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Indigenous peoples: guardians of nature and humanity

The ancient roots of sustainable food production

Author: Kata Karáth

Over millennia, indigenous populations in the Andes region have developed sustainable food production systems relying on agrobiodiversity. Now regarded as 'super' and 'future' foods, Andean produce and its farming methods are looked at as potential solutions to food insecurity in the face of a changing climate.

When you walk into any market or Frutería - a grocery store selling mostly fruits and vegetables - in Ecuador, the first thing you might notice is the boundless variety of food crops. There will be piles and piles of produce in all colors of the rainbow, ranging from the familiar dirt brown potato to types that are lesser-known in the west like the pale-yellow chocho, or Andean lupin, and the fiery red tree tomato.

There might be nothing unusual in finding ‘exotic’ produce in a Latin American food market if you come from Europe, North America, for instance; but taking a closer look at produce you might recognise from home like the humble potato or corn, you might be surprised to find dozens and dozens of varieties, taking up colours and shapes you have never seen before. 

An agrobiodiversity hotspot

The Andean region is one of the main centres of origin of diverse food plants and is also among the very few places in the world where there are still wild varieties of common crops; there is also an abundance of new ones that can be domesticated. It is a hotspot of agrobiodiversity that can play a restorative role and help tackle challenges like climate change, future pandemics and food insecurity in general.

Some Andean crops, like potatoes and maize, are among the world’s five most important staple food crops. And while they have received widespread attention, being globally used and studied, many of the other Andean food plants have long been perceived as 'lost', 'forgotten', or at least 'underutilised'. They are, however, neither lost nor in need of being 'rediscovered', but are primarily cultivated and guarded by local, mostly Indigenous family farmers.

This rich agribiodiversity is not only crucial in fulfilling nutritional, economic and ecological functions, but also constitutes part of the region's cultural heritage. Some potato varieties are so precious among farmers' families that they never reach a market stall but are rather exchanged among community members and are even presented as gifts for weddings and other events.

Meanwhile, there is growing international interest in Andean crops like quinoa or maca, which are referred to as 'super' or 'future' foods due to their exceptional nutritional properties. 

hailed by Andean civilizations, shunned by conquistadors

Andean crops thrive in a wide range of elevations, from the sea level to over 4000m and along some 7,000km that make up the Andes, spreading through several countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. This overarching mountain range has more microclimates than anywhere else in the world, which has provided indigenous peoples the opportunity to domesticate and diversify crops to fit unique local conditions and ensure communities' access to diverse and nutritious foods for thousands of years. The first examples of crop domestication possibly dates back to as early as 3700-1800 BC, during the Caral civilization that thrived near modern day Lima, Peru. 

But the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and other colonisers from 1526 onward resulted in the widespread collapse of indigenous populations due to foreign-borne diseases, oppression and violence. For the next few hundred years, indigenous food culture in the Andes and elsewhere in the Americas were crushed by discrimination and racism.

This meant that nutritious Andean foods were until recently called the derogatory term comida de indio and looked upon with mistrust and suspicion by the western world and the urban elite prone to colonial perspectives. Only by the end of the 1970s was there a new generation of Andean researchers who recognised the significance of Andean agrobiodiversity and acknowledged the stewardship role of indigenous farmers. 

Agrobiodiversity: the key to a healthy diet

Despite being a treasure trove of agrobiodiversity, the Andean region suffers from high levels of malnutrition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Inadequate and poor-quality diets also contribute to the population's vulnerability to illnesses, with the most recent example being the COVID-19 pandemic, where undernurished populations have been more likely to develop severe infections.

The use of Andean agribiodiversity could be a potential gamechanger in tackling these issues. In combination with other tools and strategies, native foods also have the advantage of availability, accessibility and affordability. They could help diversifying schools meals, improve local food security (as we can see, global food chains can be easily disrupted by a pandemic) and even boost local economies while minimising their environmental footprint. 

Another important aspect is the payment for environmental services for farmers who by safeguarding local domesticated variants and other wild foods also help conserving the fragile ecosystems these plants inhabit. One of the few examples of such a successfully implement scheme is the Association of the Guardians of Native Potato in Peru, where members, with support from the private sector, have managed to collectively protect over 1,000 ancestral potato varieties. In addition, some Andean crops, like maca, kaniwa, pacay and pajuro can also contribute to carbon capture and, therefore, help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Some Andean crops, like potatoes and maize, are among the world’s five most important staple food crops. Image by Jen Theodore.

the renaissance of Andean future foods and its challenges

Since the 1980s, there has been a renaissance of Andean food culture, with more and more of them being called 'superfoods' and turning into a global food phenomenon. But this revival movement faces many challenges, ranging from climate instability to an unsustainable global demand.

For example, as the climate is getting warmer and more unpredictable each year, there is an increased risk of droughts, destructive storms, frosts and hail in the Andes. Soil erosion and degradation are also increasingly becoming widespread problems. Meanwhile, drastic changes are also taking place in the social structures of Andean nations, with rural communities suffering from aging, migration (mostly of men) to urban areas and the encroachment of cities into the countryside.

There is also the recurring boom of multinational mining activities that offer quick cash to the ever-changing governments, which have the tendency to easily offer mining concessions throughout the Andes. 

And, while the revival of Andean ‘super’ or ‘futurefoods’ could be dynamising local economies, the sudden high demand in the global market could have crashing consequences for the region. For example, when quinoa became a global sensation in 2013, prices rapidly increased, luring many farmers into a quinoa goldrush. But as the demand soared, family farmers couldn’t compete with large farmers. Traditional long fallow periods meant for helping the soil to recover were shortened, while grasslands, rich in carbon stocks, were turned into quinoa cultivations. This rapid expansion also lead to excessive pesticide use.

Furthermore, the quinoa boom was heavily focused on foreign export, rather than the national market. Local populations have mostly received poor quality produce, resulting in the loss of trust in and the dismissal of the crops.

Lessons for a sustainable future

The traditional take on agrobiodiversity in the Andes encompasses an intergenerational wisdom of indigenous and other family farmers. Without romanticising their complex situation, Andean farmers tend to have sustainability built into their land management, factoring in soil health, labour availability and the cultivation of diverse crops across many elevations while looking at their family’s food supply and market possibilities.

Andean foods and their rich diversity present a wide range of new opportunities for the region, which can not only help local economies thrive but also tackle food insecurity in the faces of global problems like climate change, malnutrition, crop plagues and future pandemics.

However, as past examples like the quinoa boom indicate, it is essential that the future of Andean foods is built upon environmental sustainability, social inclusion, quality and profitability.

Image by Leandro