Why protecting indigenous communities could help preserve our planet

Updated 9:40 AM ET, Wed October 13, 2021
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Indigenous peoples' food systems could inspire more sustainable solutions for the rest of the world, according to a UN report. But the traditional lifestyles of many indigenous groups (such as the Khasi people, pictured here) are under threat. Look through the gallery to find out more.
FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Khasi reside in the wettest region of India, the hilly northeastern state of Meghalaya, an area of remarkable biodiversity. Their food system relies mostly on shifting cultivation, home gardening, livestock and beekeeping. But, according to the report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Khasi are becoming increasingly reliant on the global market, and traditional food customs and biodiversity are under threat, with staples such as millet being supplanted by crops like rice. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Baka people are hunter-gatherers who depend on the tropical rainforest of south-eastern Cameroon. They use more than 179 plant and animal species for food and about 500 species of plants for medicinal, material and spiritual purposes. However, according to the FAO report, the presence of logging and safari companies makes it harder for the Baka to access the forest, and they are shifting away from the mobile lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer towards a more sedentary village life. Traditional knowledge of the forest is already being lost and their customs are facing the same threat. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Inari Sámi people are nomadic reindeer herders who live in the extreme north of Finland. Their food system relies on fishing, hunting and foraging. Traditionally, they follow the reindeers' annual migration between different grazing lands, and catch fish or hunt game, while being careful not to exploit stocks so that they last for the coming years. However, climate change has affected natural cycles and herding activities. An estimated 30% of the food consumed by the community now comes from the global market, according to the FAO report, with processed meat increasingly encroaching into their diets. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Melanesian people studied in the report live in Baniata village on Rendova Island in the South Pacific Ocean. Their food system relies primarily on the cultivation of banana and tuber crops in fields and home gardens, but according to the FAO, traditional practices are being damaged by excessive logging, increased pests, diseases and climate change, increasing the dependency on imported highly processed foods. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Kel Tamasheq people are nomadic Muslim pastoralists, who live in vast arid areas of the Sahara and surrounding Sahel in Mali. They depend on the management and sale of livestock, such as sheep, cattle, goats, donkeys and camels. But their lifestyle and customs are increasingly under threat from climate change, as droughts, mass flooding and sandstorms have caused severe water scarcity, and led to the loss of livestock. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Bhotia and Anwal are two Hindu tribes that live in the Namik Valley of Uttarakhand, India. The communities collaborate through an integrated food system, where the Anwal migrate as shepherds and the Bhotia cultivate maize, potato, pulses and other staples. Most of the waste material generated in the village is biodegradable, and the community recycles it by making manure or using livestock dung as fuel. However, the FAO report notes that as natural disasters become more frequent with climate change, food customs such as wild foraging have been abandoned, threatening biodiversity and the survival of local knowledge. Courtesy Central Himalayan Institute for Nature & Applied Research
The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua are three fishing communities living largely in the Colombian part of the Amazon Basin. According to the FAO report, 68 of the 153 species they use for food are fish, but when the forest lands are dry, they rely on cultivation, hunting and foraging. Today, the communities source a quarter of their food supply from global markets and the report notes that the standardization of local schooling -- taught in Spanish rather than indigenous languages -- threatens the survival of traditional customs. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT
The Maya Ch'orti' people are spread across six villages in Chiquimula, the Mesoamerican dry corridor of Guatemala. Their diet is based on a mix of agriculture, agroforestry and home gardens. However, according to the FAO, climatic uncertainty and political conflict in the region has heavily reduced land access, degraded natural resources and damaged the self-sufficiency of the Maya Ch'orti'. Insects, which were once a regular source of protein for the community, are now rarely eaten, and wild foraging has reduced, leading to a less diverse diet. FAO/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT