How Indigenous-Led Agriculture in British Columbia’s Peace River Region Bears Hope in an Uncertain Future
On silty, clayey soil, washed by spring flood water and baked in recent heat waves, Tiffany Traverse tends to a burgeoning green vegetable crop. A thick forest fire mist falls like a gray veil on a horizon of scattered spruce and aspen trees. For Ms. Traverse, a Secwépemc Land and Seed Steward in Progress, BC, each seed sown is more than a source of food. They are a part of life on Earth, reminiscent of those who came before it, and are a valuable resource that will shape a climate resilient food system.
If you trace the origins of the seeds of cultivated species, Ms. Traverse said, there is evidence that people store and select seeds based on their color, for example, or their resistance to weather conditions. It’s no stranger to his community.
“The natives have always been doing this,” she said. “The stories of this ancestral memory are so closely tied to the seed for me.”
Over the past few months, Ms. Traverse and a cohort of local growers have created a new story about the possible future of heirloom seeds in northeastern British Columbia. She is leading grow trials in the Fort St. John, BC area to understand which varieties can withstand current and future environmental stressors. The initiative is in partnership with Seed Savers Exchange, one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in North America.
This spring, Seed Savers provided growers with a biodiverse line of squash, beans, okra, tomatoes, lettuce and kale. Prior to planting, Ms. Traverse also worked with students from the University of British Columbia’s Land and Food Systems Faculty to create how-to manuals for growers.
His group, made up of four people, is one of 270 producers across the continent who will document the behavior of crops under conditions in their own regions. Each participant’s findings help build a large database, serving as a roadmap to identify more resilient and adaptable food sources for farmers and gardeners in the face of global warming.
In the Peace River Regional District, which includes Ms. Traverse and her fellow producers, the trials also provide an opportunity to reduce food insecurity. The region, Ms Traverse said, relies heavily on truckloaded goods to fill supermarkets and is plagued by both thick, capricious soil and the August frost that shortens the growing season. But as she passes her knowledge on to other producers, the project, she added, is just a small part of her larger mission.
“It’s about taking care of the earth and helping to inform about how we are going to progress in any kind of conservation,” she said. “Where I See Myself is just helping to weave these pathways between the science-informed western lens, but also to really stand up for and raise indigenous voices… helping them get more resources, capacity, recognition – basically trying to defend their autonomy. “
Indigenous-led agriculture and land-based knowledge are lacking in national discourse on climate change mitigation, says one recent report from Indigenous Climate Action. The results indicate that the federal government has not put Indigenous voices and their expertise at the center of decision-making in climate action plans, such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, and an environment healthy and a healthy economy.
As indigenous communities have used their knowledge to manage land for millennia, Rebecca Sinclair, report co-author and research and policy analyst with Indigenous Climate Action, said more awareness and allies were needed around the validity of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous-led localized projects, like the work led by Ms. Traverse, she added, are an important part of the shift around what federal climate policy should incorporate.
“This is the very basis of this conversation,” Ms. Sinclair said. “The climate is not limited to solar panels. It is health, it is seed sovereignty, it is food sovereignty, it is respect for indigenous rights. … There are many different areas where we can see climate justice coming from indigenous peoples across so-called Canada.
Ms. Sinclair said that for the federal government to move forward in any meaningful way, it must understand that meeting with organizations such as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council is not enough to fully understand. and integrate knowledge that exists within individual communities with different biomes. Elders and people with expertise, like Ms Traverse, she added, should participate in the consultations, in the hope that their knowledge will be considered and honored in the same way as the knowledge of a Western scientist.
There are a number of prominent examples south of the border where indigenous communities have a long legacy of independent maintenance of their natural ecosystems using their traditional knowledge. Rangers in Menominee in northeastern Wisconsin, for example, have created one of the most abundant and biodiverse forests in the world on 235,000 acres.
In the desert plains of Arizona where the average annual rainfall is about one foot or less, the Hopi people produce bountiful crops of corn, beans, and squash using centuries-old farming practices with only natural rainfall. And in California, where wildfires have increasingly devastated communities, the Karuk Preserve uses prescribed burning to clean up undergrowth and parched vegetation that would normally be a source of ignition in the midst of a vast fire.
With seeds, indigenous peoples have been breeding and conserving varieties for generations and generations. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75% of the genetic diversity of cultivated plants has disappeared since the beginning of the 20th century, with just accounting for the nine species for 66% of world agricultural production. In recent years, scientific studies and the regenerative agriculture movement have highlighted the importance of biodiversity and seed banks to withstand extreme weather events.
Philip Loring, professor and ecological anthropologist who holds the Arrell Chair in Food, Politics and Society at the University of Guelph in Ontario, echoed the need for more Indigenous-led agriculture. He said food systems that are based on collaborative efforts and focus on meeting the specific needs of local conditions will be the most resilient and adaptable to climate change.
“Much of Canada’s agricultural industry is settler farming on stolen land. This is meaningful work in food sovereignty, ”he said of the growing trials led by Ms. Traverse.
Unlike a westernized food system that encourages monoculture, the use of pesticides, and laboratory-made genetic material, Prof Loring said concepts of indigenous agriculture, such as saving seeds and working with the land , rather than against it, are what it takes to shake up the Status Quo. He also pointed out research this suggests that landraces with corn may exceed what scientists are trying to do in laboratories, and said that seed saving, seed sharing and hybridization should be widespread among the farming community.
“People also often assume that the way we have to respond to climate change and stress systems is through new ways like genetic modification,” he said. “But using the biodiversity we have and saving and testing seeds in the spirit of traditional indigenous food systems will be much more effective.”
Ms. Traverse knows this is only her first year leading the trials with her small community group, but believes it will be a launching pad for achieving greater food sovereignty for remote communities. She hopes to eventually establish a north pole of seed rescuers, land and water stewards who will turn to more local and indigenous cultures and practices based on their biome. Following a path that precedes industrial food production, the seeds will not be owned, patented or marketed, she said. Instead, he will be seen as a parent in an interconnected ecosystem.
“All [Indigenous peoples] need to do, must be led by us, on the ground and in the community, ”she said. “Being dispossessed of our land, we were forced to survive and prosper in a western agricultural world. … We are really the ones who will solve our own territorial needs and solutions to climate change and the loss of ecosystems. But we also need the resources and the ability to come together and share knowledge and practices on the lands that are being lost.
The first step, Ms. Traverse said, will be to move to a more localized seed testing network that will eventually operate without her supervision. Ultimately, this will give her more time to connect, research and revitalize Secwépemc eating practices.
It’s not a seamless journey, Ms. Traverse knows, but like the seeds in her garden that have sprouted under beaten soil, she will remain resilient amid the turmoil of what’s to come.
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