Interview WWF-International, Food Practice [1], with Cristina Eghenter on Inclusive Food System(s)

12 May 2021

(C) WWF-Indonesia/Kalimantan Barat

[1] The Food Practice of WWF-International is focused on transforming the major driver of biodiversity loss and, food production, to boost ‘nature positive production at scale. WWF in actively engaged in the preparation for the UN Food Systems Summit and currently co-lead Action Track 3.

What does it mean to have an inclusive food system and is that our status quo?

When we talk about inclusive food systems (I would like to highlight the plural form), we refer to ensuring that the dimensions of equity, rights, culturally appropriateness, participation are integrated throughout the food system. Inclusive food value chains are food production and processing systems that generate value(s) for all actors along the chain and create benefits for those groups that are often marginalized and vulnerable, including Indigenous Peoples, women, poor and other groups. A just transition in the food system needs to retain more value at local level.

In inclusive food systems, it is important to recognize, protect and support other food systems and the practices of farmers, fishers, etc that have proven or are proving economically, environmentally and culturally resilient and sustainable. One example is Indigenous food systems in many parts of the world, embedded in their territories of life, part of landscapes and seascapes that they have contributed to conserve and use based on their knowledge, innovation and practices. 

Transforming food systems to be more inclusive also goes through re-localizing the food system and reconnecting it with nature to secure sustainability and build much needed resilience to current challenges. The transformation will require changing the structure of relationships of the current system to adopt strong and shared values for safeguarding nature and culture, and ensuring a fair flow of economic benefits to food producers at local level. In this time of health, biodiversity and climate crises, acting faster and in culturally appropriate ways is important. Focus on local food systems enables more accurate mapping of food vulnerability events and facilitates rapid interventions to manage crises that sometimes can be resolved locally.

One way to promote inclusivity is also by valuing local diets and the cultural dimensions of food. What we consider food, how we prepare and eat it, embodies deep cultural meanings. Food recipes reflect history, carry traditions and reveal the identity of ethnic groups. Food marks every celebration of the life-cycle. 

Food is a basic need and human right. To build inclusive food systems, food needs to be seen in a holistic and relational dimension. The right to food is not only about securing enough food to eat. It is about food sovereignty of the rural and Indigenous communities, it is about protecting biodiversity and cultural heritage, preserving genetic diversity of cultivars and the traditional knowledge associated with its use, it is about securing diverse and nutritious diets, and it is about valuing the role of women in food security and food sovereignty.

How does having an inclusive food system tie in with WWF’s mission?

In times of Covid-19 pandemic, nature and climate change crises, food security, economic recession and heightened inequality have come to the fore of global challenges in forceful ways. According to the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission (2019), global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience, and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation. The landmark Global Assessment Report on the state of nature by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) similarly points out the severe negative impact of agriculture and food consumption patterns on nature. Moreover, it is an impoverished food system. The reduced diversity of food crops results in the loss of resilience of agricultural ecosystems. We also lose nutritional quality and benefits for human health and risk the disappearing of local wisdom and traditional knowledge linked to agricultural and food practices of local and Indigenous communities. 

(C) WWF-Indonesia/Sri Jimmy Kustini

Securing food availability and quality nutrition for all needs a new governance and transformation of the food system through re-localization and the application of ecological and human rights principles. New models of both production and consumption are needed to form a resilient food system that is local, sustainable, fair and healthy for all. 

One clear benefit of traditional agriculture and farming practices of rural and Indigenous Peoples is that they are based on a very different idea of food production which is nature-positive and nature-rich. Wild foods and natural ecosystems are an integral part of the production system. Many of these models, under good management, have been able to conserve key pillars of agricultural system like soil fertility, diversity of seeds and cultivars, water. The high biodiversity and agrobiodiversity are also a fundamental feature of Indigenous, small-holders and family food systems: high number of varieties known, used, cultivated, semi-managed, and consumed. In fact, these systems have overall proven resilient and sustainable, nutritious food secure and less vulnerable to climate change and other natural disasters, and low carbon. 

Biodiversity is essential to a sustainable and inclusive food production. The awareness that we are overstepping the biocapacity of our planet and undermining the security of the future generations has resulted in increasing loud calls for agroecology, conservation agriculture and aquaculture to change the way we produce food. A nature-positive and inclusive food system(s) are very much in WWF’s mission.

Who are the stakeholders that you feel need to have more recognition and resources? 

When talking about building more inclusive food systems, the two categories of rights holders who come to mind are: women and Indigenous Peoples

We need to highlight the crucial role that women play in rural economy and their ecological agency that contributes to the conservation of many crop varieties and ‘forgotten foods.’ Gender equality and female empowerment are core development objectives, fundamental also for the realization of an inclusive food system. Women are biodiversity defenders and custodians of nature in their own right, and in doing so they build the economic resilience of their families, help strengthen community solidarity and care for the land, waters and resources. Therefore, gender equality, recognition of women’s rights over resources, fair benefit-sharing, participation and leadership in decision-making, access to information, consultation and justice are all critical for well governed food systems and natural resources in landscapes and seascapes. Despite ample evidence of their knowledge and critical role, women farmers, fishers and food producers have often been neglected by policy- and decision-making affecting food systems and their livelihoods.

There is also a growing number of women in rural communities and towns who become food entrepreneurs, open small catering services or restaurants, add value to products in the local supply chain, sell local varieties of rice at premium market price to urban consumers increasingly interested in healthy and green living. Some women farmers have decided to organize themselves and sell at local markets specialized around traditional and organic food crops. Inclusive food systems where women are engaged can offer additional solutions to better livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. 

The same can be said of another group of rights holders like Indigenous Peoples, who are still largely left out of policy discussions around food systems while their sustainable practices and food secure territories face increasing threats from mono-cropping and industrial models of food estates aimed at increasing productivity. 

What projects have you worked on to build more inclusive food systems?

Three examples come to mind, two field projects in Indonesian Borneo and a national- multi-year campaign.

1. The traditional and organic agriculture of the Krayan Highlands, North Kalimantan, Indonesia

In the Krayan Highlands, in the interior of Borneo, farmers have chosen to preserve their agricultural traditions. In 2016, they declared the mainly rice-farming area (around 3,000 hectares) an organic and traditional agricultural area. The district government of Nunukan issued a decree to protect the traditional and organic agriculture of the Krayan Highlands in 2019. This is one of several examples of food resilience in Indonesia, a country extremely rich in bio-cultural diversity and traditions.

The initiative was part of the commitment of the communities at the border between Indonesia and Malaysia to build a sustainable future in their homeland based on the cultural traditions of their ancestors. It is important to note that they have historically been food secure thanks to a highly diverse agricultural system of wet rice agriculture, unique in the interior of Borneo, and based on local knowledge, local seeds, water buffaloes and a healthy environment. Men and women have been the custodians of local agrobiodiversity—the over 40 varieties of rice planted and cultivated in this area, as well as the 3 varieties of sorghum and millet. The fruit diversity is also very high. Moreover, they have been producing a surplus traded across the border to Malaysia.

This could be regarded as a locally shaped, nature-and-culture based solution. The initiative in the Krayan Highlands has already become an inspiration for other communities and local governments in Borneo and Papua.

WWF has a MoU with FORMADAT, the local community organization that has coordinated the initiative. WWF provides support in terms of resources, networking and other technical support. The initiative and the advocacy are community-led.

2. The women’s market in Malinau, North Kalimantan, Indonesia
An Indigenous women farmers/traders-led initiative to establish and run a local market with over 120 traders from ten surrounding villages where they sell traditional food produce and wild foods. In rural markets in Indonesia, women control most of the small trade. The local market initiative has been an economically empowering initiative for women. While this is part of so-called ‘informal economy’ it is a very significant sector and generates important income for women to help them exit a cycle of poverty and support education of their children (this is the main use of the extra income). Sales per woman trader are on average Rp 400,000/day (=US$27). 

But beyond the economic dimension, this initiative has highlighted the ecological agency of women in caring for the environment, maintaining traditional agricultural practices and help protect biodiversity and seeds. Local plants are also the basis for good and healthy nutrition given the characteristics of many varieties, cultivated and/or collected from the wild. Many varieties of vegetables and fruit sold at the market are uniquely local. 

WWF identified the initiative with interest and supported the new governing body of the women’s market with resources and technical capacity building for Internal Control System (ICS) and Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). The market has already developed their standards for healthy and fair market (including reduce the use of plastics) and generated interest and replication in many local markets in the province.

3. The Wise Foodways multi-year, national campaign of the Local Harvest Consortium

Food choices and lifestyles can highly influence food production and help the shift to a more inclusive system. Consumers need to be encouraged to make better food choices, rediscover culinary traditions with local products, and rely on a more diverse diet. Much of this drive will also depend on continuing to raise the awareness and knowledge of consumers about the deep linkages between food, nature and culture. The Wise Foodways multi-year campaign aims to create awareness and engage champions and trend-setters to promote more sustainable and equitable food production and consumption. The campaign is based on four main principles: sustainable, local, healthy and fair foodways. ‘Wise foodways for us and the earth’ has been adopted as a tagline. The campaign is coordinated by WWF as a member of the Local Harvest Consortium and engages farmers, producers, chefs, activists, journalists, retailers, farmers, food producers, and youth. The women market in Malinau is featured in the campaign, for example (For further information, the website:

How important are women in food production in Indonesia? Are they treated fairly?

Indonesia is still largely an agrarian country. The agricultural sector still contributing over 13% to the GDP. Approximately 30% of Indonesia’s land area is used for agriculture and over 40% of the population is a rural population with 30% employed in agricultureOf this percentage about half are women. In rural areas, it is women who daily labor in their communities to safeguard local agricultural systems and food security, and preserve local seeds and supply local markets. A large proportion of women who are active producers, laborers, traders, processors, and retailers nonetheless they do not have equal access to farm inputs, resources (including land), services and opportunities as men. They are also minimally involved in policy regarding small-scale agriculture and fishing. Women play an important role in family farms. The latter have the potential to generate employment and income growth, especially in the rural areas, while improving nutritional  standards and supporting sustainable resource use.

What has been the outcome of WWF’s involvement?

I think it is very important to highlight the fact that both field initiatives were started and are led by Indigenous Peoples, men and women. These were not designed or implemented by WWF. WWF had an important supportive role to play and, based on the communities’ needs and aspirations, provided financial resources, technical support (capacity building) and, very strategically, facilitated contacts and membership with national and global networks like IFOAM, Indigenous Terra Madre, Slow Food International, ICCA Consortium, Women4Biodiversity, etc. A number of farmers of the Krayan Highlands has directly participated in several international events and established new contacts. Women traders are active in cross-visits to other districts and to Jakarta to tell the story of their successful initiative.

Support for a local initiative based on a strong partnership between WWF and local communities can result in good outcomes for biodiversity, empowerment of local rights-holders including the recognition of their rights and practices, and economic gains. FORMADAT was one of the winners of Equator Prize 2015.

The Wise Foodways campaign has so far been successful with regard to social media (already over 3.5 million), online and printed media reflecting a growing interest of the public in local and healthy food and traditional food sources, and the engagement of trendsetters, earth hour youth activists and ‘Wise Foodways ambassadors,’ champions of sustainable and inclusive food systems.

What challenges did you face over the course of the projects?

To support and strengthen field initiatives like the ones described takes time. WWF needs to be ready to invest and commit long-term, by also making sure that our participation is because communities or other rights holders want us involved.  

While the vision of the community-led initiatives might be strong, capacity might be limited or unfairly distributed. So this is an area of investment, to be based on good documentation of the knowledge values (cultural, nutritional, economic, social, ecological) around indigenous and local food systems, endangered agrobiodiversity and ‘forgotten foods.’ 

In any conservation project or initiative at community-level, a common challenge is the creation of early economic returns where the needs for economic development are high on the agenda of local people and governments. In this regard, the women market initiative was a good example where the economic benefits are a direct result of good natural resource practices (the fields and forests) and preservation of local agro-biodiversity.

What’s next for these projects – how do we build even more inclusive food systems, at scale and across countries?

The two field initiatives are a good example of how communities/farmer groups/women traders, with appropriate support and investment in local agency, can build their capacity and confidence to enter policy discussions and negotiate directly with decision-makers. In both cases, there is growing recognition, commitment and concrete support by the local governments in the form of recognition, market space, support for organic certification. 

The projects are reaching a more advanced stage on a scale of institutional maturity. This is largely due to the many networks and partners with whom they are engaged. The role played by WWF was valuable in this regard. It is important to continue to promote horizontal rather than vertical approaches to collective capacity building, and foster an approach to mutual learning. 

In Indonesia, agrarian reform and land tenure for Indigenous Peoples become essential components. Failure to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to natural resources and land is a major threat to Indigenous food systems.

Based on the projects you’ve highlighted, how can we bring inclusive principles into existing programmes?

  • (On women and gender equity) Promote and support women’s powerful role in food security, food sovereignty and family health, as champions of healthy nutrition. The importance of women as economic and ecological agents in building economic resilience and contributing to sustainable and equitable development, and helping restore biodiversity.
  • (On Supply chains and markets) Create shorter supply chaine to capture more economic value at local level. Promote local farmer markets and PGS certification for small-holder farmers.
  • (On Human Rights-based approach). The right to food; the right to good livelihoods; the right to a healthy environment, etc). Recognize the multiple dimensions of food: rights, culture, nature, gender, values including economic transaction.
  • (On policies advocacy and tenure security). Secure tenure for small-scale farmers and Indigenous Peoples. Advocate for support and budget allocation for building resilience of local food systems. Balanced and diversified natural systems are required.  Farming communities are best custodians for the diverse genetic resources, including seeds and livestock breeds developed by them throughout history, traditional and forgotten food; Advocate for policies that strengthen sustainable use of natural resources, especially land, water, seeds and livestock breeds by local communities and Indigenous Peoples. Smallholder farmer families, Indigenous food producers and women must have access to productive land, credit, technology, markets and extension services.  
  • More attention and engagement with indigenous, small-holder and family-based agriculture that can be key to: 
    • Mitigating the effects of natural disasters 
    • Fundamental for self-sufficiency, food security and food sovereignty
    • Create additional buffer and protection of biodiversity and agrobiodiversity
    • Given the right economic investment and tenure security, food production at local scale can also be an opportunity for economic development.

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