Prior to starting my PhD at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, I conducted my Masters of Political Economy research with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), farmers, and Indigenous Peoples in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. Our action research advocated for the creation of new food systems policies, such as GROW: Yellowknife Food and Agriculture Strategy. In the course of this research, I was connected with Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation (KTFN) and Sambaa K’e First Nation (SKFN) through one of my supervisors, Dr. Andrew Spring.
I decided to pursue a PhD because (I am a nerd at heart and) political economy literature had sparked my interest in global-level policy. I was curious about its ability to influence so many different aspects of life right down to the local level, but that people on the ground often don’t have much input into these policies. I knew I wanted to explore connections between the global and the local in my research. At the start of my PhD, I supported SKFN and KTFN to write community-level climate change adaptation plans. Here, they expressed that they see growing their own food as one of the ways they would like to adapt to climate change, but they want to do it in a way that is ecologically sustainable and incorporates their Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous governance.
To link my local food systems research in the NWT with policies at the global scale, my other supervisor, Dr. Alison Blay-Palmer, supported me to attend the plenary meetings of the UN Committee on World Food Security from 2018 to 2022. The CFS brings together 137 countries to create policies about global food security issues, and those policies are implemented, to varying degrees, at the national level by those countries. The CFS is also a global space where many of the key actors and movements in global food systems, like La Via Campesina and agribusiness corporations, convene to influence global policy.
When I arrived at the CFS in Rome, I connected with the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism (CSIPM), a formal space within the CFS governance structure for civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples to be part of the policy-making process. There are very few formalized spaces like this anywhere else in the UN. There was so much exciting debate happening about how to make CFS policies work for rights-holders, and it was wonderfully surreal to connect and build solidarity with like-minded advocates from all corners of the world.
As part of the CSIPM, there were Indigenous Peoples using this global stage to challenge dominant agricultural paradigms that infringe on their rights to land and self-determination and demand respect, recognition, and policy support for their food systems. It is also where I learned that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is located in Indigenous territories, which make up only 20% of the world’s land mass. This statistic signals that Indigenous food systems help local ecosystems flourish, and Indigenous Knowledge is key to transforming global food systems to be sustainable for all.
Yet, as I observed the CFS, I saw a lack of representation of Indigenous Peoples from Canada. I saw this as a gap because each Indigenous Nation deserves to have a voice in governance processes that affect them, as self-determining entities. As well, they each have their own context-specific, place-based knowledge and experiences. I also wondered if KTFN and SKFN could be supported in their community-defined initiatives by the policy processes at this global scale. So, this led me to ask the following questions for my PhD research:
I am answering these questions through three detailed case studies. Two of these case studies use Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodologies to work with SKFN and KTFN. My PAR approach consisted of taking time to build trust-based relationships by being in both communities working alongside community members in their gardens and co-designing research projects with explicit community-oriented outcomes related to their food systems. We connected to global-level policy in both communities through agroecology. Agroecology is an international movement of Indigenous Peoples, peasants, and small-scale farmers, as well as a science and practice that seeks sustainability in agriculture across local ecological, social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. Agroecology is exciting to both SKFN and KTFN because of its holistic nature and how it values Traditional Knowledge in Indigenous communities across the world.
Specifically, with SKFN we worked together to create an Agroecology Action Plan for their large communal garden. This plan is informed by interviews with SKFN members about the Indigenous laws and protocols in their traditional food system that they use to care for the land and community members, and how this can be translated to growing food. While I was in Sambaa K’e, there was also an opportunity to involve SKFN leadership in a global consultation about Indigenous rights that will be used to inform future policy processes at the CFS, and other UN institutions. With KTFN, a community workshop will be used to connect to Traditional Knowledge about berry picking to plan for a pilot agroecology plot that re-establishes wild berries, trap lines, and trails into the bush that were lost to a large-scale forest fire near the community in 2014.
At the same time that we were discussing agroecology with SKFN and KTFN, the CFS was in the process of negotiating, Policy Recommendations on Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches. So, for my third case study, I used participant observation to follow these negotiations to determine the current level of involvement of Indigenous people in this global policy-creation space. I also conducted interviews with UN staff, Indigenous Peoples, and allied advocates to understand their views on Indigenous Peoples’ participation, and how they envision it to be better.
The simultaneous nature of these case studies all related to agroecology illustrated that connections can be made between global policy and local-level action by linking to the knowledge of global movements, but there are significant gaps in how local Indigenous Knowledge and experiences influence UN processes and how global level policy creation supports local Indigenous communities. The practices of SKFN and KTFN are specific examples of the kind of experiences that should be shared with UN policymakers to assist in transforming global food systems to be sustainable for all. However, there are capacity, resource, and governance design roadblocks for local Indigenous knowledge and practices to have consistent influence at the global level.
Preliminary results from these studies recommend that increased participation of more Indigenous Peoples in global policy-making spaces will amplify the concerns and solutions that can transform global food systems to be more sustainable, and ensure that global policy supports Indigenous food systems at the local level.
Carla Johnston (pronouns: she/her) is a PhD student at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and an advocate for sustainable food systems. A specialist in participatory research, Indigenous rights, and food governance from the local to the United Nations, Carla has 10 years of experience in community advocacy and policy development in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and around the world.
Carla Johnston is an SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient and Wilfrid Laurier’s 2022 institutional nominee for the SSHRC Impact Talent Award. Carla is affiliated with the Laurier Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism for the UN Committee on World Food Security. She holds a Master of Arts in Political Economy from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Arts in International Development Studies from Trent University.