February 13, 2024

By Michael Twigg and Kat Lorimer

As our Land-use, Nature, Agriculture research team at the Smart Prosperity Institute continues to engage in Indigenous-led conservation across Canada, we see a two-pronged approach that can help meet our climate and biodiversity targets, and achieve true reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples: advancing Indigenous agriculture, and finding ways for working landscapes and near-natural ecosystems to count toward national conservation targets.

Today, on Canada’s Agriculture Day, we reflect on our country’s progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by forty percent below 2005 levels and protect thirty percent of land and water by 2030, and on the important role that Indigenous-led agriculture and conservation can play in meeting these goals. So far, we've achieved a third of our emissions and half of our biodiversity targets. We have to quickly increase the number of innovative strategies to reach our targets in the next six years, and some of these strategies include advancing Indigenous-led agriculture and conservation. 


What are the benefits of Indigenous-led agriculture and conservation? 

Indigenous Peoples across Canada have a long agricultural history and for Indigenous communities across North America the fact remains that “food is an indicator of the health of a society”. Yet in Canada, access to food and economic opportunities to grow food are disproportionately low among Indigenous Peoples. Gross farm revenues for Indigenous producers are one third of those for non-Indigenous producers and land tenure laws actively limit Indigenous participation. This has created a reality in which, despite persistent threats to local food sovereignty, it is more cost-effective for many Indigenous communities to lease their lands to non-Indigenous producers rather than growing and selling their own food. 

Canada’s agricultural sector is a world leader in innovation on climate and biodiversity, however, Indigenous producers are proportionally underrepresented. Despite these challenges, the benefits of Indigenous food systems for climate and biodiversity are reigniting a sector-wide interest in a variety of nature-positive best practices that are embedded in Indigenous agriculture. A recent study has identified silvopasture, intercropping, and agroforestry as having a significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve on-farm biodiversity in Canada. Each of these practices has roots in Indigenous agriculture systems that are more than 600 years old.


Investing in Indigenous-led agriculture and conservation

Announcements by the federal government to fund Indigenous-led conservation with an additional $800 million, and more than $1 billion to be invested in sustainable agriculture present an opportunity to advance climate and biodiversity solutions that link land-use, improved food security, and reconciliation efforts. Investing in the socio-economic capacity of Indigenous agricultural producers is part of an opportunity to grow Canada’s economy by $27 billion  — a point emphasized by Justine Hendricks, President and Chief Executive Officer of Farm Credit Canada speaking today at the Future of Food Conference in Ottawa, Ontario.


How can Indigenous agriculture be a triple win for climate, biodiversity, and reconciliation?

The integration of Indigenous agricultural practices is happening quickly across Canada, but the development of partnerships that can advance more Indigenous agricultural operations will take careful strategic planning.Through our ongoing engagement on Indigenous-led conservation and innovative agricultural solutions, three approaches have emerged that suggest that Indigenous agriculture can strike the necessary balance between conservation and enabling greater financial and food sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples:


  1. Developing paths that affirm Indigenous land rights through agricultural tenure.

    Current land tenure regulations make it hard for Indigenous communities to leverage the economic value of their land, including for agriculture, as the land value cannot be used to secure loans. A survey on the state of Indigenous agriculture in Canada found that access to capital was a significant barrier to participation; access to education and equipment were also noted as significant barriers.

  2. Reconnecting beneficial management practices with their roots in Indigenous agriculture.

    The inherent benefits of Indigenous agricultural practices are their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing the resiliency of key ecosystems. Traditional planting methods, now called intercropping, sew crops that fix nitrogen with those that feed heavily on nitrogen, reducing or eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers. Other traditional methods, such as alley cropping, including trees in agricultural lands or other low-intensity agricultural practices are often cited by environmental organizations as ways farmers can help improve biodiversity on agricultural lands and reduce the threat to species at risk.

  3. Recognizing Indigenous agriculture as a link to both greater food and financial sovereignty.

    When Indigenous communities consider farming their land instead of leasing it out  they are faced with the potential loss of a secure revenue stream that is often used to fund other critical community needs like healthcare. Farming — in particular as a business instead of as a means of food sovereignty for the community — can provide less guaranteed income than even less-than-favourable land rental rates. 

    There are notable exceptions: the Kainai-Blood Tribe in Alberta exports high-quality hay internationally. The sale of their hay, grown on part of their more than 23,000 irrigated acres, allows for more financial sovereignty for the Nation. In one of their latest reports, the Blood Tribe Agricultural Project captured twelve percent of all of Canada’s international exports of timothy hay in 2021, and is able to offer employment to more than 50 people.


What is the intersection with near-natural ecosystems?

The recent IPCC assessment identifies near-natural ecosystems as a way for human communities to thrive in tandem with nature. In the Canadian context, these types of ecosystems fall under Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECMs) for Pathway to Canada Target 1, which currently represent less than one percent of all protected and conserved areas in the country. In both cases, neither framework explicitly outlines what constitutes a near-natural ecosystem, but in Canada the framework expressly accounts for Indigenous agriculture as a way to strike a balance between community development and conservation. 


How can OECMs improve environmental governance while empowering Indigenous communities?

Including near-natural lands in conservation efforts can represent a quick win for conservation and restoration efforts, but for Indigenous communities the main challenges continue to be issues of land rights, sovereignty over decision-making, and opportunities for growth and development. Partnerships that have emerged around Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas are working hard to address these issues, but success has been few and far between. Only three Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas are officially recognized in Canada: Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata, Edéhzhíe and Thaidene Nëné. In most cases, these relationships can take decades to navigate with few assurances provided to Indigenous communities. This has resulted in a dynamic where advancing an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area may represent a greater risk, rather than reward, for many communities.

As it stands, OECMs remain an underexplored and underdeveloped mechanism for conservation in Canada. A lack of clarity around OECMs has caused some reservations among governments and Indigenous communities to advance these types of conservation mechanisms, but it is exactly this flexibility that offers the most promise. More work needs to be done to outline the parameters of successful OECMs in Canada, and how these parameters would intersect with low-impact Indigenous agricultural practices, but it is clear that these types of systems can provide the necessary balance moving forward. 

As we move toward 30 by 30, encouraging greater Indigenous-led agricultural operations in near-natural ecosystems provides a viable opportunity to improve local food security and stimulate community development, while also contributing to Canada’s bold biodiversity and climate targets. This is what we call a triple win.

Michael Twigg

Program Director, Land-use, Nature, Agriculture