Local communities are key to equitable, sustainable food systems

Nature-positive food production can promote equitable livelihoods, especially when communities manage their own natural resources

A girl in a white dress holds a green bucket above her head and smiles at the camera

Food systems—all the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding people—are fundamental to ensuring the estimated 10 billion people living in the world in 2050 have access to safe, healthy, nutritious food. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, agriculture is a source of livelihood and their cultural connection to their environment. At the same time, the evidence is clear that agriculture is one of the primary drivers of the climate crisis and the loss and degradation of nature. 

Luckily, food systems also represent the biggest opportunity for transformation. Agriculture is part of the solution for both climate and nature and can help achieve sustainable, equitable, resilient food systems that benefit people and the planet. And the often-underrepresented perspectives and experiences of those from local communities, especially women, are critical to successful transformation.

Local communities are a critical part of transforming food systems

Over 2.5 billion rural people rely on natural resources for their livelihoods and income. In many agricultural communities, women are disproportionately responsible for growing, preparing, cooking, and processing food. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women produce more than half of all the food that is grown globally. The time spent and labor invested in caring for animals and crops, collecting and harvesting food, gathering wood for fires, collecting and carrying water to clean and cook food, and selling and marketing their surplus leaves little time for much else. In part, for this reason, women continue to suffer from a lack of access to formal education, illiteracy, low social status, and limited financial resources and political power. It’s no surprise, then, that the voices of small-scale food producers, especially women, so often go unheard in political and economic decision-making.

The cycle of poverty and environmental degradation is clearly linked. But so, too, is the cycle of sustainable food production and the advancement of equitable livelihoods.

Two local success stories of nature-positive, equitable food production

Two examples from Mozambique and Tanzania demonstrate that community ownership and empowered women are instrumental to achieving measurable, replicable, and scalable impacts that reduce poverty and inequity and improve ecosystem health.

Mozambique

Primeiras e Segundas in Mozambique is the country’s first “Environmental Protection Area,” covering over 2.5 million acres. Engaging and empowering local communities was critical to establish this unique marine protected area, drive sustainable natural resource management including the adoption of farming practices that work with nature, and increase food security. Alongside Village Savings and Loan Associations targeted to women, community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) interventions included establishing no-take zones to allow fisheries to regenerate, promoting selective harvesting and replanting of community-managed mangroves for coastal resilience, and promoting climate-smart seeds and agriculture techniques for food security.

Results

  • Between 2008 and 2014, households in communities with CBNRM interventions experienced 25% more dietary diversity. Indeed, more than 70% of fishers report increased catches near community-enforced no-take zones. 
  • Mangrove coverage grew between 2002 and 2014, increasing nurseries for mollusks and crabs that women collect for food and income.
  • Households in communities with Farmer Field and Business Schools were 13% more likely to experience year-round food security. 
  • By 2018, women-headed households saw their wealth grow by 31% since participating women were 7.5 times more likely to be able to access credit.

Tanzania

The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania offers another striking example of how empowering local people to manage natural resources is critical to just and sustainable food systems. In the central breadbasket of the country, an innovative approach to land use planning across several villages in a shared water basin ensured water users and women participate in land zoning and resource management decisions. Supplementing the interventions in Mozambique, the work in Tanzania has a strong focus on land tenure and water management, as well as collective action and improving business skills of women for collective investment in small- to medium-scale nature-based enterprises.

Initial Results

  • The program supported six locally owned Village Land Use Plans, specifying zones for agriculture and social services as well as more than 35,000 acres of forest and 672 acres of wetland reserves. 
  • Communities planted 12,000 trees and took other steps to protect 109 water sources. Increased waterflows in areas that have long run dry are already supporting 38 new wells, eight fishponds, and other nature-based enterprises, including almost 400 beehives for honey production and sale. 
  • The government issued 2,922 individual land titles, 45% to women and 27% to youth, creating a critical incentive to invest in sustainable land management, like adopting nature-friendly farming practices that increase soil fertility and water filtration. 
  • This pilot has been successful in influencing national policies and regulations about land use, enabling communities across Tanzania to benefit from the foundational right to make decisions about the lands and waters on which their livelihoods depend.

Food Systems Transformation at Scale

Producing nutritious food and restoring nature requires that we bridge traditional and scientific knowledge to identify locally managed solutions to the linked challenges that plague people and ecosystems. In fact, CARE and WWF, through a long-standing strategic alliance, are building upon such best practices from their experiences in Mozambique and Tanzania, as well as other places like Nepal, Peru, and Madagascar. Learnings from working with local communities can be applied in new contexts and with new partners like, for example, through the global Coral Reef Rescue Initiative and other programs.

Such examples of integrated models for equitable and sustainable food systems can and must be elevated, learned from, and iterated upon for upscaling through innovations in programmatic approaches, funding models, and policy frameworks from local to global levels. Local communities, and women, in particular, must be front and center in sustainably managing the natural resources on which their livelihoods, income, and food security depend.

Learn More: To hear more about the critical role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, especially women, in transforming the global food systems, check out a recording of Resilience and Recovery: Transforming Food Systems for an Equitable and Secure Future for People and Nature, which was co-hosted by CARE and WWF on May 24, 2021.