Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Security, Sustainability, and the Sacred: Postdoc champions Indigenous right to traditional foods

At age 19, Mariaelena Huambachano immigrated to New Zealand. Born and raised in Chorrillos, Peru, she had never thought much about her own Indigenous heritage—until she found herself in a small Māori town.

There, she struck up a conversation with a local man about a crop she herself knew well: the kūmara, or sacred sweet potato.

Huambachano realized that there was a strong spiritual and cultural connection between her own Peruvian ancestors and the Māori, and decided to dedicate her career to studying Indigenous ways of knowing about the environment and food security.

Mariaelena Huambachano conversing with a group of 'Andean seed keepers,'
Mariaelena Huambachano converses with a group of 'Andean seed keepers,' or ladies of Choquecancha (Quechua Communities), who live at an altitude of 3,800m in the highlands of Peru. Photo: Mariaelena Huambachano

As she explains, the Indigenous understanding of the environment is holistic. To native peoples, the land isn't simply a piece of soil that needs to be exploited to solve food challenges. Instead, the land is both an agricultural space and a sacred space, and both human and nonhuman relations work together to steward it.

Indeed, Indigenous perspectives on food security are much more than agricultural practices; they emphasize Indigenous peoples' collective self-determination and cultural rights for the respect, nurturing, and preservation of the land.

But modern industrial food production has disrupted this environmental synergy for many Indigenous groups, with dire consequences for health and well-being.

Quechua native seeds
A collection of Quechua native seeds. Photo: Mariaelena Huambachano

"In New Zealand, I found this food security paradox," says Huambachano, who recently concluded a postdoctoral research position at Brown in American Studies and Ethnic Studies. "It is this amazing country—one of the largest world producers of dairy products. And yet, Māori communities are suffering from obesity."

"And in the Peruvian highlands, there are a variety of Indigenous crops," she continues. "Biodiversity is so vibrant and unique. But Quechua and Amazonian communities are suffering from malnutrition and water scarcity."

According to Huambachano, food insecurity among native peoples stems from colonialism and and the associated confiscation of land by Western settlers. In Peru, for example, Spanish colonization came without respect for Indigenous sovereignty.

"Dispossession of the land is linked to loss of traditional knowledge practices when it comes to harvesting the land," she explains. "This also had a huge impact on Native Peruvian people's well-being, because the sustainable way that they are used to producing food supports the growth of food that is healthy for the spirit, the soul, and the body. They had a way of caring, respecting, having this mutual relationship with the environment—and that's been disrupted."

Moreover, says Huambachano, this intimate relationship with the land has been replaced for many Indigenous communities with commodity foods.

"Especially in North America, Native communities suffer disproportionately from type 2 diabetes, and one of the reasons is due to the disruption of their ‘collective food relations' caused by government imposition of processed foods in their diets" she says. "In New Zealand, it's the same."

"And it does not just affect Indigenous communities," she adds. "If we think about it, we just have the option to go to supermarket. We're limited with our accessibility to sustainable foods. We don't have control over the food systems. We lost autonomy and our control to decide what we want to eat, and to know how food has been produced."

Huambachano works in the maramataka
Huambachano works in the maramataka (food garden) of Wai A Ariki Food Forest Onerahirahi community, on the North Island of Aotearoa-New Zealand. Photo: Mariaelena Huambachano

In short, Indigenous food security frameworks are not only more environmentally sustainable than industrial ones—they are also better for human health, overall.

But can Indigenous food systems feed a world population that is rapidly rising toward 8 or 9 billion? Huambachano says yes.

As she explains, Indigenous agroecology, which is grounded in local knowledge and reflected in small-scale Indigenous food security frameworks, enables farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities without compromising the sustainability of the ecosystems such as land and water. In contrast, industrial food systems not only rely on unsustainable practices, but do so in a world filled with hundreds of millions of malnourished and ill people.

Huambachano cites urban agriculture, farmers markets, and food justice movements such as La Via Campesina, a transnational network of farmers and fisherman, as signs that there is, indeed, momentum toward embracing a more just food security system.

But, she admits, being optimistic isn't easy.

"It's hard, and at times you feel isolated," she says. "You have to continue when you have these global corporations, and you have these monopoly foods, and you have these state actors that don't really respect the knowledge provided by Indigenous communities."

"But on the other hand, it's not just me who feels like this," she continues. "It's other people too, who I meet in sustainability or food sovereignty conferences, or at the United Nations meetings. That's when we build up coalitions and build up solidarity. So it's a slow process, but we continue to work to preserve our collective rights to food—as well as to support Indigenous peoples' rights to self-determination over their land, and thereby, well-being."

Huambachano explains that although there is movement toward respecting and championing the rights of Indigenous peoples to food security, it isn't yet enough without buy-in from state actors and leaders.

"I would like to see a larger, more visible change," she says. "I'm happy to provide evidence and research and reports and ideas. But that would be my goal, for our voices to be heard at the international level, and also by main leaders that can make the change."

"Everyone has the right to food, but not just any food—not just food that is mass-produced and doesn't have any health value or any quality," she concludes. "We want healthy and culturally-appropriate food, which is what we deserve and is our human right."