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Three Questions with Dr. Mariaelena Huambachano

Mariaelena Huambachano is an Indigenous, Quechuan scholar and an assistant professor of civil society and community studies in the School of Human Ecology. Her research focuses on Indigenous philosophies of well-being — specifically, a concept she coined “holistic-collective well-being” — as they pertain to food systems, food security, and food sovereignty. She works directly with tribes such as the Māori of New Zealand, the Quechua of her native Peru, and the Menominee of Wisconsin to learn more about ancient agricultural and ecological practices that nurture our relationship to the natural world and strengthen our connection to our food.

May 19, 2021

What is holistic-collective well-being?

[Spiritualism], which is very important for Indigenous peoples and people who heavily rely on the land for their food sustenance and survival, is very ingrained in the way you live. It’s ingrained in traditional ways. For instance, when we grow a food crop or we want to catch a fish, we do a prayer, and that’s linked to the principle of reciprocity. Before going to catch the fish, we say thank you. We say a prayer to acknowledge that the fish is going to be feeding us, to acknowledge the sacrifice of the fish community feeding us. And in reciprocity, we only catch a certain amount of fish to feed the community. We don’t over-exploit the fish community. These rituals are ... a medium to connect human and nature in all the spiritual ways. … That’s why I call it holistic-collective well-being: to highlight the spiritual aspect — the holistic aspect — of how we understand what it means. It’s not just human individual well-being; it’s collective well-being [including] the non-human relatives.

What is food sovereignty?

The concept of food sovereignty was coined in 1996, and it came out of the need to put a stop to the neoliberal way of producing foods and how it was degrading our environments and degrading the labor as well. Just to concentrate and focus more on the rights-based approach: right to food, right to healthy food, right to grow culturally appropriate foods. The rights-based approach framework resonates with Indigenous people because Indigenous people are also human and they have rights as well. Most of the time, their rights are not recognized because their rights are linked to the land, linked to the environment, and when we talk about Indigenous food sovereignty ... we highlight these human-nature relationships and responsibilities that we have. We highlight these dual, reciprocal duties that we have that have been lost in modern times in the current industrial food production. That’s the difference between food sovereignty and Indigenous food sovereignty, and [that] also adds the extra political layer: for us to enact our rights to food sovereignty, we need land. We need rights to land, rights to resources.

Why is traditional ecological knowledge especially important to combating global issues like climate change and food insecurity?

Indigenous knowledge has been relegated from scientific knowledge. … The available knowledge of Indigenous peoples [is] relevant knowledge, and it’s a science. It’s not something that should be complemented with modern science. It’s a science on its own. What I did with my work with [the] Quechua and Māori was to compare two valuable knowledge systems to understand similarities, and also to validate Indigenous knowledge as opposed to thinking more about scientific terms [or] that we have to justify our knowledge. For instance, [when] the elder says, “Tomorrow it’s going to rain,” [others] say, “No, we have to measure it.” Why do we have to keep on using other methods when the elder knows after understanding the astrology, understanding different science? Why don’t we believe in him?

That’s the way knowledge works. Knowledge has developed, has changed. Many communities have been displaced and, in this displacement, have learned to live within those ecosystems. They've moved from the east to the coast, yet they've learned about their environments, the geography. They've learned about harsh weather conditions. It's because they were connected, in tune. In old days, divine senses were in tune with nature, and that's how they developed innovation systems. I talk about the Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar. I talk about the Inca calendar. Those are not just old, dated, old-fashioned calendars. Those are a clear example of novelty and technological approaches of Indigenous peoples based on the information from them and how they communicated with all human and non-human beings. And it's not just something that takes days or weeks: it takes years and years for elders to be able to be in tune with those changes in the environment. And when we are not, then we are lost. We are lost right now. We are used to having this food all year round as opposed to eating seasonally. We are disturbing nature.

How can existing global food systems benefit from incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices?

[Industrial food production] is not for the benefit of this holistic-collective well-being; it’s for the benefit of shareholders, for the benefit of a few elite people who have been amalgamating many food companies, who have been pretty much exploiting the lands, exploiting labor, exploiting human beings for their own benefit, and now we are in this situation when we have to heavily rely on these processed foods. And the COVID health crisis has highlighted how important localized food systems and resilient attitudes of Indigenous and local communities, minority groups, people of color, African Americans — all these people that we so-call minority — have been the ones driving the economy. They’ve been the ones trying to provide foods. They’ve been coming together, working as [a] collective. And this is how we should all work: as a collective as opposed to looking after your shares, looking after how much money you have, and not thinking ahead, not thinking about the future.

In the economic level, if we think about Indigenous economies of well-being just by going from one key value — reciprocity — we think about why we keep wasting so much food, or why we keep engaging in this monetary system — which works at times — when you can reduce waste and you can engage in a bartering system. By engaging in a bartering system, you ensure that every single individual is having access to food and you ensure that the environment is healthy … You engage in these transactions. They are not just business transactions but go beyond these business transactions of [giving] money. You engage in these reciprocal and nurturing relationships because you know you can trust the person to give you the veggies or the food you don't have access to. The nature of business is economy, but this economy's not based on money. This economy's based on trust, on solidarity.

Your recent keynote address was titled, “Resistance and Resilience.” What do those words mean in the context of your work?

The word “resilient” is a very Western word because it comes from [when] colonizers arrived, and Indigenous people had to be resilient, had to counteract another way of life. I frame resilience in the sense of the COVID-19 health crisis. To me, the way Indigenous peoples came together — and not just Indigenous peoples, [but also] other minority groups, people of color, Latino[s], African Americans, Asian[s] — it speaks of a way to contest and defy the current western paradigm that embraces capitalism and industrial food production. … We are not going to rely on the supermarket. We’re not going to rely [on] the government giving us our food. We’re not going to rely on this unhealthy way of living. We are going to continue enacting our self-determination.

What advice would you offer people seeking to better their relationship to their food, especially in urban areas?

I understand about the difficulties of growing food in urban areas, but even just starting with a small plant, you will understand about talking to the plant, feeding the plant, and being grateful for the bounty it provides to us. Then you start to develop the relationships. And I think building relationships is not something that happens in a short period of time. Building relationships — long-standing relationships — takes time.

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