Worldwatch Institute

Protecting the Sanctity of Indigenous Foods and Cultures


Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

Indigenous peoples inhabit more than 85 percent of the Earth’s protected areas, yet only 1 percent of the billions of dollars spent each year on philanthropy goes to indigenous peoples and the ecosystem services they support. Indigenous communities have inherited millennium-tested traditional ecological knowledge, land-based lifeways, and a holistic, interdependent relationship to the Earth. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, contributing authors discuss the value of the relationship that indigenous groups have developed and maintained between native lands and waters, including through the cultivation of native foods.

“According to many native traditions, to live well is the goal of life,” says Melissa K. Nelson, contributing author and associate professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University. “And to live well means not only sustaining foods and a lifestyle but actually regenerating the ecological systems that people depend on to enhance their happiness and spirit.”

Many indigenous communities know how to grow, nurture, harvest, process, cook, and feast on native foods in a way that can sustain both an ecosystem and a society. This is a result of a long tradition of intergenerational knowledge transmission. It is how the Paiute in Utah know how to gather and prepare tule bulbs as foods, how the Pomo in California know how to gather and process acorns, and how the Tohono O’odham in the Sonoran Desert know how to take an heirloom tepary bean and grow it in a beautiful desert garden.

By occupying nearly 20 percent of the Earth’s surface, indigenous groups, who live in 80 percent of the planet’s biological diversity hotspots, are acting as caretakers of these biodiverse places. Many indigenous communities and ecosystems, however, are at risk due to a lack of rights and fair treatment by governments and corporations.

“Forced evictions devalue not only the importance of indigenous communities but also the traditional ecological and agricultural knowledge these groups possess,” said Rebecca Adamson, contributing author and founder of First Peoples Worldwide. “By removing indigenous groups from their lands or recklessly exploiting natural resources such as minerals and forests, corporations and governments are effectively erasing thousands of years of practiced traditional ecological knowledge—the cumulative body of experience an indigenous group has collected over generations, encompassing knowledge, practices, and beliefs about their customary lands.”

In State of the World 2013, contributing authors examine the sanctity of native foods and the potential benefits that society could harvest by tapping into the wealth of ecological knowledge that indigenous communities hold and respectfully share.

The significance of sacred foods. Many indigenous communities have certain foods—including corn, taro, and wild rice—that are considered sacred and have profound teachings and practices associated with them. One of the most significant ways that indigenous peoples have demonstrated a respectful relationship to their sacred foods is through sustainable land and water practices. Because these totem foods are so highly regarded, it is considered a tragedy and a violation of fundamental rights that they are now being threatened with life patenting and genetic modification.

Native foods and ecosystem health. Native foods are markers of diversity and are often keystone species for the health of an ecosystem and the health of a people. The body of knowledge that indigenous communities hold concerning the cultivation of foods and the conservation of habitats are viable and potentially essential alternatives to some of today’s more unsustainable practices. Without healthy seeds, lands, and waters, native foods will continue to be compromised, damaged, and made scarce, and the health of ecosystems, native communities, and all communities will suffer.

Protecting indigenous peoples. Respecting indigenous communities, their land, and their traditions is an invaluable resource in our efforts to combat climate change. Defending indigenous rights involves governments implementing policies that protect indigenous groups, corporations engaging in mutually beneficial relations with indigenous communities and the environment, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) creating funding models and grants that help to support and grow indigenous societies.

It is clear that maintaining and strengthening indigenous self-determination needs to become a top priority and a collaborative effort among governments, policymakers, NGOs, private corporations, and indigenous communities themselves. Such efforts could help to put us on the path toward sustainability by increasing food security, protecting biologically diverse hotspots, and improving our resilience to climate change.

Worldwatch’sState of the World 2013, released in April 2013, addresses how “sustainability” should be measured, how we can attain it, and how we can prepare if we fall short. For more information, visit

Authors of mentioned chapters include:

  • Rebecca Adamson (Cherokee), founder of First Peoples Worldwide and co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”
  • Olivia Arnow, co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”
  • Melissa K. Nelson (Chippewa), associate professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, president of the Cultural onservancy, and author of Chapter 18, “Protecting the Sanctity of Native Foods.”
  • Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank and co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”

Notes to Editors:

For more information and for review copies of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, and for more information about our upcoming book State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, please contact Supriya Kumar at

About the Worldwatch Institute:

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in more than a dozen languages. For more information, visit

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