Indigenous women in Latin America must be at the center of efforts to adapt agriculture to deal with the threat of climate change and help tackle hunger and poverty, said a top U.N. food official.

Jose Graziano da Silva, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said women were too often left out of development schemes, despite expert knowledge of the environment passed down through generations.

“They have fundamental roles in the spiritual, social and family arenas and are seed guardians — critical carriers of specialized knowledge,” Graziano da Silva told a Mexico City forum.

“Their social and economic empowerment is … a necessary condition to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in their communities,” he said, according to a statement.

Poor health care, malnutrition and illiteracy are other issues faced by indigenous women who generally have little access to the political arena, he said.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, indigenous people comprise 15 percent of those affected by hunger and extreme poverty, despite making up just 8 percent of the population in the region where 45 million identify as indigenous.

Women suffer the most. Wage levels for indigenous women in the region are often four times less than those for men, said the United Nations’ food agency.

Indigenous women can play a key role in adapting agriculture and diet to cope with climate change, said the FAO, with traditional indigenous land comprising 22 percent the world’s territory and 80 percent of its biodiversity.

The organization said it would ramp up projects to boost indigenous women’s leadership in countries including Bolivia, Paraguay, India and the Philippines this year.

In Mexico, traditional healer and Nahua speaker Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez is a candidate in July’s election, the first indigenous woman to run for the country’s presidency.

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