In the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City lies today, an intricate gardening system once supplied over half the food for the city’s then 200,000 residents. Historical accounts describe ‘floating gardens’, or chinampas - man-made plots of land created from foundations of twisted willows and tree roots to support the soil and plants. Floating in lakes, chinampas were efficiently irrigated by the surrounding water and enriched with the nutrient-dense mud from the lake to produce highly nutritious crops.
The floating nature of the gardens provided a solution to communities that were short of land and protected them from famine following the devastating floods to which the Valley of Mexico was prone during the prolonged rainy seasons. The gardens were fertilized with human waste from the city itself, providing rich compost for crops while treating the metropolis’ wastewater. Addressing issues of waste, space and crop protection, the Indigenous Aztec’s system was ingrained with solutions to recognized problems in today’s technologically advanced agriculture. It was designed eight centuries ago.
When the Spaniards arrived, they soon dismantled the complex system, replacing it with conventional monocropping. Chinampas still exist today, though rare and no longer in their traditional floating form. The “Farmers of the Chinampas of Xochimilco” Terra Madre community is one group strongly linked to rural traditions that continue to use the modern form of this agricultural method.
The Aboriginal people of Australia were the first civilization to use many common tools developed only much later by other societies. The genius and aerodynamics of the boomerang, a flying weapon with the profile of a bird’s wing, has been called one of humanity's greatest inventions. Lesser known, the woomera is a tool that propels a spear at a greater speed than possible by arm strength alone. Until the invention of the self-loading rifle in the nineteenth century, the woomera with a spear was the fastest weapon on the planet.
The knowledge carried by Indigenous communities has developed through thousands of years of trial and error, through continuous devising and modification of solutions and systems that respond to specific environments and circumstances. Indigenous cultures hold knowledge about cultivation of plants, animals, their care and preservation, cooking methods and nutrition that rival, and in many cases are more advanced than, conventional scientific knowledge.
When maize was introduced as a staple food throughout Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, populations were struck with epidemics of pellagra – a disease causing diarrhea, dimentia, dermatitis and death. While the introduction of the crop was identified as the cause of the epidemics, mystery surrounded the fact that pellagra was absent from Indigenous American populations whose diets were abundant in maize. In the early 20th century, when niacin deficiency was determined to be the cause of the disease, it was discovered that Native Americans had learned to soak maize in alkali water (made with ashes and lime) to liberate niacin, which remains unavailable in untreated maize.
Beyond resourceful inventions, the value of Indigenous knowledge lies in the ability to maintain sustainable lifestyles that are closely linked to nature and with respect for its resources. They have preserved unique knowledge that has been lost in many modern civilizations: the knowledge of a special relationship between humans and nature, and how to work in synchronization with the natural world to overcome imposing problems.
The Sámi, the Indigenous people of Sápmi, a land that stretches across the northern regions of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, embrace an environment where nature can be merciless and the terrain is unfavorable for agriculture. The harsh winter can last up to 200 days and temperatures fall lower than -30°C. Throughout their history, the survival of their people and culture has depended on the respectful and intelligent use of the resources available. “We are the land and the land is us,” said Stefan Mikaelsson, President of the Sámi parliament in Sweden and member of the Slow Food Sápmi Convivium. “We have a distinct spiritual and material relationship with our lands and territories and they are inextricably linked to our survival.”
Examples of ingenious responses to difficult environments can be found in Indigenous communities all over the world. The forests of Meghalaya in northeast India are home to the highest rainfall in the world. As the summer monsoon hits, small streams morph into raging, wild rivers that are impossible to cross. Through years of adaptation, the native Khasi people have fashioned a sustainable solution to deal with this problem. Families plant ‘strangling fig’ trees along the banks of rivers and gradually coax their roots to grow across the river until they take hold on the other side - creating a ‘living bridge’. The bridges are naturally self-renewing as the new roots grow, and self-strengthening as roots grow thicker. A bridge cannot be completed in the space of a lifetime, so the endeavor is passed on to the children of the tribe, making these architectural feats the work of many generations.
The knowledge of how to cope with environmental challenges is essential in creating a system that is capable of providing food security in the face of modern day challenges such as a mounting population and a changing climate. “This is the valuable lesson that Indigenous people of the world can teach us,” said Slow Food President Carlo Petrini. “We have forgotten it but they have not.”
Yet it is precisely this knowledge that is overlooked in the modern world and its bearers who have suffered oppression throughout history. Their lands have been confiscated, they have been displaced, their cultures are suppressed and in some cases these peoples have been the victims of genocide. The survival of Indigenous cultures is proof of the resilience of these societies, held together by their rituals, beliefs, language and traditions.
The need to value traditional knowledge and combine it with scientific research for a viable future was emphasized by Petrini at the Terra Madre world meeting of food communities last year, when Indigenous issues were highlighted as a key theme in workshops. “We must have a dialogue between science and traditional knowledge,” he said, of which native peoples are key holders. “Not only should they be listened to, but should be at the front line for the challenges this world and the crises present us. Yet these are the people least considered by politicians and media.”
The first ever Indigenous Terra Madre to be held this month will celebrate native cultures from across the world – their diversity and the knowledge they hold, as well as draw attention to their plight. Slow Food Sápmi, who will host the event in Jokkmokk, Sweden, will welcome Indigenous food communities from around the world along with 200 observers, politicians, journalists and decision makers. Native American producers from the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium will join Niger’s Tuareg people who live from their nomadic animal herding; Bario Rice Presidium producers from Malaysia will meet Chilean Merken Presidium producers, and Maori farmers from New Zealand will join Russia’s Tarja community whose livelihood centers around sustainable salmon fishing.
During the meeting, participants will exchange their expertise and raise a collective voice on how traditional knowledge and sustainable use of natural resources can contribute to developing good, clean and fair food systems, highlighting ancient and modern examples of protecting and respecting territories, lands and seas. “We believe in a healthy earth,” affirmed Slow Food Sápmi, “one in which collective Indigenous knowledge systems about the production of food, careful resource use and protection of biodiversity are key to working towards resilience.”
The timely arrival of the first Indigenous Terra Madre is testimony that the moment has come to acknowledge that scientific knowledge can hold only part of the answer. To confront the current and future predicaments our civilization must face, we must look to the communities whose ongoing survival is proof that only through a respectful relationship with nature and carrying on the values of our ancestors can true sustainability be achieved.
For more information on Indigenous Terra Madre