By: Cristina Eghenter
According to several reports (e.g., EAT-Lancet Commission 2019, IPBES 2019), global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience and constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation, with severe negative impact on biodiversity and the soil. Moreover, it is an impoverished food system. Nowadays, 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. The reduced diversity of food crops results in the loss of resilience of agricultural ecosystems to surviving drought and other natural disasters, and a changing climate (Diet for a hotter climate: five plants that could help feed the world, 20 Aug 2022, The Guardian). We also lose nutritional quality and benefits for human health, and we risk the disappearance of traditional crops and, equally important, the knowledge and traditional ways of growing those crops and exploiting wild foods from the natural environment that sustained rural and Indigenous communities for centuries.
This impoverished food system is in stark contrast with traditional agriculture, farming and harvesting practices of rural and Indigenous peoples that exhibit high biodiversity as a salient feature. The diversity is represented by the high number of species and varieties known, experimented on, and used by Indigenous and rural farmers as part of their food systems. But diversity also applies to the range of natural habitats and ecosystems from where plants wildlife, fish and other resources, wild and semi-managed, are harvested, collected and/or hunted to supplement diets, ensure good nutrition and make their communities more food secure. The crop/resource and place diversity, and the associated environmental knowledge, have been fundamental in building local, holistic, and resilient food systems for forest and coastal communities alike.
At the core of many indigenous and rural food systems, there is a very different idea of food production that embraces wild foods and natural ecosystems as an integral part of the agricultural and food system, embedded within and enriched by the surrounding natural habitat. These systems have overall proven resilient and sustainable, food secure and less vulnerable to climate change and other natural disasters. Very importantly, these traditional systems, contrary to the global model of food production, have been able to conserve biodiversity and sustain agro-biodiversity.
In the Krayan Highlands of North Kalimantan, Indonesia, an area of over 3,000km2, farmers rely on a pool of over 40 varieties of rice, their staple food, for both hill and paddy rice farming, that are conserved and used depending on the weather patterns, ecological circumstances, and taste preference. The seed pool is sometimes enriched through exchanges and travels to other communities. In their everyday diets, on average, they rely on 28% wild food from the surrounding forest and rivers. This percentage provides 90% of their protein intake and several kinds of root, plants, including mushrooms. Another important dimension of high agro-biodiversity of the area is represented by tropical fruit (durian, lychees, jackfruit, mangosteen to name a few) regulated by a forest mast-fruiting cycle. The number of varieties is staggering, and the fruit trees are largely not managed on only semi-managed in forest areas. Fruit provides both a source of good and highly cherished nutrition but also additional income (Perempuan, Pangan dan Keanekaragman hayati: Cerita dari Kalimantan, WWF 2018).
In another part of Indonesia, West Papua, the majority of the Indigenous people use sago or tubers as their traditional staple food. However, in the district of Tambrauw, for the Yessa clan bananas are the basis of their daily diet. They cultivate and semi-manage up to 13 different varieties in their swiddens, including old and abandoned farms in the forest. The practice of maintaining both diversity of varieties but also diversity of plots across their territory planted with bananas keeps them food secure. All source of animal protein is also from the forest and, to much smaller extent, from the sea, with the exception of chicken, consumed only in the occasion of celebrations and presence of guests (WWF report 2019, Food mapping in the sub-district of Tobouw, Tambrauw District).
As long as the communities have tenure and can access these resources, their food security and nutritional quality (fulfilling caloric intake and desired dietary patterns) are safeguarded. Moreover, this model of food production, that includes hunting and gathering from the wild, incentivizes sustainable use of the resources that are important for the communities’ sustenance. The percentage of food sources collected or captured in the wild can reach over 40% in the villages most remote and closest to the forest area in the interior of Kalimantan. A wild component in the food system provides a safety net in times of crisis, can help farmers capitalize on savings from not buying or importing food from outside and makes it resilient to supply shocks and disruptions in trade.
High biodiversity and the food security of the rural and indigenous communities are also the result of the fundamental role played by women in small-scale farming and fishing. If many varieties of vegetables, but also shells and mollusks and other marine resources etc are still available and provide the basis for healthy nutrition of many communities, it is also because of the conservation efforts of women and their knowledge of wild and cultivated varieties of food. In the interior of Kalimantan, it is women (97% of respondents) identified as the one in charge of making diet decisions in their families.
This is only one example of myriads of emblematic cases of indigenous and rural food systems where sustainable use of biodiversity of wild species contributes to food security, good nutrition, health but also cultural identity, and strengthens the overall resilience and sustainability of such systems.