Indigenous Studies Researcher Advises the UN on Inequalities in Food Security and Nutrition
A&S scholar, Mariaelena Huambachano, travels the world gathering and sharing research on the wisdom of “Traditional Ecological Knowledge”, while passing it down to the next generation through her teaching at Syracuse.
"Not everyone considers the whole value of food. It is something many of us buy and consume so easily, but in addition to nutrition, food also links us to traditions, history, cultural heritage, memories, sentiments and feelings, especially for Indigenous Peoples."
Mariaelena Huambachano is an Indigenous scholar, native to Peru, with Quechua ancestry, who also lived for many years in Aotearoa, the Indigenous name for New Zealand. There she completed her undergraduate and graduate studies and formed long-lasting relationships with Māori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand. She joined Syracuse in 2021 as assistant professor to help build the Global Indigenous Cultures and Environmental Justice Center (CGIC). Courses taught by Huambachano include Food Fights and Treaty Rights, Indigenous Food Cosmologies and Reclaiming Indigenous Intellectual Sovereignty. She is a faculty affiliate across several programs and departments, including the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Democratizing Knowledge Collective and the Program on Latin America & the Caribbean.
Food is often seen as a basic human right, but millions do not have food security because of factors like poverty, lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, inadequate social safety nets and environmental challenges. This is worse for vulnerable and marginalized people, like many Indigenous communities around the world. A&S' Professor Huambachano is serving on her second United Nations (UN) High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), providing evidence-based recommendations to policymakers. She calls this her “labor of love”.
The HLPE is the science-policy interface of the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This group of experts develops a comprehensive report on how food system inequalities contribute to food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. It also provides the CFS with recommendations on how address these inequalities because, the report notes, these disparities diminish the quality of life, productivity, perpetuate poverty and hinder economic growth for the effected communities.
Huambachano engages in hands-on research through community-based projects in many regions.
We spoke with Huambachano to discuss her teaching and scholarship at A&S as well as her work for the UN.
A Transformative Agenda: Indigenous Wisdom for Resilience
1| What do students take away from your classes?
Students go on an international journey learning about food and climate justice, governance, agroecology and public policy. I draw from my interdisciplinary approach to Indigenous studies, environmental studies and sustainable development and long-lasting friendships I've made with many Indigenous communities all over the world to focus on the value of knowledge sharing across networks of global Indigenous allies.
Students find it very interesting to learn about what other Indigenous communities are doing in other parts of the world, beyond Central New York. They begin to understand the importance of learning about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), community-driven development and resilience and the positive effects this can have on communities and the environment.
2| Explain some of the reasons you chose to come to Syracuse University and help grow the Center for Global Indigenous Cultures and Environmental Justice.
Syracuse has a small but growing body of Indigenous scholars, and I have synergies with several. We have many connections to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Onondaga, and the Mohawk Nations. I feel a responsibility to extend relationships across the Pacific and knowledge sharing about the values and belief systems of Māori and Quechua Peoples.
Also, Syracuse’s location enhances opportunities to collaborate with many great universities and programs on the East Coast. Currently, Syracuse has the Native American and Indigenous Studies minor, but many students want to major in this field. I hope to see the program grow.
3| How did you become an expert panelist for the United Nations?
I was invited in May of 2022 to apply and was accepted. Our task was to draft a report called Reducing Inequalities for Food Security and Nutrition. This panel is focusing on food security, Indigenous food systems and environmental justice in three regions that I have first-hand knowledge in: South America, Asia-Pacific, and North America.
4| With your busy teaching and research schedule, why did you decide to take on this big and important commitment?
Working toward repositioning the value of Indigenous knowledge and belief systems in higher education and policymaking is important. Many Elders have tenaciously paved the way for us to continue with this work. It's been a hard road for Indigenous scholars like me to have my work acknowledged, especially on the international stage, so the invitation was a big opportunity. I also hope my commitment and service can inspire the younger generation, who are the future leaders of the global movement for environmental and social justice. It is demanding work, but I do it with passion and conviction – it is my "Labor of Love”.
5| Can you explain food security through the lens of Indigenous communities and how that overlaps with food sovereignty?
The UN defines “food security” as having access to safe and nutritious food. This concept extends from your kitchen to the system that produces and delivers it. For Indigenous communities, genuine food security is more than meeting caloric needs, it encompasses spiritual and physical nourishment, providing a pathway to pass down traditions and values to future generations. This is food sovereignty. It extends the significance of food beyond mere calorie intake, encompassing a community's autonomy and right to control its food systems, to include spiritual nourishment, cultural history, and long-term health. The Indigenous dish pictured above (Photo: Mariaelena Huambachano) shows traditional foods from smaller vegetable gardens, grown and harvested for the community to ensure their physical well-being. This practice, is also inherently more sustainable and healthier for the land and soil than large-scale, industrial farming.
Unfortunately, environmental degradation, the loss of rights to ancestral fishing areas and hunting grounds, and the impacts of climate change and industrial food systems have eroded food sovereignty for many Indigenous communities. They can no longer grow and enjoy our ancestors’ gifts—food—and instead consume processed foods, with harmful effects on their health and well-being.
There is a “values crisis” and we must redefine success beyond modern metrics like economic growth. We need a holistic perspective on the entire food system, that is inclusive of diverse cultures, knowledge and ethics. We need to cultivate crops that reflect our wisdom and histories.
6| You are the only Indigenous scholar on the team. Explain why your voice is critical for this effort.
Recognizing the wisdom from the Indigenous voice will ensure resilience for all people. It is vital because it enriches mainstream perspectives with wisdom and historically informed solutions. Food insecurity among Indigenous peoples, shaped by historical, cultural and socio-economic factors, is often disregarded in academic and policymaking circles. Historically, Indigenous communities have been the stewards of the land and valuable insights can be gleaned from their philosophies, practices and ecological knowledge which emphasize interconnectedness, interdependence and respect for nature. Addressing soil sovereignty and the rights of nature is crucial too, as continued pollution jeopardizes the resources for healthy life.
7| Tell us about the book you have coming out next year.
After ten years of fieldwork in Aotearoa New Zealand and Peru, my book, “Recovering Our Ancestral Foodways: Indigenous Traditions as a Recipe for Living Well” will be published next Spring by the University of California Press. The book is a celebration of the lore of Quechua and Māori and of the worlds’ Indigenous peoples in safeguarding food systems, innovation, practices, and, ultimately, the well-being of humankind.
8| How is your research evolving? What’s next?
I have been working closely with food sovereignty activists to understand the role of women in leading the food sovereignty movement. I’m exploring the roles that American and Oceanic Indigenous women play in “rematriating cultures of well-being", or in other words, promoting sustainable food systems and seed and soil sovereignty initiatives.
Huambachano’s latest research is investigating the role of women in the food sovereignty movement. Photo: Mariaelena Huambachano
My goal is to bring Indigenous women from around the world into conversation with one another about "foodways" – cultural culinary practices and ways of eating, exploring various knowledge and methods. Then we can provide research-based evidence of the synergies of TEK and better understand its attentive flexibility toward local land differences.
As part of this project, with the support of the SU Humanities Center, I held a one-day Symposium in April 2023 called, “Rematriating Well-Being: Indigenous Foodways, Sovereignty, and Sowing Seeds of Hope for Tomorrow”. I invited leading Indigenous thinkers, knowledge holders activists, such as Quechua leader and activist, Tarcila Rivera Zea, Onondaga seed keeper Angela Ferguson and Māori scholars Jessica Hutchings and Jo Smith.
Currently, I am working with Syracuse associate professor Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson to bring Māori philosopher, Krushil Watene, here for a two-week residency next spring as part of the Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professorship in the Humanities. Her scholarship focuses on Indigenous and Māori approaches to justice and environmental well-being.
9| Congratulations on the recent publication in Nature. Tell us about it.
I am always collaborating and writing. In August, I contributed to a multi-authored paper, “Diverse Values of Nature of Sustainability” which was published in Nature. This is about the "values crisis" I spoke of earlier. If market-based values remain priority while ignoring the connections between people and nature, the world will see more biodiversity loss, climate change, pandemics and socio-environmental injustices like food insecurity.
10| Your scholarship takes you around the world. Tell us about your recent trip to Sweden and your upcoming trip to Morocco.
Yes, I just returned from attending Hope in the Antropocene, a workshop organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In addition to being part of this workshop, I was invited to deliver a public lecture entitled “Indigenous Knowledge is Key for Sustainable Food Systems and the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.
Next month upon invitation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), I am heading to Agadir, Morocco to attend the third Indigenous and Local Knowledge Dialogue for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment of transformative change, which explores the societal changes needed to protect nature and human-wellbeing. My contribution will be to review the assessment’s draft chapters and, importantly, the draft summary for policymakers – the synthesis of the assessment that provides key messages and options for action and policy for decision-makers.
So, the work continues – I am acutely aware of the transformative changes needed for a just and sustainable future. I am dedicated to helping to create a world where diverse perspectives, values and methods are taken into consideration for the good of all people, ultimately, for the planet.
"My work at Syracuse University is a privilege - particularly in the mission to ensure the Indigenous voice is not only recognized but amplified."
Mariaelena Huambachano Assistant Professor