Agroecology for sustainable food systems: a perspective from indigenous peoples

By | 25 October, 2017


G-STIC – Technological Solutions for SDGs, Brussels, 23-25 October 2017

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Executive Director, Tebtebba (Indigenous Peoples International Centre for Policy Research and Education)


First let me thank the Third World Network and the South Centre for inviting me to contribute to this session on ” Agroecology for Sustainable Food Systems.” I apologize for my inability to take part in person, so I hope you will bear with me as I present virtually. My presentation is from two perspectives. First as an indigenous person, specifically as the Executive Director of Tebtebba (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education) and secondly, as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tebtebba has acted as a co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group at the UN since 1995 at the Commission on Sustainable Development and now at the High Level Political Forum.

The issue of agricultural food production systems is very close to our hearts and experiences as indigenous peoples as our traditional food production systems have and continue to play vital roles in ensuring our very survival and well-being as distinct peoples. Food and food production for us is not just for our nourishment but these also form part of our identities and cultures.

Looking at the definition and principles of agro-ecology, I can daresay that indigenous peoples, in many respects, are the world’s original agro-ecologists. We have established and sustained highly diverse farms and farming landscapes which remain as hotspots of biodiversity. Many of the world’s remaining ecosystems which are in better shape overlap with indigenous peoples’ traditional territories. These landscapes range from high mountain ranges, tropical forests , savannahs, arid and semi-arid lands, valleys, wetlands, low lying islands, rangelands and Arctic landscapes.

The diversity of our food production systems depend on the ecosystems which we inhabited since time immemorial. These include rotational farming or swidden agriculture, agro-forestry, fishing, pastoralism and hunting and gathering. Aside from providing food security, these traditional food production systems and livelihoods define our cultures, identities and wellbeing. For example, our culture as Kankana-ey Igorot people includes the performance of community celebrations and rituals which we call “begnas” before we plant and after we harvest rice. We call on the Creator. the deities, spirits and ancestors to help ensure bountiful harvests. Doing a begnas before transplanting seedlings to the rice paddies is also a mechanism to prevent rats from invading the fields. Aside from our rituals we still practice traditional mutual labour exchange (ugugbo) which lighten the burdens of planting and harvesting our food crops and ensure community cohesion amongst us.

Several indigenous peoples include in their identities the main foods which sustain them. For example the Maya peoples refer to themselves as the Corn People. They believe they came from corn and this is part of their creation story. There are many other indigenous peoples from the Americas and the Caribbean who are also corn people. Their songs and ceremonies revolve around the celebration of corn. There are several indigenous peoples in North America who also refer to themselves as the salmon people.

Indigenous Food Production Systems and Rights to Lands and Resources

It is without any question that the sustainability of the indigenous peoples’ food production systems is intricately linked with the protection, respect and fulfillment of their inherent rights to their lands and territories and their right to culture, right to food and to development. This view is aptly captured in an indigenous peoples’ statement.

“The health and survival of our corn mother/father in all its natural varieties, colors and original strength and resilience cannot be separated from the health and survival of our Peoples. Our struggles to protect corn as a source of our lives cannot be separated from our struggles to defend our rights to land, water, traditional knowledge and self‐determination”. [1]

During the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues a session was devoted to the rights of indigenous peoples to food and food sovereignty. A conclusion reached stressed that

“… indigenous peoples’ right to food and food sovereignty is inextricably linked with the collective recognition of rights to land and territories and resources, culture, values and social organization. languages, social life and identity. Subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing, traditional herding, shifting cultivation, and gathering are essential not only to the right to food, but to nurturing their cultures,languages, social life and identity.” [2]

This is the reason why indigenous peoples persisted in ensuring that respect for human rights, including indigenous peoples’ rights enters into the final document of the 2030 Development Agenda. We are convinced that if our rights enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention No. 169 are not effectively implemented, our survival, dignity and well-being as indigenous peoples will not be ensured. Our contributions to sustainable development will also be diminished.
Sockeye salmon is a traditional food for many indigenous peoples in North America, like the Syilx people in Okanagan Sockeye salmon is central to their subsistence, their culture and identities. Their culture and food systems were seriously threatened when industrial reservoirs were erected and hydro-electric dams were built in the 1960s along the Columbia River. Salmon sockeye almost became extinct in the Okanagan Basin as their passage through the creeks and lakes were obstructed. The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) in cooperation with the provincial, federal and US tribes and agencies worked for many years to rebuild the sockeye salmon run from 300,000 to 500,000 returning annually to the Okanagan Lake. Major ceremonies were held to celebrate this success which many thought will be impossible to do.

Recycling of biomass, maintaining soil fertility, balancing nutrient flows, ensuring crop, animal and genetic diversity, adequate water provision, protection of forests and prevention of soil erosion are some practices embedded in our traditional production and natural resource management systems. In Tinoc, Ifugao in the Philippines the Kalanguya regularly go to the tropical forests to collect forest soil which will be mixed with the soil of the rice paddies. They believe that the micro-organisms in the forest soil are needed to ensure soil fertility.

I grew up and took part in agricultural work in my own Kankana-ey-Igorot village. The knowledge and practices I learned from my elders still continues to be transmitted to our younger generations. The indigenous women are the ones mainly responsible for passing on traditional knowledge and practices. They are the ones who keep the traditional seed varieties and maintain the rice terraces and swidden fields. Nutrients for our ricefields and gardens come from composted materials, cover crop mulching and green manure from sunflowers, weeds, rice stalks, banana stalks mixed with the manure of our pigs. Insects are valued strongly by us and we learn which are the beneficial ones which improve soil fertility, promote pollination and the control of pests. We are taught what plants attract beneficial insects and repel pests. Rice terracing and sloping agriculture are our technologies for food production and these help prevent landslides, retain water and maintain soil fertility.

Indigenous peoples have long-established knowledge, practices and technologies which predate and and yet are consistent with the principles of the ecosystem approach or landscape approach as defined today. Maintaining healthy forests to ensure soil fertility, regulate climate and provision of adequate water is at the core of our traditional natural resource management systems. These systems include the traditional forest management systems such as the “lapat”, “batangan” and “muyung” systems of the Tingguian, Kankana-ey and the Ifugao peoples of the Cordillera region in the Philippines. The Dayaks of Borneo practice a similar system called “dahas” . Customary laws are established within each community and adherence to these is crucial so that the forests will be sustainably managed and agriculture will continue to benefit from these forests.

While these knowledge and practices still continue up to the present, these have faced serious threats and continue to be challenged by States and corporations. The introduction of the Green Revolution in Asia has almost decimated the diverse traditional rice varieties developed and nurtured by indigenous peoples. Major efforts were exerted to counter the mono-cropping promoted by the Green Revolution and in-situ and ex-situ seed banks have been established by them to save their own varieties. The entry of genetically-modified seeds have been resisted by many indigenous farmers but this has been a very uphill struggle because of the power of multinational seed companies. Fortunately, indigenous peoples still maintain and plant diverse varieties of rice, millet, barley, corn, root-crops, fruit trees, among others.

Some government officials in the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests have been among those who promoted mono-cropping and the use of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers in indigenous peoples’ communities. Additionally, incentives and perverse subsidies have been provided by governments in collaboration with corporations involved in seed, fertilizer and pesticide production. Aside from being constantly pushed to use so-called modern agriculture technologies, indigenous peoples also suffered from the discrimination and denigration of their traditional knowledge and practices in food production. Shifting cultivators or rotational agriculture practitioners have been blamed as the ones causing deforestation. In some cases traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples have been criminalized, for example in Thailand where shifting cultivation is considered as illegal.

Indigenous peoples who are pastoralists in Africa, the Arctic. Latin America and parts of Asia, also are very much aware of the need to maintain diverse animal species of cattle, goats, reindeers, sheep, llamas and alpacas to ensure the sustainability of their animal food production systems. They have developed breeding practices to enhance the diversity of their animals and their veterinary knowledge developed and emerged from thousands of years of doing pastoralism.

Pastoralism, a traditional food and livelihood system of indigenous peoples, have faced and continue to face serious challenges. Many pastoralists have been displaced from their rangelands when these were made National Parks or conservation areas. Discriminatory policies have been made to justify measures which converted grazing lands of pastoralists to settled mono-cropping agriculture. In some countries these actions were justified for the achievement of MDG Goal 1, the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. With the adoption of the 2030 Development Agenda, there have been positive shifts in the way pastoralism is regarded. Pastoralists are included in the list of populations of SDG Target 2.3. UNEP and IUCN also finally recognized the contributions of pastoralism to sustainable development as seen in their recent description of pastoralism ;

” Pastoralism—extensive livestock production in the rangelands—is one of the most sustainable food systems on the planet. Pastoralists are stewards of more than a quarter of the world’s land, conserving rangeland biodiversity and protecting ecosystem services.They produce high quality milk and meat that are healthier and have lower environmental impacts than similar products from intensive systems, as well as other high value products like fiber and leather.”[3]

Role of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In performing my mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I have taken part in the efforts to put human rights into the 2030 Development Agenda. Together with other Special Rapporteurs we have made a Joint Communication to the UN General Assembly to call on the States to include respect for all human rights as key framework for the Agenda. Thus, paragraph 19 of the 2030 Declaration which reaffirmed the importance of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and other international human rights treaties and the responsibility of States to protect, respect and promote human rights is a crucial paragraph for us, mandate holders.

My mandate is mainly to monitor and address the obstacles and barriers and to look into good practices in the implementation of indigenous peoples rights. I do this by receiving communications on allegations of violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. Many of the communications I receive related to the violations of their right to their lands, territories and resources, their cultural rights and their right to food and to development. To deal with these I write communications to the governments on these allegations I received. I also do official country visits upon invitation of Governments. Ìn these visits I also witnessed these same violations these are reflected in my country reports. The countries ì visited of which I made official country reports are Paraguay, Honduras, Brazil, USA and Australia. [4]

The third area of work is writing thematic reports. Several of my reports, even if not directly related to food production, refer to the situation of indigenous peoples in relation to food production systems. These are the two reports I made on investments and free trade and impacts on the rights of indigenous peoples[5], the report on indigenous women and girls” [6] and the one on “Conservation and Indigenous Peoples Rights” [7].

In all my country and thematic reports, I make recommendations on how governments and other actors can better protect and fulfill the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, their right to development and to their cultures. For example in my report on Brazil, I decried the displacement of the Kaoiwa-Guarani people from their traditional territories by powerful agricultural land-owners who then convert these lands into monocrop plantations of soya, corn and also cattle ranches. Hunger, poverty,assasinations and high rates of suicides among the Kaiowa-Guarani is what I have seen , not to speak of many violent incidents against them. I recommended to the government to return back some of the lands taken away from them and to provide titles for their land claims and to bring the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings to justice.

The SDGs and Indigenous Peoples Right to Food

Measures need to be taken to review and rectify government policies and actions which are not supportive of indigenous food production systems and those of small farmers. While there is an increasing recognition of the significant contributions of indigenous peoples and small farmers for the improvement of food production, this is still more in the realm of rhetorics and still have to seen in practice. The promotion of agro-ecology has a great potential to reinforce the positive contributions of indigenous peoples’ traditional food production systems not just for food security but also for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, cultural diversity (revitalization of indigenous knowledge systems and cultures) and resilience and adaptation to climate change.

Thus, I strongly support the moves to promote agro-ecology and indigenous peoples’ food production systems.

Let me now cite some SDG goals and targets which indigenous peoples advocated for. SDG 1, eradication of poverty, has Target 1.4. which mentioned the importance of ensuring ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.

SDG 2 which aims to end hunger and achieve food security, improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture has included some targets and indicators which are relevant for indigenous peoples.

Target 2.3. and 2.4. say that by 2030, agricultural productivity and incomes of small scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services…

For these goals to be achieved it is an imperative that indigenous peoples collective and individual rights to their lands, territories and resources have to be respected and protected. The recognition and support for indigenous traditional livelihoods like rotational agriculture, pastoralism, etc. should also be provided and policies and laws which discriminate and criminalize these should be repealed.

Target 2.5. stressed the need to maintain the genetic diversity of seeds and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed. This means that indigenous knowledge and systems of protecting and using sustainably biological diversity should also be recognized and supported through policy reforms and the inclusion of indigenous peoples in the development and implementation of relevant programs.

How indigenous peoples land and resource rights of indigenous peoples are being protected and respected should be monitored and specific indicators be developed to measure these. As far as national progress reviews at national level is concerned, Paragraph 79 of the 2030 Agenda states;

“We also encourage Member States to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels which are country-led and country driven. Such reviews should draw on contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders, in line with national circumstances, policies and priorities. “

Monitoring is a crucial process to see whether we are achieving the SDGs. For almost 6 years now, Community-based Monitoring and Information Systems (CBMIS) have been put in place in various countries where the partners of Tebtebba are found. Indigenous peoples at the community levels are trained to monitor and report on the changes happening. For them to do these effectively they map their territories and do resource inventories so they will have a more objective understanding of their own landscape and the resources which form the baseline for their monitoring work. We are also part of the Indigenous Navigator which is doing a similar process but on a nationwide scale. Data which will be generated from these two processes will show how the SDGs are being implemented or not. We and our partners work with local governments and other relevant government agencies.

Finally, Goal 5 which is on gender equality is highly relevant for indigenous women and so are the targets established. This include Targets 5.1., 5.2 and 5.3 which call for ending discrimination and violence against women, including trafficking and harmful practices. Target 5.a. on reforms to give women equal rights and access to ownership and control over land, is very important as these reforms can help bring about gender equality.

I hope this conference will come out with very concrete recommendations on how indigenous peoples food production systems which include agriculture, agro-forestry, fisheries, pastoralism and hunting and gathering, among others, can be supported in terms of policy changes and financial and technical support. While the SDGs contain references to indigenous peoples and the targets I referred to should be reached, I think much more should be done to further include indigenous peoples concerns and recommendations. It is our hope that the indicators which are being developed will reflect the indicators proposed by indigenous peoples.

Tebtebba will continue to play its role as the co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) during the High Level Political Forum. It will ensure the mobilization of the members of the Group at the national and local levels to get the States to effectively implement the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Results of the monitoring of the implementation of the SDGs at country levels will be brought to the attention of the High Level Political Forum. We thank the European Union, the Tamalpais Trust and The Christensen Fund for providing support for this work on SDGs and monitoring of the implementation of these SDGs as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As the Special Rapporteur I will continue to perform my mandate as best as I can. I will continue monitoring and reporting on how indigenous peoples’ rights are considered and protected in the implementation of the SDGs. This includes looking into how the food production systems of indigenous peoples which are sustainable are supported and enhanced.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to address you all and I look forward to further strengthening the relationships of indigenous peoples with civil society organizations, like the Third World Network and all of you who are present in this conference.


[1] Declaration of Santa Domingo Tomaltepec, La Lucha Sigue, El Maiz Vive (The Struggle Continues, The Corn Lives)”, Indigenous Peoples International Conference on Corn, Oaxaca Mexico, September 28‐ 30, 2013
[2] E/2012/43, E/C.19/2012, paragraph 56, Report of the 11th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (7-18 May 2012).
[3] UNEP/IUCN, “Sustainable Pastoralism and the Post 2015 Agenda. Opportunities and Barriers to Pastoralism for Global Food Production and Environmental Stewardship. Downloaded Oct. 23, 2017.
[4] All the reports of these official country visits can be downloaded from
[5] A/HRC/33/42. ” Impact of International Investment Agreements on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” , (2016). A/70/301. Impact of international investments and Free Trade on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2015). All of the reports can be downloaded in
[6] A/HRC/30/4, Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls (2015)
[7] A/71/229, 2016




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