigenous peoples into FAO’s work, Andrea Carmen of the International Indian Treaty Council referred to the first Global Consultation of FAO with indigenous peoples on the right to food and food sovereignty, which was held in Guatemala in 2002 and which resulted in the Declaration of Atitlán. The Declaration, states that the “denial of the right to food is a denial of our collective indigenous existence,” and affirms through a rights-based approach that cultural and spiritual relationship to traditional foods cannot be separated for indigenous peoples from discussions on food sovereignty. Ms. Carmen emphasized that FAO’s process, working in tandem with her organization, incorporated the direct input of more than 10,000 indigenous people, over four years, who field-tested cultural indicators to help shape them into effective tools for indigenous peoples to confront obstacles.

Ms. Carmen illustrated her comments with the situation of Rio Yaqui, her own people, who worked with community leaders, traditional knowledge holders, and elders to address the horrific health and birth defects caused by the high level of pesticides introduced by the “green revolution” policies of the Mexican government in partnership with international financial institutions (IFIs). Using cultural indicators helped community efforts to bring back traditional seeds and bolster food sovereignty, including through a recently-opened seed bank. She concluded by recommending the utilization of FAO’s structure as a model for other agencies to support the work of indigenous communities and supplement their efforts to restore and defend food sovereignty.

Phrang Roy of the Indigenous Platform for AgroBiodiversity also hailed FAO’s model, opining that the organization’s policy on indigenous peoples will improve the institutional environment and capacities to respond to and collaborate with indigenous peoples and their organizations, while integrating indigenous peoples’ issues into the normative and operational areas of FAO’s work. The model of agriculture as practiced by indigenous peoples, he continued, links producers and consumers in a sustainable manner. If international organizations like FAO seriously desire to learn from indigenous peoples, they should take into account the local food systems of indigenous communities, in the context of agro-ecological architecture, people-related production, and indigenous systems of knowledge.

Saudata Aboubacrine, of the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, expanded upon her earlier remarks by advocating for the protection of traditional production methods and calling for assistance for the many indigenous regions that face a relative lack of resources and information.

Several participants made interventions from the floor during this highly interactive discussion. An activist from Canada cited the gaps between the progressive policies of FAO’s Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the much less ambitious, in his view, Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance. As an indication of the limits of the multilateral system, this participant emphasized the necessity of a balancing process between tenure rights and human rights, with special attention given to indigenous peoples’ collective rights to tenure of land, fisheries, and forests.

Sandra Nelson-Zongo, also known as Akiwa Sequoyah, raised the issue of “Afroindigenous” identity of shared indigenous and African heritage and her concerns regarding the marginalization of this population in the Americas and West Indies in particular. She also presented the work of her NGO, which promotes the right to food and good food policies including urban gardens in Newark, Harlem, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the United States.

Wilson Littlechild of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada shared that the commission was ordered by Canadian courts to investigate the policies and abuses of Indian children by Canadian residential schools, for 130 years until 1996. One serious impact of the forced removal of children at the age of five or six to boarding schools for periods of ten to twelve years centred on food. Trauma caused by the removal of traditional food from indigenous Canadian children compounded with the prohibition and obstruction of traditional food practices including hunting, fishing, gathering, and trapping. Cultural and economic ramifications ensued, contributing to the dependence of Inuit peoples in Canada on government rations and the loss of connection to ancestral and communal practices.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, called attention to the dichotomy between widespread global starvation and fetishization of food through media in rich countries. Indigenous peoples, he concluded, are the only populations in the world with true knowledge on food, and this knowledge should be respected by FAO and other international bodies.

FAO’s Marcela Villareal thanked the participants for their interventions, and indicated her intention to bring these concerns to the new Director-General Graziano. She acknowledged the limits of the Voluntary Guidelines, limits shared with any negotiated document, but highlighted the work of indigenous peoples in its creation and the potential next steps founded on FAO’s Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

Finally, Ms. Carmen spoke of the importance of food sovereignty as both an articulation of indigenous peoples’ right to control their knowledge, land, and resources, but also as a political reclamation of traditional food practices that were eliminated by settler societies in their efforts to control indigenous communities. Indigenous knowledge, she concluded, will provide the solutions to address global crises including climate change; our collective survival depends on indigenous peoples’ food knowledge and heritage.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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