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The Role of Indigenous Women in Preserving Food Security

Amid climate change and conflict, it is imperative to build a more resilient global food system. Food insecurity in a world in crisis is a particularly critical concern for many Indigenous Peoples. As food providers and guardians of biodiversity, Indigenous women are more directly impacted by current compounded threats. They also hold vital wisdom that can lead to effective, actionable insights. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) they preserve encompasses Indigenous worldviews, reflects Indigenous People’s intimate relationship with their environment, and offers nature-based solutions to today’s concurrent “polycrises”.

Through their daily practices, Indigenous women have accumulated a specialized TEK that is often relevant for the management of agrobiodiversity and the transformation and conservation of food. Their role in the cultural transmission of TEK from generation to generation forms the basis for the food security and well-being of their communities. Elevating Indigenous women's traditional practices, and promoting their participation in decision-making bodies related to natural resource management, must thus be key components of efforts to avert a global food crisis.

Climate Change and Conflict as Threats to Food Security

Food security can be defined as the availability of sufficient food that is stable in supply, nutritious, and accessible to individuals and households. Recent studies have investigated the links between extreme events – e.g., those caused by climate change, economic or geopolitical shocks, and disease epidemics – and global food security. Climate-related shocks and stressors – severe floods, droughts, heat waves, and the collapse of ecosystem services (natural benefits from the environmental systems on which we rely for our survival and wellbeing) – are becoming more frequent, severe and unpredictable. Such events adversely affect agricultural production and yield, disrupt supply chains, and are among the biggest threats to food security.

At the same time, over half of the world’s food insecure populations live in conflict-prone regions. These include failed states and areas affected by political volatility, terrorism, civil unrest, or armed conflict. Together with climate change and biodiversity erosion, the instability and displacement caused by these conflicts are likely to represent the most direct threats to global food security in years to come. Their intertwined effects are already being felt across the globe.

Many Indigenous communities have a heightened sensitivity to climate change, political instability, and food insecurity. Their high dependence on the land, severe socioeconomic inequalities, and lack of representation in decision-making spaces combine to increase their vulnerability and hamper their adaptive capacity – but they are fighting back. Indigenous women are often at the vanguard of human rights activism and environmental protection advocacy across the globe. Yet, as noted in a previous post, violence against Indigenous environmental defenders, many of whom are women, is at an all-time high.

Indigenous Women and Girls and Food (In)security

Women and girls from Indigenous communities are not intrinsically vulnerable. They suffer an elevated burden of gender inequality and discrimination due to the intersectionality of systemicvulnerabilities they face. These include the systematic lack of respect for their individual and collective rights, which compromises their ability to manage crises, including environmental violence.

Together with their families and communities, Indigenous women and girls live in some of the most remote areas in the world – jungles and forests, mountains, deserts, and the Arctic tundra. They subsist off the land and waters through farming, herding, hunting, fishing, and gathering for their main food supplies, and play an essential role in biodiversity conservation.

Indigenous women and girls also perform essential tasks in food preparation and preservation. They feed not only themselves and their families — the knowledge and practices they have developed over generations can help feed the entire world. Smallholder producers, including Indigenous Peoples and local communities, are responsible for producing 60-80 percent of the world’s food. Furthermore, small-scale food production tends to be more sustainable and benefits more people than large-scale monoculture plantations. It also provides the diversity needed for a healthy diet, and strengthens the resilience and adaptive capacity of our food systems.

Yet, all too often, governments fail to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ rights. They collectively manage more than half of the world’s land, but only have legally secured rights to 10 percent of them. Indigenous women are especially likely to lack rights to community lands and resources. Persistent lack of disaggregated data collection contributes to their invisibility, negating the possibility of informing effective, gender-transformative policymaking and programming. When their rights and capacities are recognized, by contrast, the positive impact is significant. Provided with favorable conditions, Indigenous women can improve their families’ diets, generate surpluses for the market, and leverage their knowledge of wild biodiversity for medicinal purposes and supplementary nutrition.

Call to Action

In November 2022, the COP27 Presidency, together with FAO, launched the Food and Agriculture for a Sustainable Transformation (FAST) Initiative to improve the quantity and quality of climate finance for agriculture and food systems by 2030. Global investors asked FAO to produce a roadmap to 2050 to align the “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use Sector” with a sustainable 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway. Another new program announced, I-CAN – Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition – promises to accelerate transformative action to address climate change and nutrition challenges. Efforts by these and other initiatives must address the accelerating pace of agricultural expansion into new lands, often to grow animal feed rather than food for direct human consumption. The resulting deforestation causes huge ecological damage, fuels conflict, and instigates the displacement and even killing of Indigenous People, either directly or by destroying the land on which they depend for their survival.

The international community must also develop and implement policy frameworks that recognize the traditional customs and lands of Indigenous Peoples, and the valuable TEK they hold as custodians of much of the world's biodiversity and food resources. Strategies and policies that promote the autonomous use and management of the natural resources in Indigenous territories depends on recognition and respect for this knowledge. In turn, Indigenous Peoples’ unrestricted access to the land of their ancestors constitutes the bedrock foundation of Indigenous food security.

As global efforts ramp up to address the interlinked challenges of conflict, food security and climate change adaptation, promoting Indigenous women’s and girls’ remarkable capacity for sustainability and resilience is more important than ever. Gender inclusion plans that incorporate Indigenous women's traditional practices and their participation in decision-making bodies related to natural resource management – with obvious connections to food availability, food access, and food utilization – must be a component of these efforts. By investing in Indigenous women and girls, we invest in our planet, and enhance food security for all of us.


(c) 2023, Gender, Natural Resources, Climate, and Peace



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