Indigenous agricultural practices hold key to maintaining biodiversity & mitigating climate change


In early May 2017, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food hosted its 2nd International Dialogue with over 250 food systems leaders from the local to the global, to gain deeper insights into the connections between climate change and food systems, to craft visions of the food systems we need today and tomorrow, and to chart potential pathways to get there.

Global Alliance member Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) sponsored six of their youth alumni to attend the gathering. Alumnus Michele Pedrotti sat down with Phrang Roy, Coordinator of the global Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, Councillor of Slow Food International, IPES-Food Panelist and Chairman of North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), Meghalaya, to ask pressing questions about where food and agriculture systems can point to positive solutions to climate change.

Through the International Dialogue and all of its work, the Global Alliance aims to bring together diverse stakeholders from different sectors, geographies, and ideologies to facilitate genuine global dialogue on critical issues related to transitions to sustainable food systems. To that end, we are pleased to make these interviews available to contribute to thinking, discussion, and debate about food systems reform.

Q: Where does your work intersect with sustainable food systems and climate change? Why is it important to get food systems on the climate change agenda?

Phrang Roy (PR): I have spent my life working with Indigenous communities around the world, primarily around the fight for the rights of Indigenous communities to grow the food they want and to consume it the way they want. Often, governments put pressure on communities by trying to change their habits and their traditional knowledge, as they are treated as inferior to government-led options. In doing so, they push communities to change their seeds, use chemical fertilizers, and in general to homogenize their agricultural systems. This pressure is very strong and effective because it is also helped by an education system that places no value on Indigenous knowledge and which views traditional agricultural practices as primitive.

Luckily, evidence has been building in favour of sustainability and the positive effect that some Indigenous agriculture traditions have on climate change. Usually Indigenous communities employ principles of agroecology: they do not use chemicals, they undertake minimum tillage and they see forests and crops as one integrated ecosystem.

Indigenous food systems and community knowledge are good reminders about how a sustainable food system should be, and should motivate us to transition to food policies which can effectively mitigate climate change.

Q: Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for transitioning to more sustainable food systems in a climate changing world?

PR: Agro-tourism that is based on agroecology and involves the whole community is one such great opportunity. During my time in Italy, I realized how important it is that agro-tourism and food are so beautifully linked to a community’s traditional heritage. Food can connect people and nature. This connection should be restored everywhere as it has the potential to push the transition.

The promotion and preservation of biodiversity is another great opportunity. Growing and foraging different crops does help in risk management. Scientists have come to recognize that biodiversity is one of the most important measures to protect for climate change. Mono-cultivation should be forgotten; this practice is never done by an Indigenous community because it is a sign of disrespect to nature.

Q: What is the most important thing younger generations need to understand about how food systems and climate change are interconnected, and what can they do as individuals to support a shift in how we think about food systems?

PR: For many young people, especially among those with privilege, and youth in western countries, obesity represents a major challenge. In the past, many did not realize that good health depends on good nutrition, and that this depends on good soils. Industry has done a ‘good job’ in taking away this connection: you can buy very cheap food but you are not paying for all the other costs. In the business-as-usual scenario, with an increase in temperature to about 2°C, we will experience more deaths from lack of fruit and vegetables intake rather than from lack of calories.

Creating sustainable livelihood opportunities is important, especially for the young, but it represents a big challenge. Youth have to realize their health and their happiness relies on the health of the soil, and understand that our good soils are shrinking. Our issues aren’t just about population growth, but also because young people who are rapidly abandoning rural areas to go to cities are simply not attracted by nature and rural life.

Indigenous food systems and community knowledge are good reminders about how a sustainable food system should be, and should motivate us to transition to food policies which can effectively mitigate climate change.

Q: What are good practice examples, where you or others are involved in leveraging or transitioning to more sustainable, secure and equitable food systems?

PR: There are many things that our current agricultural system has to learn from Indigenous communities: first, for Indigenous communities, it is important that the community owns land. In North East India, for example, land owned by the government is very limited since everybody has a piece of land and there are important local institutions managing this. Secondly, when the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty undertook a study in Meghalaya and Kenya to get a better understanding of Indigenous well-being, they found that well-being is about peace and harmony – which in a matriarchal society, like the Khasis of Meghalaya, has to be linked to food and land belonging to women. In almost all the Indigenous communities around the world, food connects people and nature. This connection has to be central in a more sustainable system. For example, among the Khasis of Meghalaya (my Indigenous community) there is a particular tradition: when a child is born and his/her umbilical cord is cut, they attach it to one tree as the symbol of the link with nature. This connection is spiritual. Everything is connected – there is no difference between forest and fields; they are together as agroforestry. Chemicals and fertilizers are rarely used and the rotation system is every 7-10 years so nature and soil can restore completely. In general, the earth is seen as something sacred so usually it is not worked, but managed carefully like agroecology teaches.

At the institutional level, efforts should be made to effectively implement the U.N. law about introducing a register of biodiversity in all communities, and about the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities.

Nature’s equilibria are fragile and it is difficult to predict what will happen when we alter them. We should all take care of this planet but learn as equals and respect our differences.

Phrang Roy has served as Assistant President of IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development), Rome, and has more than 30 years of international experience supporting rural development and small-scale and Indigenous communities’ agriculture. Phrang became IFAD’s Assistant President in 2002 and was the first staff member of IFAD ever to do so, having been selected through a global search by a private sector-led headhunting exercise. Phrang is also the first and, so far, the only Indigenous person in the whole UN system to reach the level of Assistant Secretary General of the UN. As Assistant President of IFAD, he played a major role in promoting a greater focus on the sustainable approaches of Indigenous communities for which IFAD became the leading UN Agency. After retiring from IFAD at the end of 2006, Phrang joined the U.S.-based Christensen Fund, which is working for a more ecological and sustainable approach to development with a special emphasis on Indigenous communities, and is currently leading the global Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, Rome. He also holds the following positions: International Councillor of Slow Food International; Member of IPES-Food, Chairman of the Meghalaya State Water Foundation and Chairman of NESFAS, Shillong.

The vision of the BCFN Alumni group is to make the best use of the potential of young people involved with the issues of agri-food sustainability around the world. The aim is to create a community of active and committed alumni that contribute to the development of a more sustainable food system, through projects and other activities.

More interviews from participants from the Global Alliance 2nd International Dialogue are available, here.