Food Security and Maya Land Rights: Crafting paths of ‘Development with Identity’

By Filiberto Penados and Mark Chatarpal

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is generally defined as occurring when everyone has constant access to healthy and safe food to live an active life. Food security occurs when food is: available, easily accessible, the supply is stable, and is properly consumed. The growing concern is that indigenous people’s food security is being increasingly threatened by climate change. Changes in weather patterns, temperature, and precipitation can wreak havoc on production systems consequently causing fluctuations in food supply, availability, accessibility, and utilization. Increased drought for example, can reduce productivity and extreme weather can interrupt the transportation of food hence increasing cost, reducing availability and accessibility.

20131014diasporaFood insecurity predominantly threatens vulnerable sectors of society— those who in many ways contribute the least to climate change. People who are unemployed or underemployed for example, are particularly affected by food-price increases. Even if nutrient-dense foods are available it might be inaccessible due to high prices resulting in the overconsumption of heavily processed foods. This situation particularly affects people who are largely dependent on the marketplace for their food supply. However, communities that produce their own foods are equally vulnerable to climate change. While climatic changes can be remedied with irrigation systems and controlled environments, most subsistence farmers still depend on rain-fed agriculture. Indigenous food security is considered to be among the most threatened by climate change. However, the threat to indigenous food security and possible responses cannot be fully understood nor addressed through the conventional framework of food security.

The discussion on food security presumes the reality and desirability of a global food system (FS) articulated solely through a global market economy. In this sense, food is obtained through supermarkets and grocery stores after traveling across the world. While this might be true for peoples within urban communities, the reality of rural and indigenous peoples is often quite different. Their FS is more nuanced; moreover the reality of indigenous food security is the result of a confluence of historical and political factors. Therefore, to understand and address indigenous food security in an effective and just manner there is a need to take into account the unique character of indigenous food systems (IFS).

Indigenous food security does not solely rely on the global FS and market economy. The IFS is primarily land and culturally based and relies on farm, forest and traded foods. Traded foods among indigenous peoples have existed for generations. The destruction of indigenous economies and trading networks, the creation of arbitrary borders, and integration of indigenous societies into the “modern” market economy has obviously reshaped these traditional structures. For most indigenous peoples, traded foods now include “market” or “store” foods—foods that are traded throughout the global market. However, for many, the main sources of food continue to be the farm and the forest. That is, foods that are locally produced, foods that are land-based.

The production of these land-based foods is largely grounded on indigenous knowledge systems, customs, social arrangements, values, and institutions—an entire worldview in fact. Indigenous farming for example is based on agronomic and ecological knowledge; local technologies, knowledge of soils and terrains, seed varieties, flora and fauna, pest management, land management and climate. Similarly forest foods are gathered, fished, and hunted in the local environment through practices that rely on the indigenous ecological knowledge system—the biology of plants and animals, the interactions between plants and animals and knowledge about the terrain, local technologies, and weather patterns.

Food production is also based on social and spiritual knowledge. Corn production for example, requires the mobilization of labour, securing land, knowledge about proper protocols and customs. It involves seed selection, planting, and tending the field, harvesting and storing, all of which relies on a complex knowledge system. The production of corn also requires spiritual knowledge, such as obtaining spiritual permission for clearing land, asking for a good harvest, and giving thanks for the yield. The access to this knowledge is made possible by arrangements that structure knowledge production and transmission. The mobilization of labour, for example, is made possible by an existing economy of reciprocity, where community members assist each other in the planting and harvesting of corn. This also facilitates the exchange of seeds and technology and the distribution of food. Similarly, the access to land is based on customary land use and management arrangements. These social arrangements, values, and institutions are underpinned by a worldview that frames the way indigenous peoples relate to each other, the land, the environment, and the cosmos.

Secondly, food security is connected to questions of identity. Planting and eating corn among the Maya for example, is often connected not only to matters of nutrition but also issues of cultural identity. Maya people often refer to corn as the only ‘real food’—eating something else is not real eating. They will sometimes say someone is no longer Maya because she/he does not plant or eat corn anymore. Finally, it is important to recognize that the IFS that exist today are remnants of an autonomous and effective food system. In the case of the Maya their autonomous FS allowed them to develop magnificent architecture, dedicate time to astronomy, mathematics, and the development of a sophisticated calendar.

The Maya FS was anchored on lands and resources that they controlled. This was central to indigenous identity, peoplehood, material and cultural development, wellbeing, and sovereignty. However, their FS was seriously eroded by conquest and colonization, specifically through the dispossession of lands and resources, the destruction of social and political institutions, the imposition of external social and political institutions, the marginalization of indigenous knowledge and imposition of external knowledge and value systems.

Understanding and addressing indigenous food security cannot be achieved without considering the historical and political dynamics that undermined and continue to negatively impact the IFS. This logic, in many instances, continues to undermine what is left of the IFS and the food security that emanates from it. It is no surprise that issues of dispossession and destruction of indigenous autonomy, cultural revitalization and the carving of a space for indigenous self-determination are today at the center of indigenous resurgence.

The dynamics that have produced indigenous dispossession and exclusion has been described by Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo as the ‘logic of Coloniality’—a matrix of power that was born within colonialism, and that did not disappear with the process of decolonization. As Quijano points out, it has since the 16th century, “been the most effective and long-lasting instrument of social domination.” It is present in what is described as the discourse of development. According to this discourse, Gustavo Esteva argues, indigenous societies were defined as underdeveloped, to be offered salvation through development in the model of western society. The goal of development often justified and continues to legitimise further dispossession, domination, and exclusion. The invention of indigenous underdevelopment provides the basis for outside intervention or what Joel Wainwright calls “tutelage” in his writings about the coloniality of development policy and practice in Toledo, Belize.

The erosion of IFS and hence indigenous food security can be understood within the logic of coloniality, which resulted in the loss of land and resources where indigenous peoples were pushed towards infertile lands resulting in the loss of stewardship over the forest. Colonial institutional frameworks precluded them from the possibility of producing food, generating and transmitting knowledge thus reducing their labour to servitude. Achieving food security, therefore, not only as a matter of justice but also as a matter of effectiveness, implies addressing the coloniality of power and the realities it produces. On contrast, the FAO’s definition of food security tends to be ahistorical and apolitical, unable to name and address the highly uneven and exploitative relations that produce food insecurity. Addressing the dynamics and realities of the coloniality of power is precisely what is at the heart of indigenous resurgence. At the heart of indigenous movements across the world is the goal of overcoming exclusion and achieving wellbeing. However, they are also about securing a rightful place for indigenous ways of knowing and being, of overcoming colonialism and racism and ensuring a space for a self-determined existence.

In 1996 La Via Campesina coined the term food sovereignty to address the conceptual limitations of food security. Whereas food security tended to focus on peoples’ right to food without concerning itself with how that food might be produced, food sovereignty emphasizes not only people’s right to food but also the right to define their own food and agriculture system. It prioritizes small producers and communities, placing their aspirations, needs, and livelihoods at the center. At the heart of food sovereignty is securing the rights of direct producers to manage and use the lands, seeds, and knowledge for the production of food.

This focus is best appreciated when one recognizes that La Via Campesina is a movement of peasants, landless peoples, women, small holders, and indigenous peoples. Food sovereignty in the sense that it focuses on the rights of people to self-define their FS and manage the land and resources necessary for food production, is consistent with the broader struggle of indigenous peoples for self-determination. It is consistent with the struggle of indigenous peoples against exclusion and dispossession, based on centring indigenous ways of knowing and wellbeing, the core of the Maya land rights struggle.