Indigenous Terra Madre: Land Rights, Nutrition and Resisting Climate Change

The second day of Indigenous Terra Madre Asia & Pan-Pacific in Ainu Mosir saw our delegates engaged in discussion and debate on the most pressing issues common to communities around the world: the threats posed by our rapidly changing climate and reduced access to land, and the importance of preserving biodiversity in order to ensure cultural continuity and adequate nutrition.

Climate Crisis

At the first session of the day, dedicated to the impact of climate change on indigenous food systems, we heard from Malia Nobrega Olivera, a native Hawaiian from the island of Kauai, the oldest of the archipelago. Here, the traditional economic activity of the indigenous people was the production of sea salt, sun-dried in evaporation ponds along the coast. It’s also the last place in Hawaii where traditional indigenous rituals related to the salt harvest are still practiced. Yet this island is on the front line in the climate crisis, and in just the last six years the harvest has collapsed. Sea level rise and violent waves flood the salt ponds, while excessive vehicle traffic along the beaches compacts the sand, reducing its water absorption capacity.

Nicolai Pinoev

Nicolai Pinoev of the Buryats, a Mongolic people who live around Lake Baikal in the Russian Far East, where they are the only traditional fishers, recounted the demise and potential recovery of the Omul, a fish that is endemic to the lake. Though it has been a key traditional food source for the Buryat people for centuries, climate change and overfishing have precipitated a collapse in stocks that has pushed the Russian government to issue a five-year fishing ban across Lake Baikal. We’re two years into the ban, and the Buryat people are surviving on a mixture of meager government handouts and long journeys to the Amur River and Kamchatka in order to continue fishing.

At the same time, the Buryat fishers are investing innovative yet staunchly traditional methods to increase fish numbers in the lake, including constructing fish nurseries from pine branches to protect juvenile fish from predators, and penetrating the thick ice which covers the lake in winter with cane straws to increase the oxygen content of the liquid water underneath. They even transport juvenile fish from areas of the lake with higher concentrations to areas where stocks are lower in order to ensure a balanced recovery across the whole lake.


On the topic of nutrition, Clayton Brascoupé of the Mohawk Nation and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association recounted how a six-month experiment held in Santa Clara, New Mexico, where a group of eight people committed to eating a strictly traditional diet of pre-Columbian foods and foraged ingredients, forsaking wheat and all processed foods. At the end of the trial period, one participant had cured her diabetes, while another was able to stop medication for an autoimmune disorder and self-medicate entirely through diet. As it ever was in the times of our elders, food isn’t just our sustenance, but nature’s medicine.

Clayon Brascoupé. Photo by Chef Brian Yazzie

Nusratsho Ramatshoev of the Pamiri people of eastern Tajikistan, who grow the Pamir Mulberry, a Slow Food Presidium. Though his people’s vast territory—the autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan—covers more than half the country, only 3% of the land is arable. Every family traditionally has had its own mulberry trees, a cornerstone of the local diet which had been introduced from China through the Silk Road. So important where these mulberries trees to the local economy and the people’s nutritional needs, that a family’s wealth was measured quite literally by the number of mulberry trees they owned. But in the wake of the civil war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, the country’s isolation and distress meant the populace relied increasingly on imported products, and mulberry production was left largely by the wayside. Now Nusratsho and the Presidium producers are working to reverse this trend, restoring value to the mulberry trees and turning them once again into an economic and nutritional resource for Pamiri people.

Dale Chapman, a Kooma Yuwaalaraay woman from Queensland, Australia, has dedicated her career to what she calls “bush tucker”, the traditional indigenous food that supported the Native Australian population for tens of thousands of years before the continent was invaded and colonized by Britain. “I’m trying to get bush food back onto the everyday table. But there are legal and moral issues around this, as there are lots of non-indigenous people using native ingredients in the marketing of their products nowadays, and they aren’t sharing the benefits of that commercialization with the traditional custodians of that gastronomic knowledge.”

A traditional Ainu boat at the Ainu Cultural Center

Indigenous Institutions

Tomoko Kitsuno of Menoko Mosmos, the Ainu Women’s Association which is hosting this edition of Indigenous Terra Madre in the Ainu Cultural Center outside Sapporo, Japan, talked about the need to educate people regarding traditional practices which have largely been lost due to the forced assimilation of the Ainu people by Japan over the last 150 years. This includes keeping alive all the knowledge surrounding the medicinal plants present on Hokkaido island which the Ainu have used for centuries, as well as the techniques used to dry and preserve food harvested in autumn over the long, harsh winter. But nowadays, a certain fashion for foraging has gotten out of hand, and people are taking more than the land can sustainably provide. Traditionally, the Ainu harvested wild herbs with one eye on the future, and this practice must be restored and maintained in order to guarantee the survival of the culture.

As Nahideh Naghizadeh of CENESTA in Iran succinctly put it in the introduction to the conference on land rights, “without land access, there can be no indigenous food system”. Samia Slimane of the United Nation’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights explained to a largely indigenous audience what the UN has done so far to try and create a framework for the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ rights—citing the 2007 Declaration, but stressed that indigenous peoples also have a responsibility to communicate with the UN in order to make sure that States actually consult with bodies that truly represent those peoples, rather than advocacy groups in cities that may not really represent their interests, as so often happens. “Indigenous peoples have responsibility to revitalize their own institutions so they can dialogue with the UN, that way we can help facilitate meaningful dialogue and try to prevent States from getting away with symbolic gestures.”

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno