By Jeffrey Y. Campbell, manager of the Forest and Farm Facility of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., which supports FFPOs in several countries.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take hold in many countries, indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable. Already dealing with multiple challenges, including threats to their ancestral lands and forests, growing food insecurity, and the impacts of climate change, indigenous peoples and local communities are further disadvantaged during the pandemic. Many live in remote areas and have poor access to food, basic healthcare, and communication. As the crisis continues to evolve, indigenous peoples are further marginalized as information is rarely available in their local languages.
Further, lockdowns have created insecure and unstable markets, such as in Nepal. This has given rise to arbitrary transport and purchase prices, setting back producer groups who have no access and information on market operations during the pandemic. Moreover, women now carry twice their normal workload – as primary caretakers of families and households, and as custodians of farms and animals.
Despite these challenges, indigenous communities remain resilient by relying on their traditional knowledge and practices. Represented by their traditional organizations and a large variety of different forest and farm producer organizations (FFPOs) in various countries, indigenous peoples have platforms for inclusion and decision making. These organizations have vast networks that represent women, youth, and ethnic minorities, and often have constitutions that target such vulnerable groups.
In many instances, FFPOs provide the only organized response to local needs in times of crisis – be it economic, environmental, or in this case a health crisis.
For example, responding to livestock market closures in Kenya, the community-based Laikipia Livestock Marketing Cooperative Society has established a local charity basket to supply food for vulnerable families. They have also helped train health volunteers and supported the local county in distributing personal protective equipment to clinics.
The Cotton Association of Zambia has been raising awareness of gender equality with farmer and civic leaders from local communities to reduce sexual harassment and gender-based violence, particularly during lockdown.
And in Ghana, the Community Action in Development and Research has been providing seed capital to 25 small women’s groups and has been promoting alternative forms of livelihoods such as soap making and moringa production.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, the government has recognized the important role of FFPOs by inviting them to attend the newly established Emergency Committee in response to COVID-19. This gives FFPOs leverage to accelerate new policies, programmes, incentives, and stimulus packages that will benefit member-owned groups and micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).
Notably, FFPOs draw on their traditional knowledge and experiences, and have offered local, grounded solutions to improve production systems even before the pandemic. Local producers in Ecuador, for instance, add value to their agri-food products by using the Amazon Chakra seal, a label that is internationally recognized for upholding social and cultural values of the chakras, an ancestral agroforestry system practised by Kichwa communities. The chakra land-use system maintains the functions and services of the fragile Amazon ecosystem, and provides indigenous families with income, food security, and resilience to climate change. With the Amazon Chakra seal espousing these values, consumers are more motivated towards responsible consumption.
In Viet Nam, around 100 Dzao ethnic minority households in the mountains of Yen Duong in Bac Kan province have taken great care in preserving the ancestral way of growing Nep tai sticky rice. Only a few select families who have maintained traditional cultivation practices, from seed selection to harvesting to drying, are entrusted with production to ensure high quality and value. Traditional knowledge is proving its value in many countries as the COVID-19 virus threatens health and is driving many to build self-reliance in food systems and livelihoods.
It is in this spirit of social inclusion and integrity that governments and the international community need to engage indigenous peoples by supporting their rights, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, but also by strengthening the capacity of their organizations, FFPOs, and programmes that build back better production systems. There cannot be a more apt time to do this as we observe International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples today.
We can make a difference by supporting national governments to design response strategies by involving national level FFPOs and indigenous peoples’ organizations in policy and decision making. We can help them to replicate practical solutions and have access to on-going support. We can assist more indigenous women to be fully integrated in all decision making related to COVID-19 and beyond, and enable more women in leadership positions. FFPOs and their spirit of inclusion in planning and implementing resilience programmes are key to ensuring that indigenous peoples, among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, are not left behind as nations contend with the aftermath of the pandemic, but are recognized and supported as leaders of innovative solutions.
This article was originally published on the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).