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“Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food”

“When you look at the map of global agrobiodiversity hotspots you realise that they are identical with indigenous people’s habitats. These 370 million people in the world have been agrobiodiversity custodians for millennia,” says Phrang Roy, co-ordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty. “Regretfully, their practices, such as shifting cultivation and their selection of socially relevant local crops and breeds, are not understood by many development workers, researchers and governments.”

With his modest appearance and warm voice, often weaving in a joke or two, Phrang Roy is one of the world’s leading advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples and agrobiodiversity. A member of the indigenous matrilineal Khasi tribe in India himself, he now lives in Rome. Between 2002 and 2006 Mr Roy served as the Assistant President of IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development).

“In my experience with international organisations, I realised that there is a need for a more inclusive approach that treats custodians of traditional knowledge and modern day researchers as equal but diverse knowledge holders. The well-being of future generations cannot be sustained if we continue to marginalise indigenous peoples, fail to learn from them about their cultural ways of respecting agrobiodiversity and do not defend their food sovereignty to practice their farming systems.”

So in 2010 Mr Roy established the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty. The Partnership promotes a dialogue between indigenous peoples and agricultural research and advocacy groups and strives for local knowledge to gain a place on the agenda of international institutions. In addition, Mr Roy is a prominent member of the International Slow Food movement and an advisor to the International Fund to Amplify Agro-Ecological Solutions.

What is blocking the mainstreaming of agrobiodiversity?

Current agricultural trends are all about moving towards a cash economy rather than subsistence farming. Unfortunately, the question is often not “how can I grow healthy food for my own family” but “how can I grow crops that will reap monetary benefits”. In the current system, we don’t look at hidden subsidies or at the cost of ill health that comes with a long dependence on chemical supported commercial production. The narrow focus on production, the obsession that we cannot feed the world without chemicals and the ignorance about traditional systems are some of the biggest challenges to transformation.

Creating local livelihoods based on agrobiodiversity is one strategy to respond to this situation, but this is easier said than done. It is crucial that farmers pro-actively share their successful experiences. But many farmer groups have limited opportunities to make their distinctive ecological practices known, or they lack the leverage to influence policy makers. We should be more proactive to connect these dots. We also need to “glamorise” local economies. This would also help the younger generation feel more attracted to farming. Finally, farmer organisations must push more pro-actively for a thorough and true cost accounting of commercial agriculture.

Who are the “shakers” of the system?

These are the farmers and communities who maintain their local agrobiodiversity despite climate change and modern influences, including those who adopt modern technologies and adapt them to local conditions. One entity that I think we have seriously overlooked in our search for sustainable agriculture are the cooks. Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. In the middle stands the cook. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.

In addition, I think that scientists are an indispensable partner. Agricultural research must be driven more by communities and public funding instead of by commercial groups who see agriculture as a strategic investment opportunity. Mechanisms such as Citizen’s Juries can enable farming communities to set the research agenda. We are currently involved in a research project on agro-ecological indicators of how indigenous knowledge is sustaining agrobiodiversity. What is most important about these initiatives is that we do it in a participatory manner. Knowledge should not be simply extracted from grassroots peoples but they should be actively involved and informed.

What are effective ways to promote agrobiodiversity?

An indigenous lesson

“There is a lot we can learn from indigenous communities. For example, they have helped us to discover the important role of pollinators such as bees as agents of biodiversity. If we want to support pollinators, we have to increase the amount and diversity of food plants in our ecosystems. This integrated approach, where food production and biodiversity conservation naturally come together, is very natural in many indigenous farming systems.”

By linking biodiversity with the pleasure of consuming local food, we will gain a lot. Food connects communities and shapes their environment, economy and culture. Recent research has confirmed the importance of pride and cultural re-affirmation in encouraging communities to continue their roles as custodians of biodiversity. In that regard, food festivals have proven to be meaningful entry points.

In our last festival we attracted 10,000 visitors who exchange knowledge. We displayed as many as 200 edible local plants out of which more than one third derived from the wild. We invited local chefs to celebrate local dishes, adapted to modern standards of hygiene and aesthetics. The result is that many formerly neglected foods are now promoted by farmers and in urban areas.

Another effective strategy is to link local biodiversity to local food shops. For example, in Meghalaya we set up the first rural indigenous café. It sources products from nearby farmers and foragers and presents local dishes in an appealing way. This gives income opportunities for farmers and sustains the cultivation of local, nutritious crops. We have also worked with schools to enhance children’s knowledge about wild edible plants by organising educational walks and “biodiversity picnics”. Children are more willing to appreciate their local food through such initiatives.

Documentation is another important strategy to raise awareness. In the Northeast of India, participatory plant breeders are documenting farmers’ agrobiodiversity management practices. One of the farmers is now working with her community to promote local agrobiodiversity in surrounding villages and in schools. What we learn form all these examples is that it is crucial to work with culture, pride and local knowledge.

How do you view the promotion and rise of GMOs?

I am not against biotechnology as long as its development has the prior and informed consent of all involved, and as long as the impacts are robustly and honestly considered. Unfortunately, GMO crop technology, as it stands today, is owned and driven by very few companies who mainly seek to maximise their profits. Moreover, by replacing diverse multicropping systems with monocultures of seeds that cannot be sown year after year, we risk losing important agrobiodiversity that is the result of thousands of years of intergenerational knowledge transfer. As a result, we risk entering into a fragile system where we have to rely on fewer crops that may depend on more chemical inputs.

Indigenous peoples are very clear that the existing Intellectual Property Rights regime does not provide adequate recognition or protection of their collective rights. The regime is designed to foster commercial growth, while the intellectual property system of indigenous peoples is based on the collective rights of communities. They are very closely linked to their lands and territories, the environment and biodiversity and their cultural heritage. This unique system needs to be upheld. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does recognise the collective rights of indigenous peoples. That declaration needs to be supported, as well as the ongoing work that is taking place between indigenous communities and UN Agencies like UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

What appeal would you make to young people?

There is an emerging trend of localism when it comes to food. Especially in Europe, young people have come up with very creative ways to set a trend that is defined by fresh, local and tasty food. Disco Soups is one activity that we have borrowed from Germany and Netherlands to create an interest amongst young people. I believe that if we have a passion and share it with others, we will be able to inspire others around us. Even small initiatives such as kitchen gardens, food festivals or informal chit chats can be strategic entry points to important changes in society. If young people don’t make that change, we will lose everything.

What difference could this International Year of Family Farming make?

The International Year can highlight the role of women and young people as the future custodians of agrobiodiversity. It should generate greater respect and empowerment of family farmers, especially the indigenous communities, whose world view is very different from other families, and who are often ignored.

My hope is that we can create a platform that recognises the important role of the silent and the marginalised, allows grassroots peoples to voice their opinions, facilitates exchange of knowledge and that re-affirms pride in local food systems. Food, when responsibly produced, protects the environment, enhances our health and well being and highlights the role of women as custodians of our agrobiodiversity and our food traditions. I therefore envision a future where our food systems are defined by a strong bond between people, planet, plate and culture.

Interview: Janneke Bruil