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Flavors and Culture: Food Systems through Indigenous Women's Eyes

Global Food for Thought by Myrna Cunningham
Monica Volpin
A woman walks along a cliff with a sheep following behind her.

Productive practices of Indigenous women's groups have significant value in contributing to the conservation of biodiversity and the well-being of humanity, and therefore encourage exchange and dialogue.

In October of 2022, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is launching a blog series titled, “Stewardship, Sovereignty, and Solutions” that features the voices of guest authors from Indigenous organizations and communities. Recognizing that Indigenous communities around the world disproportionately experience the pressures of climate change, global conflicts, and the pandemic, while simultaneously stewarding 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, the blog series aims to highlight Indigenous and traditional agricultural practices in the United States and globally. In bringing attention to Indigenous agriculture and foodways, we aim to promote a truly inclusive global food system that recognizes and actively counteracts the oppression of Indigenous peoples. 

The food systems of Indigenous Peoples link us to traditional values that relate us to Mother Earth, to the Pachamama — the notion of the Andean Indigenous Peoples of South America that refers to the giver of life, the one who feeds us. It is a clear and precise concept that relates us to the natural, cultural, and spiritual environment. It is not by chance that it is feminine, since this sacred relationship implies nurture, care, and love, and involves collective values such as consensus building, gender equity, intergenerational relationship, and sharing collective territories. It is a term that compels us to an action of permanent reciprocity with her.   

On the road to recover the interdependence between human beings and nature, the Indigenous women of Abya Yala have remembered, reflected, and shared experiences through dialogues with the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) that allow us to win back the consideration and respect of our Mother Earth. These dialogues titled “Women of the Farms” recognize our role as protectors of the cultural and natural identity of our peoples, our responsibility to nurture and strengthen the resilience of our communities, and our path forward through the recovery of indigenous knowledge and flavors to heal that relationship.  

Promoting Holistic Visions to Prioritize Indigenous Cuisine 

In the "Women of the Farms" dialogues, Indigenous women from multiple ecological levels told us how, in facing the COVID-19 pandemic, they promoted a territorial approach with a holistic vision to recover and strengthen the production of traditional medicines, seeds, animals, and crops. The Amazonian women used accessible ancestral practices and products, which enhances their ecological knowledge. They pointed out that just as in the past, sharing stories around the fogón—the wood-burning-fire where we cook—is pivotal to maintaining a cultural relationship with food, including the potatoes, chocolate xocolatl, corn, peanuts, chili peppers, tomatoes, and beans they grow. Today, they continue to produce acai, quinoa, yacon, Maca, and algae, all of which are present in recipes around the world.  

The Indigenous women of Abya Yala also highlighted that Indigenous cuisine is changing the vision of influential chefs around the world, such as Virgilio Martinez from Peru, who rescues ingredients and recipes created in the jungles, mountains, and savannahs. Others, such as the Nahuatl women of Mexico involved in initiatives such as Terra Madre-Slow-Food, combine pleasure and knowledge of Indigenous foods to counteract the uniformity of global chains. On the other hand, the Guna women of Panama, located in coastal marine areas and supported by FILAC's Indigenous women's program, have set up a fonda—a local family restaurant—to revalue and share the knowledge of their people.   

Other organizations have demonstrated that knowledge systems and values are key to Indigenous food resilience in the face of disasters, dispossession, climate change, and pandemics. Organización de Mujeres Indígenas Asháninkas de la Selva Central is a notable example, as an organization that unites Asháninka women from Peru by recovering traditional medicines and healthy food. 

Threats Facing Indigenous Knowledge Systems 

Indigenous women have also warned about the threats facing their knowledge systems. They pointed out that the uncontrolled expansion of the agricultural frontier, agribusiness, agro-industrial farms, crops, processed-food factories, and monoculture are depleting the soils of the Pachamama. They are cornering and diminishing diversity and community crops, and are generating new diseases such as type 2 diabetes.  

These productive practices are eroding the millenary of diverse and rich Indigenous cultures. Indigenous languages are also losing important terms with cosmogonic content (which considers the origin of the universe) linked to collective values and knowledge. For life to flourish with well-fed and strong cultural practices, it is necessary to fully recognize and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples over their lands, territories, and resources. These Indigenous women have demanded that their ways of life and knowledge systems be duly recognized and valued.    

Recommendations That Emphasize the Value of Indigenous Foodways 

To this end, the Indigenous women of Abya Yala recommend continuing to strengthen their capacity for self-management of their territories, maintaining and transmitting their practices and knowledge. They reaffirm the need to establish and maintain a dialogue among equals with scientists and academics in order to share wisdom and knowledge.    

The various Indigenous women's groups that participated in the dialogues on food systems believe the productive practices of their peoples—agricultural, nomadic, rotational, fishing, hunting, and gathering—have provided them with food security, health, and a good living throughout the generations. These practices have significant value in contributing to the conservation of biodiversity and the well-being of humanity, and therefore encourage exchange and dialogue.   

They also recommend facilitating the commercialization of Indigenous products by supporting community enterprises, Indigenous economic initiatives, access to market information, infrastructure facilities, and post-harvest technological management. To this end, they propose opening new paths, routes of exchange, and fair trade with fair prices and horizontal relations, which allow communicating and offering food products from local communities to global markets. But above all, they recommend promoting a development model that offers an alternative based on respecting the Pachamama. 

The Indigenous women of Abya Yala have constantly reaffirmed that their Peoples have transmitted their practices and knowledge about their food systems over generations. These learnings have allowed the Pachamama to ensure shelter, food, and life in harmony. Our commitment is to give continuity to these practices, and to continue transmitting this knowledge to new generations in order to protect and enjoy Mother Earth for the good of all.   

Learn more about the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean by visiting  

About the Author
Vice President of FILAC
Myrna Cunningham smiles into the camera, pictured from the shoulders up wearing a red and black patterned shirt.
Myrna Cunningham is a doctor from the indigenous people Miskitu region of Nicaragua. Her professional career is linked to the struggle for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and, especially, of indigenous women in Nicaragua, America, and the world. 
Myrna Cunningham smiles into the camera, pictured from the shoulders up wearing a red and black patterned shirt.