Indigenous Communities, Hunger, and Climate Change

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For several months, Bread for the World members have been preparing to advocate for improvements in the U.S. farm bill when it comes before Congress in 2023. Bread emphasizes that ending hunger depends on a healthy food system—strong links between all the steps needed to get food “from farm to fork.”

Two key principles that will guide Bread’s work on the next farm bill are equity and sustainability. These values were also prominent at the first-ever gathering of the Congress of Nations and States Assembly, held in October in Belfast, Ireland. The 100 delegates came from indigenous communities all over the world. Most are members of persecuted and marginalized groups, including Uyghurs from China, Rohingyas from Burma, and Yazidis from Iraq.

Bread joined their convening, learning more about their experiences as they discussed resolutions from commissions who worked on various issue areas. Bread is particularly interested in the Environmental Commission’s resolution on Traditional Ecological Knowledge. It proposes an independent forum that would facilitate the exchange of traditional indigenous knowledge, tools, and approaches to agriculture and conservation.

The forum will encourage recognition of both traditional science and indigenous knowledge systems as effective ways of responding to climate change. About 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity is found in areas where Indigenous communities live, and they are often the people most affected and the first to notice climate impacts. They are an indispensable part of the global response to the climate emergency.

The principle of equity is critically important in the ways non-Indigenous people interact with Indigenous communities, especially if they seek to understand more about traditional approaches to slowing climate change . Discriminatory, often violent, treatment has been the norm in far too many parts of the world, both in the past and today.

 During the Assembly in Belfast, human rights and environmental activist Abdulrahman Heidari offered a devastating example of how government or powerful private interests can refuse responsibility for the damage they cause to Indigenous land. In southwestern Iran, Ahwazi farmers generally build soil barriers in flood-prone areas that direct the water toward dried marshlands. But in 2019, the Iranian government destroyed the soil barriers, citing a risk of possible damage to oil facilities in the area. This caused more than a month of flooding in the region and displaced half a million Ahwazi people.

Another example comes from Bread’s recent work with an Indigenous Farmers’ Dialogue. Duane Chili Yazzie, a 73-year-old farmer, discussed some of the regenerative farming practices used in Shiprock Navajo Nation, New Mexico. He also described a time in 2015 when, unfortunately, the techniques that members of the Navajo Nation had developed over generations were urgently needed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself spilled three million gallons of contaminated wastewater into farmland at Shiprock. Although the community received a grant from EPA to regenerate the land, the funding was only sufficient to revitalize 15 percent of the affected area, and some individual farmers are still waiting for the compensation that they had negotiated after the spill.

The Assembly offered a place for Indigenous leaders to describe such inequities and discuss potential ways of improving the situation. The overarching goal was to highlight indigenous people’s resilience and create a space where they could share their traditional and creative strategies for growing and producing food in a wide variety of environments.  

Bread is inspired by the CNS Assembly as an opportunity for Indigenous people to be represented and participate equitably in decision-making. As Christians from a place of privilege, where we have not only material resources but the ability to advocate for change with our elected officials, we are hopeful that we can work alongside some of these communities to advance their rights while also protecting the planet we must all share. It is also encouraging to see the recent interest in improving food systems among Indigenous communities in several countries. We urge their full inclusion in future food systems and climate change work.

Julie Bautista is a domestic policy analyst with Bread for the World.

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