Indigenous Peoples are guardians of heirloom food diversity

Indigenous Peoples are guardians of heirloom food diversity

14 Aug, 2019

In many parts of the world, Indigenous Peoples (IPs) are using local wisdom, passed on through generations, to cultivate a variety of food: wild herbs; rare fruits; heirloom sorghum; forgotten (and therefore endangered) varieties of rice grains, beans, and tubers; legacy spices; artisanal cheeses and meats, etc.

The global slow food movement has given rise to the “Ark of Taste,” which promotes small-scale quality production of food that is inextricably linked to culture, history, and tradition. In the Philippines, this includes kaningag (a local species of cinnamon), yellow cattle (a native breed of cattle), tisa (canistel or eggfruit), tubho (traditional tea of the Ivatans of Batanes), and several varieties of coffee: barako, kahawa kubing or Sulu zibet coffee, Sulu robusta, and Benguet coffee.

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Smallholder farmers are banding together to scale up these lesser-known products, thus commanding a much more significant share of the heritage food market. In some cases, popular retail chains have also become distributors of artisanal food products, often featuring an indigenous food gem.

Homegrown coffee chain Bo’s Coffee, for one, serves as a platform for Filipino enterprises by advocating local crafts, artisanal chocolates, homegrown herbal teas and specialty coffee from Mt. Apo, Benguet, Mt. Matutum, Mt. Kitanglad, and Sagada.

“We highlight different coffee from different parts of the Philippines, and we create the market for niche, artisanal products,” said Steve D. Benitez, founder and CEO of Bo’s Coffee, speaking at the Leaders and Entrepreneurs in Agriculture Forum (LEAF 2018), to encourage more established companies to be a “big brother” to microenterprises.

Similarly, Javara Indigenous Indonesia, (PT Kampung Kearifan Indonesia) founded and helmed by Helianti Hilman, is home to Indonesia’s widest collection of indigenous food products, which are described as being “unique in flavors, aromas, textures, health benefits, and impact.” The organization aims to revive pride and dignity of smallholder farmers by emphasizing the value of their products; and building solutions throughout the supply chain to enable the product flows from local farms to global consumers.

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They now have around 900 products, 250 of which are certified organic. More than half of production is marketed to 23 countries in five continents, benefiting 52,000 farmers and 2,000 food artisans in Indonesia alone.

Thanks to organizations such as Javara, heritage ingredients are now being “mainstreamed” by chefs who innovate recipes which are showcased in their restaurants and hotels, and artisans that create signature retail products for both domestic consumption and export.

Initially, they were working more with older farmers, aged 60 and above, but more recently, younger people are becoming more interested in farming because they consider themselves more as entrepreneurs.

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“We have a one-million-strong indigenous network giving life to ‘forgotten food.’ The business is about empowering people and creating something of value, a legacy business to pass on,” said Hilman, to participants at LEAF 2018.

“Farmers are our inner voice, our conscience—they are more resilient because they still have the indigenous wisdom of working with nature.”