• International Processes and Initiatives

The Indigenous World 2022: Indigenous Peoples’ Engagement in the United Nations Food Systems Summit

Under the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UN Food Systems Summit took place on Thursday 23 September 2021. It was a completely virtual event during the UN General Assembly High-Level Week.

The UN Food Systems Summit (FSS) was intended to provide an historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive the world’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Over 18 months, the Summit brought together all UN Member States and stakeholders around the world – including thousands of youth, food producers, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, researchers, private sector, and the UN system – to bring about tangible, positive changes in the world’s food systems. The Summit was the culmination of this global process, offering a catalytic moment for public mobilization and action-oriented commitments by heads of state, government and other constituency leaders to take this agenda forward.

In 2020, Indigenous Peoples decided to actively engage in the process towards the Food Systems Summit, to publicize the values of their food systems and advocate for their recognition and protection.

In June and July 2021, Indigenous Peoples organized global and regional independent dialogues that were intended to ensure that the Food Systems Summit’s outcomes included input from Indigenous Peoples. These independent dialogues were led by Indigenous Peoples themselves and provided a unique opportunity to consolidate their positions and articulate their recommendations in order to formally engage with the Summit process through an official mechanism.

The recommendations that resulted from the Indigenous Peoples Independent Dialogues were presented at the Pre-Summit for the FSS that was held in Rome from 26-28 July 2021.

Throughout the Food Systems Summit process, Indigenous Peoples clearly expressed their commitment to being part of the solution, if their contributions were respected and were fully and meaningfully included in decision-making processes at all levels.

The world’s dominant food systems are major contributors to the current social, environmental and economic crises that are affecting the entire planet: food insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss, topsoil erosion, deforestation and conflict. In contrast, Indigenous Peoples’ food and knowledge systems are ecologically sustainable, resilient, nutritious, equitable and self-determined. Indigenous Peoples have been, and continue to be, vital to agricultural innovation, biodiversity, global food security and the health and well-being of diverse and resilient societies.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are the basis of their identities and of their life systems. Their resilience is intrinsic to their ecosystems and biodiversity. Their food systems are based on their Indigenous knowledge and practices, passed down between generations. Given the high level of self-sufficiency, ensuring and preserving Indigenous Peoples’ food systems is essential to guarantee the food security of the 476 million Indigenous people in the world.[1]

Indigenous Peoples decided to engage in the preparations for the Food Systems Summit as they believed that their food systems could crucially contribute to this global event. They also saw the Summit as an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of protecting their territorial management, knowledge, governance, value systems, spirituality and collective rights, which is the basis for enhancing and promoting Indigenous Peoples’ food systems.

As stated in the Indigenous Peoples’ joint statement submitted at the Pre-Summit of the FSS held in Rome from 26 to 28 July 2021:

Indigenous Peoples have decided to participate in this journey towards the Food Systems Summit to publicize the values ​​of our food systems. Systems that are based on our traditional value of having a sacred and caring relationship with Mother Earth. This sacred relationship with nature has allowed us to develop values ​​of consensus building, gender equity and participation in collective territories.[2]

The White/Wiphala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems[3]

As an evidence-based contribution to promote the incorporation of the principles and values of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems into the Food Systems Summit’s agenda, and into the policy discussions and programs beyond the Summit, the Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems at FAO[4] produced the White/Wiphala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems. The paper was the result of collective work by Indigenous and non-indigenous experts, scientists and researchers.

The White/Wiphala Paper articulates the importance of respecting Indigenous Peoples’ right to ensure the protection and preservation of their foods systems, and the value this can add to tackling emerging global challenges. Furthermore, it advocates for the fact that Indigenous Peoples’ approach to food will contribute to the resilience and sustainability of other food systems worldwide. The paper provides evidence of the sustainability of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, including the ways in which they have proven resilient over time. It highlights the risks of not taking on board the time-tested contributions that Indigenous Peoples have made and continue to make for sustainability and territorial management, among other dimensions. It also addresses the ongoing policy contradictions and limitations in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) debates and international agreements on sustainability.

To support the process leading up to the UN Food Systems Summit, the White/Wiphala Paper included specific proposals under each of the five Action Tracks pursued by the UN Food Systems Summit.[5] In addition, FAO coordinated knowledge exchanges with the Scientific Group and Action Track Technical Committees of the FSS aimed at putting Indigenous Peoples at the forefront of the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit.[6] The combined efforts undertaken by FAO and Indigenous Peoples in publishing the White/Wiphala paper and presenting it through knowledge exchanges resulted in a significant recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems in the work and publications[7] of the Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit.

Indigenous Peoples’ Engagement: the Indigenous Peoples’ Independent Dialogues

Between May and July 2021, 26 independent regional dialogues and three global dialogues led by Indigenous Peoples were organized, with the participation of 1,455 people representing 219 Indigenous organizations from the seven sociocultural regions of the world. The dialogues were organized with the support of the FSS Secretariat through IFAD, IWGIA, FAO and FILAC.

The results of the dialogues were action-oriented recommendations developed by Indigenous Peoples with regard to recognizing and protecting their food systems, and these were submitted to the Food Systems Summit Secretariat, UN Member States and other stakeholders and presented at the Pre-Summit held in Rome (26-28 July 2021) and at the Summit itself held in New York on 23 September.

Challenges encountered

During the independent dialogues, many participants considered Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in the Summit preparations to be insufficient and with too short notice. They reiterated the importance of early and meaningful participation in all Summit planning, including participation in the Scientific Group. Indigenous Peoples’ political participation in the FSS must not be limited to spiritual ceremonies but they must be given policy space and be respected in the game-changing solutions. Ensuring meaningful engagement of Indigenous Youth and Indigenous Women was considered a key step towards an inclusive Summit.

Another challenge identified by Indigenous Peoples with regard to their effective engagement and meaningful contribution to the process was the many different categories of initiatives seeking attention and input: “Action Tracks, clusters, game-changing solutions, coalitions,” etc. They did, however, stress that their engagement in the Summit was an opportunity to improve the understanding of UN Member States, the UN system, and Scientific Communities and other stakeholders with regard to Indigenous Peoples’ historic and necessary relationships with their land, territories and natural resources.

Some highlights from the Indigenous Peoples Independent Dialogues

All Indigenous Peoples’ independent dialogues organized to prepare for the FSS stated that the immediate security and long-term sustainability of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems depend on the recognition and protection of their distinct collective and individual rights. They emphasized that Indigenous Rights are independent, indivisible, interrelated and interconnected.

They also affirmed Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, the importance of addressing the vulnerabilities resulting from their many forms of marginalization and exclusion, and the significance of recognizing that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and related knowledge and belief systems have been developed to be sustainable over thousands of years. Evidence supports the ability of Indigenous Peoples’ approaches to food production to preserve biodiversity, provide diverse and nutritious diets, and be resilient and adaptive to external shocks, including climate change.

All independent dialogues emphasized that a lack of respect for and recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, to the management and co-management of their resources in order to ensure their productive capacity, as well as impediments to recognizing their knowledge, were resulting in adverse impacts on their livelihoods, their ability to sustain themselves and their food production.

During the dialogues, Indigenous Peoples’ representatives described the great diversity of traditional food systems and their context-specific challenges to food security. The contributions presented demonstrated that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are resilient and regenerative and are in themselves a game-changing proposition for the achievement of healthy, sustainable food and all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They stressed that Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in the transformation of food systems was fundamental to nature-positive solutions that can address biodiversity loss and climate change.

Indigenous Peoples stated that food sovereignty is necessary for sustainable food security. For them, food sovereignty means being able to manage their own cultivated or wild harvests in a way that meets their cultural, spiritual, economic and nutritional needs. Food sovereignty includes the ability to influence decisions that have an impact on the conditions for self-sufficiency in traditional food generation, including from non-agricultural means. They also identified the fact that violations of Indigenous Peoples’ right to access and protect the integrity of their lands and ecosystems was a systematic barrier to their food sovereignty.

Several reports and declarations resulting from the independent dialogues asked governments and funders to commit to investing in infrastructure and capacity building for and by Indigenous Peoples’ communities in order to build processing centers for foods and community gardens/growing areas for traditional foods, and to connect to composting, recycling systems and networks to reduce waste.

The demands made by Indigenous Peoples in their joint statement during the Pre-Summit for the FSS

  • Full realization of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), for all avenues of action, and beyond the Food Systems Summit. The right of Indigenous Peoples to land, territories and natural resources, and their right to self-determination, are preconditions for the full and effective realization of all the other rights set out in the 2007 United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Peoples.
  • The creation of a trust fund dedicated to promoting the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, led and administered by Indigenous Peoples.
  • In following up the post-summit commitments, Indigenous Peoples will create a food systems platform, with the participation of governments and UN agencies, to meet once a year in order to follow-up and support the implementation of the Summit's recommendations.
  • In order to move towards healthier, more sustainable and inclusive food systems, Indigenous Peoples called for their knowledge systems to be respected and valued with equal consideration within the interface and dialogues between science and policy.

The FSS: success or failure

There is no doubt that the Food Systems Summit convened under the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2021 helped to raise the profile of global food challenges. Preparations for the Summit, and the event itself, were however overshadowed by disagreements and public criticism from many scientists, human rights experts, civil society and grassroots organizations with regard to the Summit process being captured by corporate interests.

 After the Summit, many stakeholders, particularly civil society organizations, reiterated their criticism and particularly noted that the Summit had not addressed the main issues around the food challenges of today’s world; how COVID-19 is worsening hunger and malnutrition; how existing power structures are causing marginalized groups and Indigenous Peoples to be disproportionately affected by food insecurity; and how to rein in the emissions associated with food production. Many assessed that it was a failed summit that had failed the people, the planet and the real needs of the world’s people today.

Indigenous Peoples who had been actively engaged in the Summit’s preparation process and in the General Assembly event had also hoped for much more from such a global event. They were clearly disappointed with the Summit’s failure to properly address the need for a rights-based approach to combating the food crisis, and that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems were not clearly recognized as a key game-changing proposition for achieving healthy, sustainable food and all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Disappointment was also expressed about the Summit not calling for bolder actions and commitments.

However, they also acknowledged that the Secretary-General’s Chair Summary and Statement of Action on the UN Food Systems Summit,[8] which was the outcome document of the event, recognized the need to engage Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized sectors of society and the Secretary-General asked for food to be viewed not just as a commodity but as a right.

The creation of the Coalition on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems[9]

One of the main outcomes of Indigenous Peoples’ intensive advocacy during the FSS process was the creation of a Coalition on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems by Indigenous Peoples and seven Member States.[10] The coalition was created as a collective space of work that could bring together countries, Indigenous organizations and UN agencies to work together on issues related to Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. It aims to further ensure the understanding, respect, recognition, inclusion and protection of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems while providing knowledge-based evidence on their “game-changing and systemic” aspects. The coalition will be led by Indigenous Peoples and supported by member states and other stakeholders who join the coalition. It will be assisted by the Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems hosted by FAO.

Lola García-Alix is IWGIA’s Senior Adviser on Global Governance.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] International Labour Organization (ILO). Implementing the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169: Towards an inclusive, sustainable and just future (Geneva: The Publications Production Unit (PRODOC) of the ILO, 2019.  https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---publ/documents/publication/wcms_735607.pdf

[2] Indigenous Peoples Joint Statement, Pre-Summit for the United Nations Food Systems Summit. Presented by Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain on 26 July 2021.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The White/Wiphala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems  (Rome: FAO, 2021.) https://www.fao.org/3/cb4932en/cb4932en.pdf

[4] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “The Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples' Food Systems.”  https://www.fao.org/indigenous-peoples/global-hub/en/

[5] Read more about the Food Systems Summit Action Tracks at https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit/action-tracks

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “The Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit starts a dialogue to bring together scientific and Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge.” FAO, April 1, 2021.


[7] United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021. “Scientific Group Reports.” https://sc-fss2021.org/materials/scientific-group-reports-and-briefs/

[8] United Nations. Food Systems Summit 2021. “Secretary-General’s Chair Summary and Statement of Action on the UN Food Systems Summit.”UN, September 23, 2021   https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-summit/news/making-food-systems-work-people-planet-and-prosperity

[9] Food Systems Summit 2021 Community. “Action Area 3: Advance Equitable Livelihoods, Decent Work, and Empowered Communities. Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems.”


[10] Canada, Dominican Republic, Finland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway and Spain.

Tags: Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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