The Indigenous World 2021: Food and Agriculture Organizaion of the UN (FAO)

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and malnutrition. FAO was founded in 1945, and its primary goal is to achieve food security for all making sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active and healthy lives. With over 194 Members, FAO has offices in over 130 countries worldwide.

FAO recognizes Indigenous Peoples as key allies, not only as technical assistance recipients but primarily as equal partners, and as fundamental stakeholders to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Over time, FAO’s work with Indigenous Peoples has evolved to become more progressive and inclusive. For instance, in 2004, the Voluntary Right to Food Guidelines endorsed by the World Committee on Food Security emphasized the importance for Indigenous Peoples to have access to their lands and resources to guarantee their right to food.

In 2009, FAO released its first publication dedicated to analyzing Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, focused on the many dimensions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health. One year later, in aligning the organization’s work with the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, FAO called a caucus of Indigenous leaders from the seven socio-cultural regions of the world to draft the FAO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Today, this policy continues to guide FAO’s work with Indigenous Peoples.

In early 2013, the second FAO publication on Indigenous food systems was released in collaboration with McGill-CINE: Indigenous Peoples' food systems & well-being. Interventions and policies for healthy communities.

In 2014, FAO created a dedicated Indigenous Peoples team which, jointly with a caucus of Indigenous representatives, drafted a work plan that matches Indigenous Peoples’ needs and priorities to FAO’s technical competencies. This resulted in a work plan consisting of two main focus areas: a) Indigenous youth; and b) Indigenous women, and six main pillars: 1) Coordination; 2) Advocacy and Capacity Development; 3) Free Prior and Informed Consent; 4) Indigenous Food Systems; 5) Indicators and Statistics for Food Security; and 6) Voluntary Guidelines of Tenure. In 2017, as requested by the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, FAO integrated a seventh pillar of work: 7) Climate change and traditional knowledge.

Since 2018, the dedicated team that guides FAO’s work with Indigenous Peoples has evolved to become a Unit. It coordinates a network of more than 40 national and regional focal points on Indigenous Peoples across FAO offices globally, along with the FAO Interdepartmental Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, which gathers more than 120 technical experts. Indigenous Peoples and FAO have joined forces to contribute to the transformation towards more sustainable food systems.

More resilient, inclusive, and sustainable food systems are a key entry point for accelerating progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the outcomes of many contemporary food systems fall short of the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda.[1]

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres convened a Food Systems Summit in 2021 to launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree upon healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems.[2]

As a leading UN agency in the fight against hunger, FAO seeks to systematically support the transformation towards more sustainable food systems by providing improved evidence, policy and regulatory guidance.[3] Thus, recognizing the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems in protecting biodiversity and generating livelihoods, FAO has joined forces with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, academia and governments, among other stakeholders, to promote the preservation and generation of knowledge on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, and to inform the global debate on sustainable food systems and climate change.


The Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems

The year 2020 was a watershed moment in recognizing the sustainable and resilient elements of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. The need for more sustainable food systems and the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has led the international community, scientists and other stakeholders to take into consideration the potential of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and ancestral techniques.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems have sustained their communities for thousands of years and could be considered among the most sustainable on the planet, as they include the entire spectrum of life in ways that modern food systems do not.[4] They are rooted in the traditional knowledge and customary systems of their peoples, allowing them to ensure continuity of their existence and well-being, sometimes in the face of significant environmental changes.

Despite having prevailed for thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are now among the most affected by climate change, extractive industries, intensive livestock farming, agricultural production, displacement, resettlement and land-use changes.[5] Available data shows that Indigenous Peoples and pastoralists are disproportionally affected by food insecurity. Both depend on respect for their collective rights to their ancestral lands and natural resources to ensure their livelihoods and food security.

 In this regard, during the 27th session of FAO’s Technical Committee on Agriculture (COAG), held in September 2020, FAO Members endorsed the creation of a Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems at FAO as a knowledge center that will bring together Indigenous experts and organizations, universities, research centers, UN agencies and FAO experts.

The establishment of the Global-Hub responds to the need to promote greater recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and to close the gap between academic and Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, as expressed during the High-Level Expert Seminar on Indigenous Food Systems (2018).[6]

As of today, the Global-Hub is formed of FAO and 18 institutions with hands-on research and analysis on Indigenous Peoples and their food systems, including the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Centre for Sustainable Development and Environment (CENESTA), Center for International Forestry Research - World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), Gaia Amazonas, INFOODS, French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (TIPs), the Sámi Parliament in Finland, UNESCO, UNFCCC, UNPFII-UNDESA, and the universities of Cambridge, Greenwich, Massey, McGill-CINE and Monash.

The Global-Hub is already operating and working to provide inputs to support the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition of the Committee of World Food Security.

Generating evidence-based information on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems

Evidence on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems can play a significant role in informing the transformation of food systems towards being more sustainable and respectful of nature.

Indigenous Peoples are the custodians of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity,[7] and often their territories coincide with the best-preserved areas. Their food systems have generated food in harmony with nature for hundreds of years while protecting the environment.[8]

In 2020, in partnership with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, plus a Scientific Committee constituted by the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development and The Indigenous Partnership, and in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, FAO edited the third FAO publication focused on Indigenous Food Systems, which will be released in early 2021, complementing the information presented in the 2009 and 2012 editions.[9]

FAO and the Scientific Committee developed a collaborative methodology based on the five principles of sustainable food systems as defined by FAO, and on the FAO Self-evaluation and Holistic Assessment of Climate Resilience of Farmers and Pastoralists (SHARP) approach to undertake the profiling of the current state of different Indigenous Peoples' food systems across the world, along with their aspirations for the near future.

As a result, the publication Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change will encompass an analysis of the following Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: the Baka in Cameroon; the Maya Ch'ort'i in Guatemala; the Khasi, Bhotia, and Anwal in India; the Kel Tamasheg in Mali; the Tikuna, Cocama, and Yagua in Colombia; the Inari Sámi in Finland; and the Melanesians in the Solomon Islands. Among the main findings of this research, the following points are noteworthy:

  • Indigenous Peoples preserve and restore the ecosystems through their food systems. They follow the seasonality of nature for harvesting food, maintaining high species count and biodiversity in their territories, instead of altering the environment to their needs with external inputs as occurs in many other food systems. For instance, the Khasi food system (India) manages a landscape made of land usages dedicated to food that generate 188 food plants.
  • Indigenous food systems encompass many aspects of resilience as they are not only about food. They include livelihoods, culture and medicine. For example, the Maya Ch’orti’ food system in Guatemala uses plants, minerals and animal sources to extract poison for hunting or as medicine.
  • Indigenous food systems can broaden the existing food base and their foods are nutritious and diverse.Their food systems generate various food items, which comprise diversified meals. For instance, the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples (Colombia) obtain more than 80% of their protein intake from traditional fishing activities.

FAO is continuing to work with Indigenous and local organizations to profile unique Indigenous Peoples’ food systems across the world and to generate evidence and knowledge on their resilience and sustainable characteristics.

Indigenous Peoples towards the UN Food Systems Summit

The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit provides a timely opportunity for forging interconnected actions and commitments aimed at implementing collective and more coherent actions to deliver improved food systems outcomes that accelerate progress in achieving the full range of SDGs.

Indigenous Peoples, FAO and the Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems have joined forces to provide evidence-based information and response elements rooted in Indigenous traditional knowledge aimed at contributing to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit’s five action tracks.

In 2020, in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and the Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, FAO facilitated several technical meetings with the UN Food Systems Secretariat to enhance Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in the Summit. This process resulted in an agreement to draft a White Paper/ Whipala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems led by the Global-Hub, and to establish an Indigenous Peoples’ roadmap to the UN Food Systems Summit.

High-Level Expert Seminar on North American Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems

In December 2020, the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, the FAO Liaison Office for North America, and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) hosted the High-Level Expert Seminar on North American Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems as a platform for experts to present and discuss the critical importance and contributions of North American Indigenous Peoples to the primary objectives of the 2021 Food Systems Summit.[10]

The seminar convened 185 participants and speakers from 11 Canadian provinces and 30 states of the United States of America, including Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and representative bodies, academic and research institutes, government agencies from Canada and the United States of America, along with representatives of the UN Food Systems Summit, UN agencies and Indigenous experts from around the world.

The primary outcome of the seminar was the Statement on North American Indigenous Peoples Food Systems.[11] It calls on UN Member States, institutions and agencies to take concrete, responsible and urgent actions to ensure Indigenous Peoples’ have a formal role in the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and other decision-making processes affecting food systems, climate change and biodiversity.

Indigenous Peoples’ food security and COVID-19

Indigenous Peoples have highlighted enhancing their food systems as a long- term solution to face the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.[12] In addition to the grave  health threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses for them, it has increased the pressure on their livelihoods and food security.

Furthermore, Indigenous Peoples from several regions identified hunger as the main effect of the COVID-19 crisis. This is because food shortages resulted from the combined effects of isolation, remoteness, lockdown, disruption of the food value chains and the suspension of income-generating activities.[13]

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Indigenous Peoples who rely on their traditional food systems to generate food and have adopted traditional lockdown practices are coping better than other communities who rely heavily on external foods, incomes and markets.[14]

Accordingly, FAO has taken action to support Indigenous Peoples’ and governments’ responses to the crisis. As a first action, FAO established a Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) to mobilize resources to support FAO’s work with Indigenous Peoples. The MDTF includes a specific budget line to support Indigenous Peoples’ COVID-19 recovery actions and to strengthen the intercultural approach to emergency interventions within Indigenous Peoples’ territories and communities.

Additionally, FAO partnered with a conglomerate of universities and research centers led by the University of Leeds to establish COVID-19 observatories. In collaboration with 24 different Indigenous Peoples, the project aims to document the pandemic’s impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ communities across 14 countries.[15] The project is being funded by United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), with support from the Wellcome Trust.

FAO also joined forces with other UN agencies and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations to launch a dedicated web page to provide information on Indigenous Peoples’ health and safety.[16] Additionally, based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007) and the WHO messages related to COVID-19, FAO released a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples,[17] which includes a series of policy recommendations for governments and stakeholders to ensure the cultural and physical survival of Indigenous Peoples.


Permission to include this chapter in The Indigenous World 2021 was kindly given to IWGIA by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations who are the copyright holder of the chapter. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This chapter was written by the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, under the coordination of Yon Fernández de Larrinoa and Mariana Estrada and with the support of Anandi Soans, Mikaila Way and Anne Brunel. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] FAO, Committee on Agriculture. “Operationalizing a Food Systems Approach to Accelerate Delivery of the 2030 Agenda.” Twenty-seventh session, 28 September - 2 October 2020. Published July 2020.

[2] UN Food Systems Summit. “About the Summit.” New York, 2020.

[3] FAO, Committee on Agriculture. “Operationalizing a Food Systems Approach to Accelerate Delivery of the 2030 Agenda.” Twenty-seventh session, 28 September - 2 October 2020. Published July 2020.

[4] FAO and CINE McGill. Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems: the many dimensions of culture, diversity, and environment. Rome, 2009.

[5] FAO, Committee on Agriculture. “Operationalizing a Food Systems Approach to Accelerate Delivery of the 2030 Agenda.” Twenty-seventh session, 28 September - 2 October 2020. Published July 2020.

[6] The Seminar, organized by FAO and Indigenous Peoples in 2018, brought together more than 200 participants, of which 70 panelists belonged to 22 Indigenous Peoples and 20 research centers and universities. FAO. “The Global-Hub on Indigenous Food Systems.”

[7] Garnett et al. “A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation.” Nature Sustainability 1 (2018): 369–374.

[8] United Nations. “Harmony with nature: report of the Secretary-General.” New York, UN, 2017.

[9] FAO and CINE McGill. Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems: the many dimensions of culture, diversity, and environment. Rome, 2009.; FAO and CINE McGill. Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems and well -being. Rome, 2012.

[10] FAO. “FAO in North America.” 2020.

[11] “Statement on North American Indigenous Peoples Food Systems.” 24 December 2020.

[12] FAO. Policy Brief “COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples”. Rome, 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Uganda, Kenya, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, Peru, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, India, Fiji, Russia, Aruba, Australia and Canada

[16] FAO. “Indigenous Peoples health and safety during Coronavirus (COVID-19).”

[17] FAO “COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples.” Rome, 2020.

Tags: Global governance



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