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Indigenous Peoples, One of the Most Vulnerable to Food Insecurity in Latin America

Some countries are prioritizing indigenous and black communities in their food security programs, but in general these populations are still very fragile and politically marginalized.

In Bogota (Colombia) experts on food security and the right to food from different countries discussed strategies to fight against hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region where 53 million people suffer from malnutrition and hunger. Indigenous populations are considered one of the most vulnerable.

“The inability for the indigenous communities to have access to food, the violations on the right to food are the result of political marginalization and not just the result of natural disasters,” said Olivier de Shutter, U.N. special Rapporteur on the right to food during the meeting, held the June 9 and 10. According to de Shutter, except from Bolivia or Ecuador which have managed to gain a position in this issue, Indigenous Peoples are usually a minority or are politically marginalized, so they are not capable of influencing the decisions that affect them.

Also, indigenous communities are in a very fragile situation because their ways to access food by hunting, collecting and by using the services of the forests is being threatened by the way food systems have evolved in the past 50 years. “Traditional food systems are now being put aside and instead commercialized systems are substituting them,” de Shutter pointed.

According to the rapporteur, their land is under pressure from the market, which is one of the main reasons why they are extremely vulnerable. Also, as they depend on natural resources, they are also facing the challenges of climate change.

“When I was in Guatemala in 2009 I spoke to many indigenous communities and they told me that the floods usually occurred every 12-15 years. Now they occur every three years. They said the forest has become unpredictable and they don’t know when to cultivate or harvest. These people depend on the land and they are at risk of climate change. We need to support them, create food systems that are resilient to climate change,” he said. He also talked about the need to give them more political power and allowed them to participate in the decisions that affect them and protect them from “a situation that is really worrying.”

On the matter, Carmen Rosa Villa, Latin American Representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said her office is doing a study on the impact of mega projects (mines and other) in indigenous peoples in Central America and the outcome of these projects in the development of the communities; the impact in the right to food and fishing, for example.

“We have done this work with an advisory group from Indigenous peoples, putting together their realities. This is a fundamental element because it is not just about land and territory. Since the adoption of the U.N. legislation on the rights of indigenous peoples it is very important to analyze the impact of all these mega projects on climate change, in the use of their territories and their natural resources,” she said.

“We are discussing with the authorities and the U.N. system the preliminary results because there is a strong demand between indigenous peoples about the impact they are having, and they have expressed that they are experiencing enforced displacement because of the megaprojects,” Villa added.

Guatemala, with half of its population starving

According to Ricardo Zepeda, coordinator of the Institute on Rural and Agrarian studies in Guatemala, 50 percent of the country’s children suffer from malnutrition, but when it relates to indigenous communities – 50 percent of the country’s population – the numbers in some areas increases up to 80 percent.

“We are trying to include the indigenous communities as a priority in the programs to combat poverty, but we have not been able to do it,” he said.

Indigenous peoples have undertaken their own efforts regarding food sovereignty, trying to rescue the use of traditional agriculture, and these initiatives have had some positive impacts, but we want a political recognition of their food sovereignty and of the impact of commerce in their communities. We are trying to strengthen small producers chains for them to be self-sustainable.

Brazil, an example

Despite all the complexities Latin American indigenous communities are facing, there are some examples already in place on how to confront these problems. Brazil is a pioneer in this matter.

Nazareno Fontelis, a Brazilian federal deputy and food security coordinator in the Senate, explained that Brazil created a strategy to combat hunger in 2004. The program called ‘Bolsa Familia,’ provides electronic cards to families in need. “With this card they don’t need intermediaries to buy food and other things. The conditionality is that children must go to school and have their vaccines done on time. The ones who have more children receive a little bit more and now with President Dilma [Rousseff], the program grew from three children up to five,” Fontelis said. “Today 13 million families have access to a total of about 15 billion reales (about $9 billon),” he added.

This program works in conjunction with other government sponsored programs, such as school feeding programs and incentives to farmers.

According to Fontelis, the next step is to include additional poor families. We think there might still be about 800,000 families with less than 70 reales (about $43) income per capita,” he said. The budget of this project is about one percent of the national budget.

Fontelis assured that indigenous and black communities are a priority because these populations are in more need. For instance, the school feeding project – that feeds about 47 million people – gives more money (sometimes double) to the schools with black or indigenous students.

Support for farmers in Ecuador

Ecuador also has some good examples. Jaime Abril, assembly member of Ecuador and president of the commission for food security and agricultural development, said that Ecuador took the decision to solve the problem of indigenous and peasants in the new Constitution, signed four years ago. “We built the food sovereignty Law to make their products profitable. “To protect them against hunger, the government subsidizes their harvests when they are not profitable against foreign markets so that they can keep working the land; there’s also an insurance for climate-related disasters,” he said. “We also have a credit option for small farmers called 555, that lends $5,000, to be paid back in five years with a five percent interest rate, while the market offers a 14 percent interest rate,” he explained.

Experiences like the ones mentioned before should be reproduced in Latin America, according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “Over the past years countries have invested in exportation agriculture and they depend on international markets to feed themselves,” he said. “One goal is to rebuild the capacity of countries to feed themselves, they should invest in agriculture that allowed them to feed themselves,” concluded.