What can indigenous peoples expect from the UN food summit?

Tribal groups like Tiwa, Karbi, Khasi and Jaintia participate in community fishing during Jonbeel festival near Jagiroad, east of Gauhati, India, in January, 2020. (Keystone/AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

As preparations for the UN global meeting on food systems are underway, indigenous peoples are trying to make their voices heard.

The UN global summit on food systems is turning into a power struggle between different interest groups that want to have their say in the future of food. In the midst of it all, indigenous peoples are arguing that they already produce and consume food sustainably, but warn that their traditional practices are under threat.

“[Indigenous people’s practices are] very much threatened because of the entry of big agribusiness corporations, monocultures, government policies and the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands,” former UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, told Geneva Solutions, as rights groups, UN agencies and other organisations met online last week to prepare for the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit.

The global meeting, due to be held in September or October, has been dubbed by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres a “people’s summit”, but not everyone agrees. Peasant and indigenous rights groups have boycotted the meeting, claiming that it is being overrun by corporate interests, and held their own discussions last week in protest.

While sharing these worries, Tauli-Corpuz, like many other fellow indigenous leaders, preferred to participate in the meetings with the hope of tipping the scales on the outcome of the discussions.

Indigenous food systems in danger. Food is one of the major drivers of climate change, accounting for roughly one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. As global temperatures continue to climb, making extreme weather events worse and threatening the lives of millions of people, the UN is convening an international conference with the aim of sparking a shift towards more sustainable and healthy diets.

Indigenous peoples make up five per cent of the world’s population yet their lands sustain 80 per cent of the Earth’s biodiversity. They hunt, gather, fish and cultivate food while protecting nature and helping it regenerate, making them an essential source of wisdom for sustainability. However, their traditional knowledge and practices risk disappearing due to climate change and the pressure from governments and other actors to switch to large-scale agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In the Philippines, indigenous communities have complained of unfair leasing and selling contracts with the palm oil industry. Expansion of large plantations in Ethiopia have left Suri pastoralists without grazing lands for their cattle, fuelling ethnic tensions. The Sami in Northern Europe have often had their traditional practices challenged by national laws on fishing licenses and quotas.

“This is done in the guise of producing more food,” Tauli-Corpuz says, who witnessed many of these practices when she was UN special rapporteur for indigenous peoples. Instead, it is threatening the food security of these communities as well as their cultural rights.

A game-changing summit? The food summit is being framed as the platform for “game-changing” solutions. Phrang Roy, coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty and a member of the Khasi people in northeastern India, argues that this discourse could be distracting.

“There is a very strong danger that we may forget that there are existing game-changing food systems, and that only if they are recognised, acknowledged and supported properly, can we build on them and move forward,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Indigenous food systems in India, according to Roy, have shown great resistance against food insecurity. There are also other benefits, according to Tauli-Corpuz, including less pollution to the soil and water, lower levels of deforestation and more involvement from communities.

The food summit has been organised into five main groups called action tracks, focusing on major themes, including consumer behaviour, poverty and environment friendly food systems. Each of the tracks will produce hundreds of solutions and rights groups worry that alternative options coming from indigenous knowledge and agroecology will get lost in the bulk of proposals.

Silence on underlying problems. Another criticism often thrown at the summit is that it fails to address the underlying causes of many of the problems, including land rights. Worldwide, 70 per cent of farmland belongs to one per cent of farmland landowners, according to the Land Inequality Initiative. Indigenous land rights are often not recognised by states and when they do in theory, in practice, concessions for mining and other activities in their ancestral territories are granted to companies without properly consulting them.

Investment policies, according to Tauli-Corpuz, are one of the main reasons indigenous communities are being driven off their lands. “Global investment and trade agreements are pushing states to change their investment and trading laws to support this kind of industrialised and globalised agriculture,” she said.

These types of agreements need to take into account the interests of indigenous peoples, she added.

An indigenous fund. There are many initiatives, particularly led by the UN, to support indigenous food systems. But these, according to Roy, are still too sporadic and dependent on outside organisations.

One of the proposals he is working on along the FAO that he hopes can come out of the summit is creating a global fund to preserve indigenous food systems. This financial support, according to Roy, could help build the necessary capacity and infrastructure for example for conducting studies on indigenous practices.

“Many of the indigenous groups in the independent dialogues that have been taking place have fully supported this idea,” he said.

As of now a few countries, including Norway, Finland, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand, have expressed support to indigenous peoples, Roy said. “We want to see that turn into an important resolution or even an acknowledgement,” he added.

For Tauli-Corpuz, recognition of indigenous rights would go a long way: “We want to convince the summit decision makers to integrate the right of indigenous peoples to their territories and resources, the right to determine how and what kind of development and agriculture system they would like to have in their communities, as well as their right to have their traditional knowledge and traditional system to support themselves.”

Despite recognising some good signs, both Roy and Tauli-Corpuz are managing their expectations.

“Indigenous peoples are used to having long battles with global bodies because of the very nature of these bodies. They consist of a plethora of governments and organisations and private sectors with different views, which are often contrary to ours and therefore we don't expect miracles to happen,” Roy warned.

“We are still trying to do what we can, but the results will tell us exactly whose interests have been the strongest in this summit,” Tauli-Corpuz added.