Eating our way to conservation
Can local food systems help people invest in conservation? Earlier this month I traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the Indigenous Mapping Network Conference . As part of the conference we were treated to a tour of a local reservation. While in the car one visitor started asking our tour guide about what foods are harvested locally. She told us about the deer they hunt, and how it takes three deer to feed her family for a year. One year when they got only two deer, her husband was invited to hunt with a friend on another reservation. When he brought back the meat the family noticed that it tasted very different because the deer on the other reservation feed on corn, where their local deer graze on grass.
When the visitor asked her about eating the local fish, she told him that they don’t eat the fish because of the contaminants and those elder who unknowingly did in the past “should be glowing”. It made me think about a sign I had seen earlier that day on a walk posted by the Brown County Health Department identifying the types of fish in the Fox River and the restrictions on their consumption (Once/Week, Once/Month, Once/Every Two Months, and Do Not Eat). Only a few hundred feet from the sign I saw some people fishing on the banks across from an industrial shipping port, and I wondered if they were fishing for the sport or for consumption?
When I got back to Oregon (a place rich in wild and local foods) I started to think about the connection between food, identity, sense of place and the role of conservation. Whenever I travel the first things that people like to share are their local foods and in turn I often bring things I’ve harvested in my local area. It’s a bit like swapping business cards, the food tells about where you’re from and who you are. Even if the foods are the same type, the environment where they grow can make them vastly different in taste and appearance. A unique marker of where they come from.
In thinking about the role of humans in conservation, I think food is an important connector. People who harvest local foods have an investment in supporting and maintain healthy ecosystems. Even when these foods are threatened by contaminants and pollution the pull to harvest them is too great, weather this is economic or cultural. Often times it seems that conservation efforts are separated from human user groups, sometimes to the disadvantage of holistic and/or successful outcomes. When local communities or user groups are included in conservation there is a great chance of a success. If local foods can connect people to their environment, food can be a powerful tool to support conservation efforts.
As a Cultural Ecologist/Anthropologist working in the conservation community I see a need to more fully incorporate communities into conservation efforts. After attend the conference I got a glimpse into the types of work being done in Native and Indigenous community around the world and feel encourage by the tremendous efforts being made by scientists and non-scientist to collaborate on natural resource issues.