Food sovereignty to defend the land: Learnings from Secwépemcul’ecw

María Alvarez Malvido
July 27, 2023

In contexts where colonization has systematically attempted to disrupt the relationship of people to their land, food sovereignty plays an urgent role in restoring and preserving life. In Indigenous People’s territories like Secwépemc (in so-called British Columbia), it is also about healing, reconnecting to language, and honoring the ancestral memory and collective knowledge that foods hold within. This is a key learning from the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) and their work rooted in their homeland.

Secwépemc is a three hour drive north of what is now known as Vancouver, the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in what we now know as Canada. During the first week of February, we (three members of Digital Democracy) were visitors to their territory for a two-day workshop with WGIFS members, Elders, Matriarchs, youth, hunters, berry pickers, language keepers, and community members with diverse commitments to caring for the land. The workshop focused on sharing the advanced work that WGIFS has been leading, as well as an opportunity to share Mapeo as a land defense tool that could potentially support their long journey in reclaiming their foodlands. 

Left to right:  Shawn Billy and Dawn Morrison (Secwépemc Nation / WGIIFS).

Mapeo was originally co-designed with land defenders situated far south across the Amazon forests in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. However, in our commitment to co-design and co-develop technological tools that embrace self-determination, and self-governance for Indigenous and other grassroots communities, as we’ve developed the tool we have become increasingly aware of the shared threats that land defenders face around the world. We’ve made intentional decisions to ensure that Mapeo can be customized to respond to diverse local needs and processes, which is key for the collaborative work that Digital Democracy does.

Threats can take diverse forms (mining, drilling, poaching, logging, pipelines, and so on) but all are linked to historical and ongoing impacts of colonization, extraction and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples' territories. The most immediate impacts are often reflected in consequences like the pollution of the water and the soil, or the reduction of biodiversity. However, other impacts happen in ways that may not be immediately visible but have drastic effect, such as loss of traditional languages, loss of knowledge on traditional medicine, and other socio-cultural implications. 

This is the case regarding access to food in places like Secwépemc, where food means being in close relationship with elk, deer, and salmon; knowing their movements and offspring seasons; knowing where and when berries grow with specific rhythms in relation to the rest of the forest. The Secwépemc Nation, or the people from the Land where the water spills from the highest mountains, keeps the knowledge of living in balance with the rivers, the forests, and all forms of life that have sustained their presence in their territory for time immemorial. 

Elk soup lunch at the community garden to close and celebrate the workshop.

Direct threats in this ancestral territory are nowadays tied to external and overlapping interests on the land, such as overhunting, cow raising, water and forests licenses, and the private property that cuts off the ancestral migration of the elk, bears, and other animals that once walked from mountain to mountain without fences or highways in between.  

Food Sovereignty is tied to restoring the sustainable balance of the relationship between people and their territory. It’s about passing on ancestral knowledge of how to take care of the land, and everyone in the community has a role to play. “While governments and corporations have been divisive in Indigenous Peoples' food systems, food has always brought communities together” shared Dawn Morrison during the workshop, recalling the words and legacy of political activists in the community like the late Arthur Manuel and Elder Wolverine (also known as Jones Ignace).  Dawn is a community member of the Secwépemc Nation and founder of WGIFS. 

“It is a form of resistance to say we have the knowledge in the community, at the grassroots we don't need your permission, we need your support. Our title and rights say that we can and must continue to maintain our relationship with our foodlands and that is an important strategy for conservation. As much as it is a food sovereignty strategy, it is also conservation.”

In the 18 years of her work with Food Sovereignty, Dawn and the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Working Group have been weaving a network of activists and grassroots projects across the world. 

“We think of ‘Indigenous Foodland Conservation Areas’ as a concept to assert in the networks around the globe. We want everybody to want this and push the governments. Indigenous Peoples especially because we can't be the only ones.

Other Indigenous Peoples protecting their foodlands, like la Vía Campesina and the Zapatistas in Mexico, face similar threats of being reduced and fragmented through the neoliberal agenda that is being capitalized on Indigenous territories. In this context, Indigenous Food Sovereignty, explains Dawn, is not only about addressing the underlying issues of why people don't have enough food, but it is also about social justice, systemic racism, and systemic issues that link poverty to situations like the drug crisis affecting their homeland security. Food sovereignty strategies are therefore right at the intersection of social, environmental and basic human rights. 

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in Secwépemcul’ecw (land of the Secwepemc) is also about healing. Through the colonial history on which Canada is built upon, the erasure of Indigenous Peoples has been systemic and institutionalized through policies like that of the former Residential Schools. This past and present forms of colonization continue to impact territories across the country. 

“When we engage with the system, we carry a huge burden. We know it is a system of genocide. When we talk about disconnection from the land, it's separation, and that separation is a form of trauma. There is a lot of stress, and we know that when we talk about it in a way that relates to the land and how we are all related and related to our food and our land but also to our ancestors and future generations, we are not alone in that trauma. We can find some wisdom in it, move through it in a transformative way and repair some of the harm that has been caused by colonization”

The process of reconnecting to the land and taking care of it is constantly impacted by sediments of colonial history. Achieving collective healing, empowering ancestral knowledge and building community resistance requires deep understanding of both local strengths and external threats. 

What does it mean to collect data from the territory?  What kind of data is appropriate to collect? What feels good to people? With these and more questions in the collective thinking of the group, matriarchs and other community members, the potential use of Mapeo to support the work led by the WGIFS on Secwépemc homelands is still being decided through their local decision-making process. We do know we are learning from their process, and we share a  commitment to continue weaving networks where the preservation of life is at the core of our relationships. 

Left to right: Jen Castro (Dd), María Alvarez Malvido (Dd), Dawn Morrison (WGIFS/Secwépemc Nation), Bárbara González Segovia (Dd), Hannah Wittman (UBC) and Shawn BIlly (WGIFS/Secwépemc Nation)

Deep thanks to the WGIFS and the Secwépemc Nation for the shared knowledge, questions, ideas and elk soup. Thanks for the honor to learn with you about the power of food in the defense of land and life. 

Back to the Blog