Respecting the Land and Seeking Ancestral Knowledge after COVID-19

As COVID-19 shakes the world, it is even more evident how the industrial food production system cannot provide food for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, let alone ensure the food sovereignty of peoples. If we want to improve the food system for one that respects the land and its biodiversity, we must observe the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples and how they have adapted throughout the centuries, applying agroecological and regenerative practices to maintain the healthy land and ensure the survival of its peoples.

During the Indigenous Terra Madre -Pueblos de América event, indigenous leaders of the Slow Food Communities shared their knowledge. From them we learned the importance of living in a harmonious relationship with the land and the environment, to understand the subtle or violent changes that affect food production. We also learned the important role that indigenous women have in this connection with the land, and the problems they face in their communities to achieve food sovereignty and to defend their territories.

Today we want to highlight some of the lessons of this meeting, which are lessons for humanity.

Ancestral knowledge and climate

The deep connection that communities have with their environment has allowed them, for centuries, to capture the signals of birds, insects and other living things that warn of seasonal changes, in order to plan their harvests.

“My grandfather has always followed the arrival of the birds from the north that announce the next rainy season. This year, he planted the fields after the birds came, but the rain never came. Many farmers lost their crops, and others, like my grandfather, had to bring water from the river to irrigate the crops. In the Quito area, the capital, it rained too much, including damaging hail, ruining many of the tender crops. Farmers are now adapting to the changing climate to plant products that can work well. ” Zarasisa Wakamaya Cazho Zaruma, Slow Food Indigenous Network Chumbi, Ecuador.

Working with nature has also helped them prepare for unforeseen changes, as the Mayan people have done since ancient times, excellent meliponicultors:

“The ancient Mayans observed the behavior of the Xuunáan kaab bees, they did it to predict the important events that will occur in the year, this practice has been transmitted from generation to generation, that is why today, the observation of bees it is still a practice used for the prediction and elaboration of the annual Mayan calendar or Xoc kín. In the exercise we can observe the bees forming different patterns in the hive of their hives, the behavior and the flight pattern. Curiously, whenever a great natural disaster is about to happen, like an earthquake, a tornado or a hurricane, anywhere in the world, bees behave differently.
Thanks to advancement in decoding codices, it has recently been discovered how much bees were revered by ancestors. The glyphs indicate ceremonies and rituals of thanks to the bees for the gods themselves, an activity that is currently present in the dynamics of production. The Xuunáan kaab bee and its sacred honey from the native forests were, are and will be elements of great importance for the Mayan culture to continue alive,” Minela Guadalupe Xiu Canche, Mayan and member of the Native Honey Bee Bastion of Yucatan.

The Mayans also understood that the forces of nature included the world outside the earth, and they followed the cycles of the moon and the patterns of rain, just as biodynamic agriculture did today.

“The ancient and current Mayans have counted the days or Xook Kín to predict the weather of the current year, this activity is extremely important to be able to prepare planting calendars and be alert to any climatic eventuality. The exercise is based primarily on observation, which consists of the following; on the first day of January the behavior of birds, insects, the shape of the clouds, the intensity of the wind, the weather including the temperament of people are observed, everything described is noted and everything observed will serve for the prediction of the month of January. The day January 2 corresponds to the month of February and so on until reaching the day January 12 which corresponds to the month of December, from the 13th, another countdown begins until you close again with the month from January,” said Minela Guadalupe and other participants commented that in their towns, in Mexico, this practice was also kept in use.

Photo credit

Threats and Adaptation

As climate change disrupts nature’s cycles, indigenous peoples seek to understand new rhythms and learn to adapt, as they have in the past whenever they have been displaced from their ancestral lands.

“We have seen an increasing change in the arrival and the strength of the rains. In the high mountains, for example, the rains do not come as usual, and when they do come they come with force and harmful hail, floating in the fields and ruining young leaves. Farmers are adapting, digging trenches to divert water from the fields. The other problem is frost. For us, cold temperatures are important for freezing (and preserving) certain varieties of potatoes. In recent years we have had an uneven cold season, sometimes too cold killing the product before harvest, and sometimes not cold enough jeopardizing our tradition of preserving these potatoes. ” Ricardo Nahuel Valenzuela Antezana, Sisay, Slow Food Peru network.

Photo credit Paula Thomas

Understanding climate change is having sovereignty over food and being able to plan more carefully the steps to follow.

“Cassava is a vital crop in my community. We eat cassava at almost every meal, and now we are also creating products such as cookies and other value-added products that we can sell in the markets. However, recurring drought has created problems with our cassava production. The problem with cassava is that once the bulb, or root, is harvested, we need to plant for the next harvest to survive. If we collect all of our cassava, the bulbs of new plants have a maximum window of three months before they die. And you have to plant it with the rains, because they need a lot of water. In 2018, our community harvested 80 tons of cassava, however, in 2019 due to the lack of rain, we only harvested 39 tons and kept the roots underground to guarantee a harvest once the rains came.” Antônio Almeida Reis, Slow Food Bulwark of Cassava Flour from the Kirirì People, Bahia, Brazil

Biodiversity and Food Sovereignty

Indigenous farmers understand the importance of the ecosystem around them in food production. And they are aware of the need for a healthy and biodiverse environment for the future of their food security, identity and culture.

“In my Tlalcuapan region, we harvest, consume and sell wild forest mushrooms. It is an intricate part of our customs: in the region there are approximately 500 varieties of mushrooms, and we consume 35 of them often, and which have a strong link with our identity and food traditions. Deforestation is threatening these wild mushrooms, reducing their habitat and the humidity necessary for them to grow. Reducing fungi can also have an impact on other species in the area. Furthermore, as we lose varieties, we lose words from our native language that our children will never know. “Ismael Bello Cervantes, Slow Food Community of the Biocultural Yoloaltepelt group, Mexico.

Their fight, which should be everyone’s fight, continues to preserve these traditions that have protected their land and culture for centuries.

“In my community, people have had, for centuries, their own farms or gardens, from where they could feed their families, regardless of external market forces. With the external influence of commodities, this tradition is dying as people see quick money growing a monoculture, or grow nothing, and trust the products they can buy at the store. In our community we are working to sensitize my people to the importance of returning to our farms, to have a place where we can continue to grow our own food and preserve our heritage and traditions. Our grandparents know that when summer arrives and a type of worm comes to the surface of the compost and turns into mosquitoes, it is time to harvest the potatoes, and save the ones that will be seeds for the next harvest, that’s important knowledge we need to preserve.” Julian Andres Mojonboy Ordonez, Ancestral Knowledge Community of Narino, Colombia.

Indigenous Women and the Need for Change

Milpa system Chiapas, Mexico Photo Credit Gabrila Sanabria

In the food systems of many indigenous peoples, women are the most vulnerable ring. This is due to established norms that keep them away from, for example, land ownership or commercialization (and therefore access to money), despite the fact that they are vital for food production in many communities.

“We are working with native seeds to preserve the ecosystem, taking care of the soil, insects, birds and the entire chain from seed to plate. We produce 17 varieties of quinoa, more than 40 varieties of beans, 10 different corn, among others plants. My mother started working on this idea 10 years ago challenging the judgment of people who looked down on her for being an indigenous woman and a single mother. She has fought the system to change people’s mindsets about the fair price that indigenous farmers and producers deserve. ” Zarasisa Wakamaya Cazho Zaruma, Red Chumbi, Ecuador.

Outside forces are also part of the difficulty in receiving funds and being viewed with respect as essential producers of good, clean, fair and traditional products.

“As an indigenous woman I felt discriminated against on several occasions. In the city, segregation and differential treatment of indigenous peoples is evident. For certain sectors, we -the indigenous people- are primitive beings who lack education and are unaware of urban ways of life. And they even want to teach us how to usurp the resources of our Mother Earth, and how we should cultivate our lands, with pesticides and GMOs. They think that we only prioritize profit. From my experience, and what I learned in my place of origin and with my family, I try to recover our ancestral knowledge and wisdom, which allow our lands to be fertile and productive. They also allow us to respect and celebrate our traditions. We are aware that agro-industry is threatening our future and that of our cultures.” Lizet Patzi Bautista, Slow Food Cochabamba Community “Cooking, production, ecology and education”. Bolivia

Dali Nolasco dreamt of hosting Indigenous Terra Madre Pueblos de América in her community of Tlaola, Puebla. A force of inspiration for young indigenous women, she sees the opportunity COVID-19 as a springboard for change.

“The pandemic has put at the forefront of the debate the role of rural and indigenous peoples and their close relationship with mother earth, seeds and food. And in these moments of crisis we recognize that for us it is also a time of great opportunities to recover our food sovereignty, to think about a sustainable world, respectful of mother earth and more collaborative from the community perspective.

It is an opportunity to reconnect with life, with the land, to teach young children to love the countryside, as our ancestors loved, to connect with our grandmothers through food, to remember and honor them enjoying our ancestral flavors. I have great hope because every day I see more young people and children dialoguing with adults and grandparents, learning from them, who participate and raise awareness from an ecological point of view and care for Mother Earth, they begin to participate in political spaces to change the world, that’s why I think that despite the difficulties we are going through and we are going to live in, I have great faith that young people will change the history of this uncertain future. They will make our dreams of good living come true.” Indigenous Terra Madre Network Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean

This event was possible thanks to the support of the International Fund for Agricultural Development – IFAD, The Christensen Fund and Tamalpais Trust.


This article came out of conversations with ITM participants in February of 2020 in Tlaola, Mexico

Photo credit Paula Thomas


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