Indigenous peoples and the right to food

Where data exist, they show that levels of hunger and malnutrition among indigenous peoples are much higher than among the non-indigenous population. Indigenous peoples and their right to food and food sovereignty will be one of the focus of the Eleventh Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), to be held at UN Headquarters in New York from 7 to 18 May 2012.

Understanding what the right to food means to indigenous peoples goes beyond merely examining statistics on hunger, malnutrition or poverty. It encompasses indigenous peoples’ own particular conceptions of food, hunger, and subsistence. It has to be understood as a collective right, where food procurement and consumption of food are part of culture, as well as of social, economic and political organization. In addition, subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering are essential not only to their right to food, but to nurturing their cultures, languages, social life and identity.

The few available data on indigenous peoples’ nutrition shows that inappropriate development efforts often intensify the marginalization, poverty and food insecurity of indigenous peoples. Addressing the lack of disaggregated data on the situation of indigenous peoples, including on the extent if hunger and malnutrition, has been indicated as a key priority by the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues.

Traditional food jeopardized

The realization of indigenous peoples’ right to food depends crucially on their access to and control over the natural resources in the land and territories they occupy or use. Industrial development, especially mining and logging, as well as urban sprawl have polluted land, water and air. The creation of reserves, national parks, private lands and over-fishing have further reduced the areas and resources available to indigenous hunters, fishers and gatherers. Changing environmental conditions due to climate change that jeopardize traditional food species further exacerbate food insecurity.

Recent practices violating indigenous peoples’ intellectual property rights – such as “bioprospecting” or “biopiracy” – pose a threat to indigenous peoples’ genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Indigenous peoples want to be consulted about the ways their knowledge is used, and to equitably share in any benefits.

Food as a social indicator of existence

Over the years indigenous peoples have expressed deep concerns over the obstacles and challenges their communities face in fully enjoying their right to food. Indigenous peoples have urged the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to address these issues as a separate question to his work. The Declaration of Atitlán drafted at the First Indigenous Peoples’ Global Consultation on the Right to Food in April 2002 in Guatemala stated that the denial of the Right to Food for Indigenous Peoples is a denial of their collective indigenous existence, because it not only denies their physical survival, but also their social organization, cultures, traditions, languages, spirituality, sovereignty, and total identity.

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The right to food and indigenous peoples: