In a recent report, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples warns that COVID-19 is threatening Indigenous peoples’ right to food.
The newly-appointed Special Rapporteur, José Francisco Calí Tzay, spent his first few months in office consulting more than 150 international Indigenous groups to understand how COVID-19 is impacting their communities. The resulting Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples uncovers a variety of human rights violations Indigenous peoples have faced as states responded to the pandemic.
Traditional food systems form the backbone of many Indigenous peoples’ physical, cultural, and spiritual health, according to a study by the Assembly of First Nations.
“Food cannot be separated from territory, land, rights, and security,” Jeffrey Campbell, former Manager of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Forest and Farm Facility, tells Food Tank. “Indigenous food systems have a lot to offer and they are under threat.”
Before COVID-19, Indigenous peoples already faced high rates of food insecurity. In Canada, nearly one in two First Nations people reported food insecurity in 2019. Similarly, Indigenous peoples in Guatemala face malnutrition at twice the rate of non-Indigenous peoples. And for a number of Amazonian tribes across Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, unequal access to digital technology and state support magnifies food insecurity in Native communities.
The Special Rapporteur finds that the pandemic is exacerbating these challenges and further threatens access to traditional foods and methods of food harvesting and preparation.
According to the report, widespread disregard of Indigenous land rights and self-determination is hindering access to traditional foodways. For instance, Nomadic and semi-nomadic Indigenous groups in Scandinavian countries are struggling to feed grazing cattle amidst restrictions on roaming.
In other Indigenous Nordic communities, a temporary lapse in rural air freight brought food provisions to a halt overnight. And in urban settings, many Indigenous peoples – often working in the informal market – returned to their communities, unable to afford basic food staples.
The report also details how states’ militaristic response to COVID-19 further threatens Indigenous peoples’ right to food. Several countries responded to COVID-19 by introducing military and police personnel in order to enforce compliance with health protocols and alleviate pressure on frontline workers. But in many Native communities, the increased military and security presence has heightened racism and racial profiling, which reportedly increased restrictions on Indigenous peoples’ food harvesting practices.
Indigenous peoples also face unequal access to state support, the report explains. In the United States, for instance, a miscalculation of funding for Native communities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – an economic stimulus bill for American families and businesses – led to delays in critical relief funds. And First Nations leaders in Canada argue that the states’ emergency funds for Indigenous communities fall short of their needs.
In spite of these struggles, the Special Rapporteur highlights how Native communities around the world are showing remarkable resilience. Many groups set up community care networks to deliver food and medical equipment to those in need. In Thailand, Indigenous women fundraised online to provide LGBTQ+ Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women with food packs. And in New Zealand, Maori leaders organized food parcel delivery to alleviate the physical and mental health pressures of the pandemic.
“To the degree that functioning Indigenous food systems still embody the spirit of reciprocity, collective action, and care for each other and the earth, they are even more important as a model for what we should aim for,” Campbell tells Food Tank.
Campbell hopes the Special Rapporteur’s report will bolster groups that are pushing for recognition of traditional knowledge and Indigenous rights. “Indigenous knowledge and food systems carry with them something of value that is impossible to measure.”
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