Native cultures and their plant seeds could be keys to addressing crises of food, medicine and energy, coping with climate change, and easing unprecedented rates of species extinction, according to Tirso Gonzales, an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan.
“The dominant Westernized worldview tells us that nature has endless resources, and so we have unsustainable ways of living and doing agriculture in an era of oil addiction,” says Gonzales. “That worldview is in crisis, and that’s why we are looking for sustainability. There is great potential for Indigenous peoples to make important contributions to the world today.”
A former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in sociology, Gonzales recently served as the Latin America and Caribbean lead author on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a four-year, $11-million project funded by the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Published this year, the IAASTD five-volume report Agriculture at a Crossroads examines how science, technology and Indigenous knowledge can be used to reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and promote development that is sustainable for the environment, societies and economies.
The report points out a range of environmental impacts from agricultural practices around the world today, noting:
Approximately 1.5 billion people are directly affected by land degradation
Deforestation is proceeding at 13 million hectares per year
Over half of the world’s grasslands are degraded
Depletion of marine resources is so severe that some commercial fish species are now threatened globally
The demand for water for agriculture has led to serious depletion of surface water resources
Half of the world’s wetlands are estimated to have been lost during the last century
Of an estimated 525 million farms worldwide, 404 million have fewer than two hectares of land, the report says, advising that using local and Indigenous knowledge – as well as advanced sciences across a broad field of disciplines – would benefit these small-scale agricultural producers.
Achieving this will require a new kind of communication that spans the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures – and that’s where Gonzales is focusing his attention.
“Indigenous culture is an undervalued, diminished and marginalized reservoir of knowledge,” says Gonzales, citing colonization and a still-prevalent colonial mentality as major influences around the world. “We can’t be entrenched in our own way of viewing the world – we need an intercultural dialogue.”
Born and raised in Peru, Gonzales is related to the Aymara people, who have a rich cultural tradition of rituals and sustainable life spanning more than 10,000 years. He says the Aymara and Quechua peoples of Peru, for example, have amassed vast experience and knowledge living in harmony with nature. Their Andean worldview holds that everything is alive – the seeds, the soil, mountains – and everything has its own culture and deserves respect.
“In Andean agriculture you take care of the roots, tubers and grains with love, care and nurturance. Life is nurtured as a whole,” he says. “Food comes by default, but not because you are really concerned with producing food, but because your concern is with procuring balance and harmony. That is the spirit of sustainability.”
As an academic with close ties to what he calls Indigenous “cultures of the seed,” Gonzales is keenly aware of the contrasts between science and Indigenous knowledge, and he’s eager to help these disparate worldviews strike up a dialogue, not collide.
Last December, Gonzales began a pilot research project collaborating with Peruvian Andean-Amazonian Indigenous peoples’ local organizations. The project is supported by UBC’s Martha Piper Research Fund and emphasizes interdisciplinary, intercultural dialogue and exchange, as well as gathering data and mapping of agricultural local knowledge and lore.
Gonzales envisions a new Indigenous Centre of the Americas and Pacific Rim to promote and endorse the Indigenous peoples’ agenda as expressed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
He says the centre would work to strengthen dialogue within and between cultures, and provide for training, exchange, education, and dissemination of information and research outcomes for key stakeholders such as Indigenous peoples, governments, the private sector, and civil society at large.
“Where the seed goes, where genetic material goes, it goes with culture, place and language,” he says. “We need society, policy makers and institutions to be flexible enough to respond to the challenge. If not, we will continue to exclude people in large numbers from being who they are and from contributing to enriching sustainable, place-based agri-cultures.”
The IAASTD reports Agriculture at a Crossroads are available from www.agassessment.org or www.islandpress.org/iaastd.