PAN board member Kyle Powys Whyte is Professor of Environment and Sustainability and George Willis Pack Professor at the University of Michigan. Here, Kyle shares thoughts and reflections around the value of biodiversity, the importance of food for vibrant communities, and the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples.
The United Nations reminds us that Indigenous peoples’ territories are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. I would encourage everyone to learn more about the actions that Indigenous peoples are taking globally to make change and transformation.
When we say that Indigenous lands have 80% of the world’s biodiversity, we’re not talking about lands that are simply set aside for preservation without any further interactions with society. These high biodiversity areas are places where Indigenous peoples guard, grow, and share food. The biodiversity is advantageous for a thriving food system.
I was just re-reading an older article describing the Potato Park in Peru. The park is stewarded by Amaru, Chawaytire, Pampallacta, Paru Paru y Sacaca peoples. Literally thousands of varieties of potatoes grow there, and they grow along with many other crops. The article linked above describes how the purpose of growing potatoes and the other crops together is for the well-being of the whole society – not just some small group of elite persons. The food system is described as being empowering for Indigenous women.
As a Potawatomi person, I am inspired by the examples set by Indigenous peoples everywhere, like the Potato Park. These examples demonstrate why agroecology is about science at the same time it is about well-being and empowerment. An agroecological food system should not – and perhaps cannot – be imagined without there being justice and equality.
When we dig deep into our work, I think we find we have a lot to dialogue about, whether one is Indigenous or of another culture and heritage. Recently retired board member Denise O’Brien was one of the founders of the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN). Through her life as an Iowa farmer, Denise’s work emphasizes the connections between organic farming, gender justice and equality, and biodiversity conservation. Again, agroecology is inseparable from the well-being of the whole society.
Whether the Potato Park or WFAN, the work teaches us lessons about food as a focal practice for vibrant communities. This is inspiring. But it is also all too real when we see the consequences of the failure to honor the relationship between food and society. For many Indigenous peoples in North America and other parts of the world, decades of land dispossession, economic exploitation, and political silencing has generated struggle after struggle to protect biodiverse food systems. It then should be no surprise that the severe impacts of COVID-19 that some Indigenous peoples are facing have been associated with issues of access to water and access to local, healthy, affordable, and safe foods. In some Tribes, people risk exposure just to travel to places where they can get water for their families; or they experience high prices for commodity foods because they have to drive a long way to get to a market.
In conversations with friends around the world, I am hearing that Indigenous women often struggle acutely with the new burdens imposed on their communities by the spread of COVID-19. Many Indigenous women have devoted their lives to the protection of water, Indigenous food systems, and traditional medicines. Governments and corporations do not listen to the wisdom of Indigenous women like the late water protector, grandmother, and knowledge gifter Josephine Mandamin, whose leadership in the Mother Earth Water Walk already provided the lessons about how to take responsibility, ensuring our water and food support community well-being. If only more people had listened.
I joined the board of PANNA because its history and current work understand that growing food is about community, where well-being is integrated with biodiversity and agroecology. Industrial pesticide use, and its connections with monocrop agriculture, don’t have a place in a healthy and just food system. The dominant food system in the U.S. has made it hard to maintain local food systems that are interconnected with one another across regions. The public health crisis has demonstrated, in my view, why we have to change our food system. We need to be adamant and loud in advocating for the conditions that make it possible for our food to play its central role in thriving communities.