Indigenous People’s Food Sovereignty in Ecuadorian Amazon

Written by
India Belgharbi
May 20, 2022

By India Belgharbi


Accessing healthy and affordable food is highly intertwined with the biggest challenges of our century, such as climate change or conflict resolution. Thee United Nations has established eliminating hunger as one of the seventeen goals of the international community to achieve sustainable development. The largest part of the food the world consumes is produced by smallholders, peasants and Indigenous communities, but their own food sovereignty is not always practically implemented. This paper explores the extent to which Indigenous Peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon are able to practice food sovereignty, and traces colonialism’s continuous influence on the application of international law to this marginalized community. Though the Indigenous concept of Buen Vivir is linked to food sovereignty and was integrated into the Ecuadorian constitution since 2008, post-neoliberalism, land ownership issues, access to seeds, the use of chemical fertilizers within agriculture, and tourism in the Amazon are all elements impeding its realization.


The destruction of agricultural biodiversity is rising at an alarming rate. By the end of the 20th century, 12 plants and five animal species generated three quarters of the world’s food (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2016, 8), in spite of the presence of more than 50 000 edible plant species worldwide (FAO 1995). This is an issue because, according to WHO (2020), a healthy diet is a diversified one.

Humanity shifted its consumption from local-grown food to having the ability to buy food that was harvested on the other side of the world. Though consumption is globalized, a staggering 70 percent of the food we consume worldwide is produced by smallholders, peasants and Indigenous communities – mainly in the Global South, from Ecuador through Senegal to Nepal (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2016, 8). Despite this heavy reliance on Indigenous Peoples’ food production, their agricultural rights are not always protected, such as their food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is to be understood in this article as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture system" (Nyéléni Forum for Food Sovereignty 2007).

According to this definition and as developed throughout the paper, Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon is threatened.

Our food system takes roots in colonialism, through the mechanism of accumulation through dispossession, and exploitation of the slave trade. Food sovereignty is a continuation of anti-colonial struggles in terms of having independence over one’s land, its management and gains coming out of it. Failure in food sovereignty realization is more likely to affect the same communities colonialism targeted. In Ecuador, those were Indigenous communities. There are more than a million Indigenous Peoples living in Ecuador, out of which 24.1 percent live in the Amazon and belong to 10 nationalities (IWGIA 2021). Now facing corporate-led deforestation, after coping with colonialism, Indigenous Peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon have been fighting for their land for centuries – and therefore for their food sovereignty as the latter’s realization depends on the ability to define one’s agricultural system. Throughout this paper, I answer the question: is Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in Ecuadorian Amazon realized?

The first section examines the definition of food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian context, as well as the impact of colonialism and the connection between the Indigenous worldview of Buen Vivir to the realization of food sovereignty. This will be contrasted with elements limiting its realization, including the state’s interest in economic growth, the constant land evictions, the lack of securing legal ownership of ancestral lands, and the use of pesticides. The case of food-based tourism in the Amazon will be explored, demonstrating its impact of threatening Indigenous food sovereignty. The article concludes with recommendations to improve Indigenous food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Image of a Jungle. Image Source: India Belgharbi

Defining Food Sovereignty

The notion of food sovereignty was first officially introduced by La Vía Campesina – an international Peasant’s movement – in 1996 in Tlaxcala. It is a concept and framework that both challenged the foundations of the current agri-food order and proposed a set of concrete alternatives for both theory and practice (Peña 2016; Wittman 201, 87), where culture and social justice will allow a future without hunger (Desmarais 2007). This model is, among other things, based on farmer production using local resources, ecological practices, and traditional knowledge (Peña 2016, 222). Since the 1996 conference, La Vía Campesina has been the leading promoter of food sovereignty by fostering international dialogue on the idea that it is not enough to simply get food to people. The concept "has garnered increasing attention, first from grassroots social movements and then in policy arenas, notably the 2002 World Food Summit and counter-summit, the Forum on Food Sovereignty, in Rome" (Wittman 2011, 87). During the 2007 International Forum on food sovereignty held in Nyéléni, Mali, 500 representatives from 80 countries (ibid.) defined food sovereignty as the definition this article uses. 

Although the notion of food sovereignty started as an expression in a Mexican governmental program (Grey & Patel 2015, 431), it is now much more. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food sovereignty as going beyond the previously defined notion of food security by the same entity. Many definitions of food sovereignty now exist. For the United Nations, food security is where "all people at all times have physical, societal, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life", and food sovereignty goes further by including rights and decision making about "what is produced, how it is produced, and at what scale" (Desmarais 2007, 34). Another way to understand food sovereignty is as the right to have rights over food (Patel 2010).

Food Sovereignty in Ecuador

In Latin America, agriculture has historically been sidelined in the pursuit of economic growth (Fernandez 2017). In Ecuador, the call for food sovereignty had its roots in the country’s extreme land inequality (Sharma & Daugbjerg 2020, 8). The concept emerged in the 1990s – after La Vía Campesina widely launched the idea – mainly presented by four federations who created a national space known as the Mesa Agraria (Fernandez 2017, 17). It notably allowed for Indigenous and peasant movements to cooperate with national leadership and create dialogue with state institutions to influence their policies (ibid.). Through history, food sovereignty in Ecuador went from being a non-existent concept during colonialism to being integrated into the country’s constitution.

Weight Of Colonialism

Whereas economic neoliberalism is supposed to guarantee global food security through comparative advantage, market failures have impeded its realization. In market economies, individuals and enterprises have an incentive to maximize production to increase profits. The push for lower food prices in world markets leads producers to seek to increase productivity, leading to the rise of "factory farms", which are able to lower cost of production through economies of scale (Rocha 2007, 10). Consumers can get cheap food, but the social costs associated with it are greater than its benefits, as they are not captured by the market price. Pollution of groundwater, privatization or the use of pesticides – leaving soils unhealthier harvest after harvest – are some of many negative social externalities caused by market failures (ibid.). On the other hand, food sovereignty focuses on autonomy, local markets, local production-consumption cycles, and farmer-to-farmer networks (ibid. 2009, 40). Ecuador’s food system being built on settler-colonialism (Laforge et al. 2021). It is important to consider Grey & Patel’s (2015, 432) argument that food sovereignty is a continuation of anti-colonial struggles, even in post-colonial contexts. Anti-colonial struggles refer to the historical fight for independence and recovery of land ownership.

[Part of] The Conquest of Mexico. Tabla I. (1696 - 1715).
[Part of] The Conquest of Mexico, 1696 - 1715. Image Source: Miguel Gonzáles, by Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Argentina, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Food sovereignty is about groups of people making their own decisions about the food system. On the other hand, as Holst (2016) argues, post-neoliberalism still sees development as extractive, i.e., economic growth, and therefore focuses on productivity and extraction of resources. De la Torre (2010) argues that the shift to post-neoliberalism appears to legitimate the transition from one colonial clientele to another.

The colonial center may have shifted, but the metropolitan extraction of natural resources from the periphery continues today – and the result is poverty and environmental distress for Amazonian Indigenous Peoples, threatening the realization of their food sovereignty. 

Food Sovereignty In The Ecuadorian Constitution

Food sovereignty opposes neo-liberal policies, so when a left-wing politician came to power, the new post-neoliberal political environment became more favorable to promote the idea of food sovereignty (Sharma & Daugbjerg 2020, 9). Ecuador is one of the countries that included the right to food sovereignty in their national constitution and laws. During the 2006 Presidential elections, Mesa Agraria – the national space for dialogue between Indigenous and peasant movements and national leadership – invited candidates to political dialogue, leading Rafael Correa to commit to promote the Agrarian Revolution, under which "access to land would be democratized, water privatization would be prevented, and fostering access to necessary resources for the reactivation of the peasant sector would be prioritized" (Fernandez 2021, 18). President Correa’s 2007 election followed decades of rural neglect and limited political participation of peasant and Indigenous Peoples (McKay, Nehring & Walsh-Dilley 2014). It marked what Holst (2016) calls a shift in world politics towards post-neoliberalism. In other words, his government distanced itself from a neoliberal governance, moving towards policies that would give the state a greater role in resource extraction (Pearson et al. 2019, 881). In his first year in office, Correa promised a constituent assembly to incorporate citizen participation in rewriting the constitution, widely supported through a public referendum (McKay et al. 2014, 1185).

The new constitution integrated food sovereignty principles via a participatory and decentralized process that allowed diverse social movements to have a voice (Peña 2016). In its Chapter IV, the 2008 constitution defines food sovereignty as: "[A] strategic objective and obligation of the state that persons, communities, peoples and nations achieve self-sufficiency with respect to healthy and culturally appropriate food on a permanent basis." (art. 281)
The "obligations" of the state include, among others, the adoption of fiscal policies to avoid heavily relying on food imports, policies of redistribution for peasants to have guaranteed access resources, and the development of research and technology innovation to further food sovereignty (McKay et al. 2014, 1186). Having them in a legal framework is an important step forward in the realization of food sovereignty in Ecuador.

Whereas President Correa’s post-neoliberalism sees development as economic growth, the Indigenous concept of Buen Vivir promotes the idea that development itself is not relevant (Coral-Guerrero et al. 2021, 38) as there is no linear process that establishes prior conditions or conditions to evolve toward (Acosta 2011). The Ecuadorian constitution uses the concept of the Andean Cosmovision (Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay) to propose an alternative to development, making it the first in Latin America to mention indigenous concepts of development (Holst 2016). Sumak kawsay refers to a Kichwa term rooted in indigenous practices and beliefs that includes four main elements: an indigenous and nature-focused worldview, community, an economy based on solidarity and ancestral knowledge (Coral-Guerrero et al. 2021).

Indigenous movements advocated for Buen Vivir as an alternative to capitalism, neoliberalism, and the classical traditions of modern Western thought.

According to the Ecuadorian State, Buen Vivir refuses economic growth obtained at the expense of farmers’ exploitation (Peña 2016, 225). It embraces a plurality and values intrinsic to natural processes, articulating indigenous knowledge components and criticizing modernity (Gudynas 2017).

Indigenous Peoples’ Food Sovereignty

Realization Of Indigenous Peoples' Food Sovereignty

Even though the Buen Vivir principle was included in the constitution, it does not translate into practical compliance. Politically, it is easier to make minor concessions – and allow the inclusion of food sovereignty into the constitution – than creating concrete structures and mechanisms at the ground-level to establish more inclusive social and economic systems (Becker 2011, 56; Wittman 2011). Having the concept in the constitution is a major step forward, but it lacks sufficient subsequent policy implementation for Indigenous Peoples to see their food sovereignty markedly improve. As Sharma & Daugbjerg (2020, 2, 11) argue, politicizing the idea of food sovereignty helped set the agenda for agricultural reform in Ecuador, but it has not resulted in significant policy change.

To be able to assess Indigenous Peoples’ realization of food sovereignty, one needs to ask what food sovereignty means for them. Indigenous Peoples frame it as a right to sumak kawsay (ibid.). Santafe-Troncoso & Loring (2021a) show for instance that a practical embodiment of food sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples is the use of traditional agroforestry methods called chakras – which we will develop later in the paper. To realize the right to sumak kawsay, the Red Agraria – an Indigenous and peasants’ movement – works with the state’s Conferencia Plurinacional e Intercultural de Soberanía Alimentaria (COPISA) to formulate policies at local and regional levels and then negotiates them in the National Assembly (Peña 2021, 223). In this process, COPISA has helped create a synergistic relationship between civil society and the state (ibid. 2021, 223). Opportunities for negotiation have been instrumental in institutionalizing food sovereignty in Ecuador (Peña 2021, 223). However, Laforge et al. (2021) report that it is difficult to organize and fight for your rights when you always have to be operating in "resistance mode", referencing the post-neoliberal settler-colonial governance system. La Vía Campesina’s vision is indeed that in order for food sovereignty to be realized, food production has to remain in the hands of small-scale sustainable farmers and not in those of large agribusiness companies (Altieri 2009). About the integration of the sumak kawsay principle to the constitution, the state’s responsibilities listed are articulated into policy initiatives through the National Plan of Good Living (Plan Nacional de Buen Vivir) and the Food Sovereignty Law (LORSA) (McKay et al. 2014, 1186). The inclusion of Buen Vivir in the constitution has "enabled a shared political discourse of resource nationalization to integrate the interests of indigenous social movements, peasant organizations and the Ecuadorian state" (ibid.). 

A Kichwa woman in Orellana, Ecuador
A Kichwa woman in Orellana, Ecuador. Image Source: Tomas Munita/CIFOR, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Another explanation for the lack of compliance is a lack of consensus on the desire to live according to Buen Vivir. Although La Vía Campesina talks about agroecology and localized trade as the peasant way of solving the climate crisis, Soper (2020) argues that some Indigenous Peoples would rather join the market economy and are not interested in living according to Buen Vivir. La Vía Campesina talks about agroecology and localized trade as the peasant way of solving the climate crisis. Drawing on her field research, Soper (2020, 265) argues that this discourse is problematic because existing indigenous peasants practice chemical-intensive, monocrop, and export-oriented production. It therefore essentializes indigenous and peasant peoples as inherently ecological and opposed to capitalism, whereas some gladly engage with global industrial agriculture and have departed from traditional agriculture (ibid., 265, 266). She explains that ‘the dual environmental-livelihood goals of the food sovereignty movement are not always complementary; just because peasants mobilize against neoliberalism does not mean they are in favor of local agroecology’ (Soper 2020, 267). While her research is not representative of all Indigenous peasants in Ecuador (ibid.), it is relevant and a necessary argument to consider while talking about food sovereignty. Even if Buen Vivir is not respected, one could argue that food sovereignty for Indigenous communities in Ecuador can still be realized.

Every element needed for the realization of food sovereignty in Ecuador is present in the country’s national law. However, it does not mean that food sovereignty is respected practice – especially when looking at Indigenous Peoples.

Pearson et al. (2019, 886) show for instance that Waorani – an Indigenous tribe in Ecuadorian Amazon – are still subject to forms of marginalization that are supposed to be contrary to the post neoliberal project and indigenous rights outlined in the constitution. Indigenous food sovereignty is indeed compromised by many elements and violations of the constitution.

Economic Growth And Limits To Post-Neoliberalism 

Post-neoliberalism sees development as extractive, i.e., as economic growth (Holst 2016), thus giving an incentive for productivity. That poses two issues. First, extractive development is in theory contrary to the constitution as the latter includes Buen Vivir with its idea that the economy is based on solidarity (Coral-Guerrero et al. 2021). For Indigenous Peoples there is no traditional notion of poverty associated with lack of material goods (Acosta 2011). The second is Holst’s (2016, 215, 216) argument that, since Ecuador’s economic growth relies on natural resources and upon the state to facilitate colonial expansion into indigenous territory, the extractive development perpetuates social inequality and environmental destruction. Fian Ecuador (2020, 19) argues that Ecuador prioritizes private economic interests over the rights of rural and Indigenous Peoples, affecting their right to adequate food and food sovereignty. As Kramer (2017, 11) argues, threats to food sovereignty come from development and extraction policies and practice. For example, in the Amazon, the discovery of rubber and petroleum have had a huge influence on Indigenous Peoples and the environments they are a part of (ibid.).

Additionally, the constitution includes access to land and the right of farmers to determine their production methods, but the neoliberal erosion of Indigenous self-sufficiency and self-determination (Grey & Patel 2015, 435) is threatening food sovereignty. Post-neoliberalism, through its resulting set of institutions and operations of power which try to homogenize production and consumption, could be compared to colonialism (ibid.). We can thus argue that post-neoliberalism is a direct threat to food sovereignty because of the wish to homogenize production and consumption (Fian Ecuador 2021a, 43, 44). This colonially introduced biocultural homogenization cannot resonate with the plurality promoted by Buen Vivir.

In reality, the concept of Buen Vivir brought by the government is "closely aligned with a return to state planning and regulation of the economy" (Fernandez 2021, 36). For instance, issues of land use and distribution are central to the way the new constitution addresses food sovereignty (McKay et al. 2014, 1186). Immediately following the discussion of food sovereignty, it states that the state will determine the use and access to land that should fulfill a social and environmental function (Article 282, 138). Despite the imperative for land redistribution in the constitution, the biggest properties control 29 percent of the land though representing 0.1 percent of production, whereas smaller stakeholders owning less than five hectares only represent 6.3 percent of the agricultural surface (Giunta 2013). Additionally, land reforms have not had any significant bearing on land distribution (IFAD 2004). Ecuador’s land ownership disparities have a great influence on Buen Vivir’s realization. If smallholders – especially Indigenous Peoples in the context of this article – do not have adequate access to land to produce according to Buen Vivir, it is difficult for their food sovereignty to be fulfilled. Using traditional methods in the sense of Buen Vivir indeed means that one needs to let the land rest in between harvests; which is made impossible with limited access to land. 

Right To Land

In Ecuador, food sovereignty includes indigenous property rights (Wittman 2011). At the international level, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizes the right to land as inextricably linked to the right to food sovereignty. In this context, UNDRIP declared the right not to be dispossessed of their lands without their free and informed consent based on the right to self-determination (Fian Ecuador 2020, 14). Likewise, the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations of the International Labor Organization recognizes "the right of indigenous populations to occupy, manage and own the lands and resources that they have traditionally occupied" (ibid).

Though the Ecuadorian state promises land ownership, it does not provide real property titles and refuses to recognize and protect rural and indigenous lands because of national public interest (Fian Ecuador 2020). The lack of protection then leads to evictions, violating Indigenous Peoples’ right to food and nutrition – and they are therefore left without land to produce food (ibid., 20).

A recent case of the state violating Indigenous Peoples’ right to land is the attempted eviction of Indigenous families from their community territory by public forces, in January 2021 in La Toglla Community located in Pichincha province (Fian Ecuador 2021c). According to La Toglla’ leaders, approximately 200 policemen entered the territory with a justice sentence ordering their eviction (ibid.). Testimonies about evictions’ impact on families include loss of productive and economic capital, exacerbation of debts, illnesses and deaths (Fian Ecuador 2021b). And last but not least: the violation of the right to food sovereignty – through evictions and more generally Indigenous Peoples' lack of access to land – provokes the loss of arable land or access to water (ibid.). More than being against the constitution – as the state supposedly recognizes the communes that have collective ownership of the land as an ancestral form of territorial organization (Fian Ecuador 2021c) – evictions violate Indigenous Peoples’ international rights. With this happening, we can hardly argue that Indigenous Peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon are able to realize their food sovereignty.

Access To Seeds

When Ecuadorian Indigenous Peoples do have access to and propriety of their land, their food sovereignty can be affected by their access to seeds – essential to the realization of food sovereignty (Fian Ecuador 2020). Seeds are essential to promote a sustainable agri-food system, focused on food sovereignty, ancestral knowledge, diversity, exchange of knowledge and the permanent exchange of genetic resources and associated knowledge (Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2016, 72). La Vía Campesina includes access to seeds as a way to realize food sovereignty (Grey & Patel 2015). In this context, Ecuador was a pioneer in approving the Food Sovereignty Law in 2009, a framework intended to address, among other things, seeds, agrobiodiversity, and agroecology (Peña 2016) that was supposed to be a critical political opening for food sovereignty in Ecuador. However, currently, according to the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch (2016, 8), the rise of agrochemical transnational corporations seeking to privatize, monopolize and control seeds is increasingly limiting what farmers can do with their seeds, thereby impeding their role as food producers and threatening their food sovereignty. In Ecuador, rural and Indigenous farming communities use seeds to grow their food and to sell it for income (Fian Ecuador 2020, 22). To remain competitive, they do not have the choice but to cultivate using expensive certified seeds and agrochemicals (ibid.), which are obtained through financial credit. At the same time, they need a good harvest to pay off their loans and buy more seeds, creating a dependency circle – contrary to Buen Vivir’s imperative for diversity and ancestral knowledge. Due to market-economy realities that resulted in an increase in privatization, the Food Sovereignty Law of 2009 was not able to do what it intended to do; and access to seeds is therefore another element threatening Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon. 

Use Of Pesticides

Pressure on Indigenous Peoples to stay competitive within the market economy leads them to use pesticides to get productive harvests from their crops. Pesticides usage is encouraged by policies carried out by state actions (Fian Ecuador 2021a, 43). For instance, the National Project for Participatory Technological Innovation and Agricultural Productivity (PITPPA), a state-led project, planned on distributing subsidized kits to improve peasants’ productivity (ibid.). Such a project also follows the same extractive strategy denoted in the post-neoliberal policies towards economic growth. But the misuse and/or overuse of pesticides makes it harder for the soil to be renewed, and by extension affects the right to healthy food. 

Ecuador’s colonial heritage also has its role to play in limiting the full realization of food sovereignty. Vasco et al.’s (2021) findings indeed show that in the Amazon, Indigenous Peoples own less forest land than external people from other regions of the country do, and have larger areas devoted to agriculture. They further argue that because of this, Indigenous Peoples buy as much fertilizers and pesticides as said external peoples (ibid. 2021), which raises contradictions with sumak kawsay. Moreover, Vasco et al. (2021, 7, 8) show that farmers in the Amazon use pesticides and fertilizers with no supervision or technical assistance, affecting their health and the environment. Though government’s social aid improved the living conditions of Ecuadorians in general, Vasco et al. (2021) found that it has negative externalities. "While the US $50 that poor households receive is supposed to be spent on food, education and health, the money [is used by] poor households to buy chemicals or directly used to finance agricultural production" (ibid. 2021, 8). The seed market economy as well as the use of pesticides for competitiveness is creating a dependency cycle for Indigenous Peoples. Therefore, the (mis- or over-) use of pesticides by Indigenous Peoples goes against Buen Vivir as the soil gets unsustainable and chemicals affect production.

Tourism And The Chakra Route

Though Indigenous-led tourism is supposed to improve their livelihoods, food-based Chakra tourism can have negative impacts for food sovereignty, as the introduction of exotic foodstuffs threaten food traditions and local ecosystems by jeopardizing native species. Chakras are crops used to generate food and monetary income to Indigenous communities, as cocoa or tilapia fish for instance (Coq-Huelva et al. 2017). Since 1930, tilapia fish – native to Africa and the south-western Middle East – have been "introduced in most tropical regions of the world to improve inland fisheries and aquaculture" (Santafe-Troncoso 2021c, 888). Via biocultural homogenization, colonialism and globalization disrupt long-standing social-ecological systems by reducing diversity, autonomy and resilience – and thus particularly in Indigenous and rural communities (ibid.).

The use of tilapia fish along the Chakra tourism route in Ecuadorian Amazon is offered as part of local cuisine along the destination, but some identified tilapia as a threat to food sovereignty because of its impact on local ecosystems and food traditions (ibid., 888). Tourism markets Indigenous culture as an exotic commodity, but consumer tastes and preferences are often limited to wanting an experience that is superficially exotic while comfortably familiar (ibid.) – which is why tilapia fish was introduced in tropical regions. Tilapia is broadly promoted in food security programs because it reproduces fast, making it affordable for local populations and contributing to their food security (ibid., 892). As Santafe-Troncoso (2021a, 74) argues, the Chakra Route connects tourism to food sovereignty to promote the "empowerment and representation of Indigenous Peoples in the governance of tourism in their territories". "The inclusion of local and traditional foods in tourism is commonly seen as positive for local economies, cultural revitalization and biodiversity in rural and Indigenous communities" (ibid. 2021c, 887). However, some scholars argue that the impacts of tourism on local communities are more complex (ibid., 888). The integration of non-native products – here tilapia – for market-oriented production goes against Buen Vivir and thus threatens food sovereignty in the Amazon as it is invasive and threatens native species of the Amazonian ecosystem (ibid.). Tilapia fish threatens local species which impedes on Buen Vivir.

Botanical Garden
Botanical Garden. Image Source: Tui Anandi, licensed under CC BY 2.0


To improve Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon, it is important to:

Listen to Indigenous Peoples and integrate them into all levels of decision making

Despite Buen Vivir being introduced in the constitution, Indigenous voices do not have sufficient space in Ecuador’s political dialogues. Indigenous Peoples know their land better than anyone else, and therefore need to be integrated in all political spheres and spaces to decide how to improve their food sovereignty by themselves – and not through a paternalistic approach sidelining concerned voices.

This could take the following form: the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of Ecuador could work on a partial transition to agroecology through a set of participative workshops within subcommittees of such Ministry, with representatives of every part of the Ecuadorian population, including Indigenous Peoples. Those workshops could happen at many levels: local, regional and national. By having all interests represented, the solutions issued from such workshops will arguably fit a biggest part of the population. As part of the agro-ecological transition, and recognizing the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge in that matter, they could benefit from a veto right in drafting policy proposals; that will aim to prevent power from being captured by big producers. The final policy proposal would then be advanced in front of the National Assembly, during a plenary session, to be analyzed, debated and either potentially approved or returned to a focus group with comments of what to modify.

It is also important for instance to encourage an evaluation of crops’ sustainability using a tool providing a system of early warning. The results would provide "a scientific basis to formulate public policies to improve strategies for the rescue and management of the chakras" – which are crops used to generate food and/or monetary income (Heredia-R et al. 2020, 16). Here, there is again a need to incorporate Indigenous decision-makers in such a process. That way, public policies are unlikely to infringe on Buen Vivir and on food sovereignty later on. Chakras can also improve food sovereignty, if properly used within Indigenous-led tourism, by improving their livelihoods. Kichwa populations have been practicing the chakra system for thousands of years. It is characterized by its high level of diversity and its ability to provide security and sovereignty in terms of food and health (Heredia-R et al. 2020, 2). They are self-regulating and respect ancestral wisdom, allowing Kichwa’s adaptation to changing environmental conditions and allowing for the realization of their food sovereignty (ibid., 1). This point ties to the growing global movement advocating for indigenous land stewardship as part of environmental conservation. It has been proved for instance that forests cleared and tended by Indigenous communities and then lost to time for sometimes centuries show more food bounty than other surrounding forests (Popkin 2021). Forest gardens – which we can apply to chakra gardens in the Amazon region – are enhancing what nature does, making it more resilient, biodiverse and filled with food (Armstrong et al. 2021). Therefore, if Indigenous Peoples are left to approach chakra gardens tourism in a way where they are exercising their right to self-determination, it gives them the opportunity to develop their livelihoods in a way that is respectful to them and their culture (Santafe-Troncoso 2021a, 74). 

Address the misuse, and overuse, of pesticides on Indigenous crops

It is necessary to review current policies in order to allow Indigenous Peoples out of the dependency cycle of market competition with private companies, which encourages them to use pesticides. Altieri (2009, 41) mentioned that "rural social movements understand that dismantling the industrial agri-food complex and restoring local food systems must be accompanied by agro-ecological alternatives that suit the needs of small-scale producers". Agroecology indeed envisions a food system operating outside of colonial, patriarchal, and capitalist logics. Indigenous Peoples' food sovereignty could be improved through the implementation of governmental subsidies for smallholders using agro-ecological methods of production. They should be put in place after careful consideration and consultation of Indigenous communities’ needs, and should not be conditional on productivity – the goal being to promote a return to local food systems. 

Implement and adapt legislations touching upon Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination, especially when it comes to their land and livelihoods

Regarding recommendations to improve access to land, international regulations such as the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants can serve as a framework for Ecuador to adapt current legislations regarding land-related rights (Fian Ecuador 2020, 22). Fian Ecuador advocates for including debt cancellation in land redistribution programs and for the recognition of ancestral territories and lands to guarantee food sovereignty (ibid.). To realize food sovereignty, they also find the creation of programs for the protection and distribution of native seeds necessary (ibid.). Fian Ecuador encourages the designation of public spaces for the installation of local markers, allowing the commercialization of agricultural products from peasant organizations; and argue for advertising spaces in the media that promote the consumption of healthy foods, from the organizations of Peasant and Indigenous Family Agriculture, promoting Buen Vivir (Fian Ecuador 2020, 23). As the article showed, Indigenous Peoples’ agricultural production is dependent on the market economy; disallowing them from using Indigenous seeds, reducing the use of pesticides etc. This is why Indigneous People's production should be subsidized by the government. It would allow for producers not to enter market strategies and need to be productive – leading to the over or misuse of pesticides in most cases, but rather to approach production with a sustainability mindset. If the livelihood of Indigenous Peoples not only depends on productivity, they can ensure soil stays healthy and productive in the long-term. One might therefore be more likely to use agroecology or simply harvest in a way that is respectful to their culture.


Food sovereignty is quite complex and includes many elements – making its full realization difficult. It is especially hard for marginalized communities like the Indigenous population. In Ecuador, food sovereignty has a special status as it is integrated in the constitution since 2008. Though Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in Ecuadorian Amazon is realized to a certain extent, it is limited by many elements: state’s objective of economic growth linked to post-neoliberalism, land evictions and difficulties for Indigenous Peoples to get legal ownership of their ancestral lands, access to seeds and the incentive to use pesticides to get a fair income. Furthermore, post-neoliberal market approaches of mass production and consumption lead to homogenization of biodiversity, threatening food sovereignty and quality due to pesticides. There are underlying colonial and market economy logics limiting food sovereignty; which prevent the adequate implementation of legally-established rights of Indigenous Peoples regarding their land use and thereby food sovereignty. Since they need income to survive, they need to step out of Indigenous worldview of Buen Vivir and enter capitalist logics of production, for instance with food-based tourism. The latter can have positive impacts on food sovereignty, but is deemed threatening for local species and food sovereignty in the long term.

But all is not lost. Many practical political actions can be taken to enhance Indigenous Peoples’ food sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Advocacy is at the heart of what can be done by civil societies: advocacy for indigenous land stewardship and political integration; advocacy for land redistribution programs and the practical implementation of international laws touching upon Indigenous rights; advocacy for agroecology and further regulations– accompanied with the prohibition of the most dangerous ones – over the use of chemicals in agricultural settings; advocacy for further policies on chakra gardens with the aim of improving Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods without impeding on Buen Vivir.

*This article was edited by Khaliun Purevsuren (Graduate Institute of Geneva), Auri Minaya (Princeton University), and Francis Torres (Princeton University).

About the Author

India Belgharbi is a first year Master student in Development studies, with a focus in power and conflicts, and a minor in resources and sustainability. Her research interests include — but are not limited to: reconciling food security and cultural preferences, identity politics and the impacts of (de)colonization, the preservation of traditional agricultural practices and knowledge networks, as well as nature conservation theories.

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I would like to thank Professor Christophe Golay for his guidance and encouragement, as well as the JPIA editing team for their helpful comments and revisions. I would also like to give a special thanks to all the women in my life; especially Catherine Gueriot, Marguerite Gueriot and Sonia Belgharbi who provided me with infallible support.


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