Covid-19 exacerbates food insecurity for Indigenous peoples

Kirstyn Malcolm, IBA Junior Content EditorFriday 26 March 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the pre-existing inequalities and exacerbated the disparities in treatment affecting Indigenous peoples around the world, leaving them behind in national responses to the virus and often facing food insecurity.

A report authored by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Calí Tzay, in July 2020 highlights that Indigenous peoples are among those most harshly affected by the pandemic, despite representing only six per cent of the global population. The report states that Covid-19 has ‘created an unprecedented wave of fear, sadness and hardship around the globe, yet indigenous peoples feel particularly forgotten and left behind.’

Lockdowns and other containment methods used to tackle the virus, paired with the denial of Indigenous land rights, the lack of self-determination in relation to Indigenous territories and the disruption of local and traditional economies, have resulted in Indigenous communities disproportionately struggling with the current health crisis and with access to food.

As a first step to protect Indigenous peoples’ communities and their food systems, their existence and rights need to be fully recognised by national governments

Katherine Meighan
General Counsel, UN International Fund for Agricultural Development

‘Hunger was already on the rise before the onset of the pandemic: Covid-19 has further exacerbated this, with hunger rising even more sharply,’ says David Paterson, Chair of the IBA Indigenous Peoples Committee and a Vancouver-based lawyer practicing in the aboriginal rights field.

‘Many Indigenous communities have seen their ability to sustain themselves negatively impacted due to the lack [of] or limited access to land and natural resources, including clean and safe water, loss of livelihoods and the disruption of local economies, and limited access to adequate health and social services’, he says.

November 2019’s Final Report for Eight Assembly of First Nation Regions, by the First Nations Food, Nutrition & Environment Study – a national study on the benefits and risks of food and water in First Nation communities, based in Ottawa – found that Indigenous peoples faced a high level of food insecurity before the pandemic.

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala, meanwhile, faced malnutrition at twice the rate of non-Indigenous peoples, and for a number of Amazonian tribes across Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, unequal access to digital technology and to state support has magnified food insecurity in Indigenous communities.

Covid-19 has exacerbated these issues, leading to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calling it a ‘crisis within a crisis’. For example, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization has drawn attention to the severe hunger faced by Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, where many people have lost their jobs due to lockdowns and the area’s remote location makes receiving government aid challenging.

Meanwhile, in some African countries, Indigenous peoples are grappling with the double threat of desert locust outbreaks and the pandemic.

It’s expected that the passing away of elders in Indigenous communities – who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 – will also impact Indigenous food insecurity in the long term. These people are often knowledge holders and culture bearers, and the maintenance of Indigenous food systems relies on traditional practice and knowledge to be communicated from generation to generation.

Katherine Meighan, General Counsel at the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development, says the pandemic has created an increasingly precarious situation for Indigenous women, especially as they are often the main providers of food for their families.

‘During the lockdown in several countries, the economic activities undertaken by Indigenous women have been affected due to mobility restrictions between regions and within their own areas’, she says. ‘The disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on women is further aggravated due to the closure of schools.’

Meighan also notes reports which suggest that Indigenous women in low and middle-income countries are less likely to be medically insured.

She explains that these factors have led to the further exacerbation of income loss and food insecurity among Indigenous women and their families.

While Indigenous peoples have implemented their own solutions to cope with the double crisis – including by using traditional knowledge and practices, introducing voluntary isolation and sealing off territories – more needs to be done to protect populations that are not on the radar and are outside of formal systems.

According to Special Rapporteur Tzay in his report, ‘Indigenous peoples have not had equal access to government-led financial support during or following confinement.’ He adds that ‘In certain countries, the distribution of such relief has relied on databases of vulnerable peoples which did not include a comprehensive list of all indigenous peoples in need.’

The right of Indigenous peoples to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health, without discrimination, is recognised in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasised the requirements of non-discrimination under the Covenant: it is states’ duty to protect Indigenous peoples from the threats of the pandemic, including any food insecurity resulting from it.

There have been some positive developments in this area.

For instance, ‘IFAD projects have proven to be crucial in assisting Indigenous peoples and strengthening Indigenous food systems during the Covid-19 pandemic’, Meighan explains. ‘In the Indian state of Odisha, an IFAD project provided Indigenous youth with training on crop intensification, a technique that helped them to sustainably increase their yields.’

Meanwhile in Canada, Paterson describes how the federal government has created a $305m fund to assist Indigenous communities with the consequences of Covid-19 and an additional fund of $100m to deal specifically with the question of food insecurity, with $30m of this money being specific to Indigenous communities.

However, he highlights that ‘prior to the pandemic, Indigenous peoples lagged behind the rest of the population in almost all categories of social well-being and the emergency assistance being made available during the pandemic will have little, if any, long-term benefits.’

Urgent action must be taken to tackle the long-term impact of the pandemic on Indigenous peoples’ food security.

‘As a first step to protect Indigenous peoples’ communities and their food systems, their existence and rights need to be fully recognised by national governments’, says Meighan. ‘Governments need to facilitate ICT access so that Indigenous peoples can promote their economic activities […] access is crucial to strengthening the resilience of Indigenous food systems.’

In their policy briefing issued in August 2020, the FAO recommends that states should work together to ‘enhance indigenous peoples’ food systems and legally recognise the indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, and natural resources, [in order to] address chronic food insecurity’.

As the world prepares to overcome the socioeconomic challenges created by Covid-19, Indigenous peoples must be included in the conversation and their rights should be at the centre of recovery programmes.

‘Indigenous peoples [need to] be the authors of their own solutions’, says Paterson. ‘Experience has shown that top-down solutions rarely work and that operation within the traditional framework of the Indigenous society promises the best prospect of success.’

Header pic: Shutterstock.com / Alejo Miranda