Traditional Foodways Program

Strengthening endangered food systems and conserving biodiversity




Food is found at the intersection of culture and nature. It grows from the accumulated wisdom of generations, a blend of inherited knowledge and the innovations of individual farmers, hunters, gatherers and cooks. People have long exchanged this wisdom, and associated plants and animals, across cultures and large geographic areas, but food traditions are also tied to place, they are inherently “local”. This is particularly the case for the many traditional foods that are wild harvested, or semi-domesticated, as well as livestock and agricultural varieties that depend upon distinct soil, climate, and growing traditions. In many areas, entire landscapes are managed to produce food, with home gardens, farms, grazing lands, fallow, and forest contributing in distinctive and complementary ways across seasons.

In these cases, cultural practices and biological diversity are inextricably linked, and the continuation of unique and sophisticated knowledge systems associated with wild-harvesting, managing, cultivating, and preparing foods depends upon the conservation of biodiversity and cultural landscapes. An apparently simple object, food in fact distills a range of social and ecological relations. But both traditional knowledge and biological diversity are under threat, often for the same reasons – industrial agriculture and associated land grabs, logging, mining, oil exploration and the broader economic and cultural pressures of globalization.

People have long adapted their food systems to changing circumstances and experiences, incorporating new foods and practices and dropping others along the way. However, external pressure on forests and biodiversity, and traditional knowledge and practices, has never been greater. 

Many rural communities would like to slow the pace of change and shore up and celebrate what they know and have in order to maintain healthy, secure and diverse diets. The Traditional Foodways project is an effort to help them do this. It celebrates extraordinary cultures and environments, strengthens communities by bringing them together around the universal interest in food, and seeks to bolster and revive traditional food systems while they are still relatively intact, and are embedded in the environments and cultures from which they arose. The project also seeks to revive and restore traditional food systems, and local forests and biodiversity, in places where they have been degraded.

The Traditional Foodways Project supports traditional food systems in their entirety – the sustainable harvesting, management, cultivation, and preparation of a wide range and astonishing number of food species – in order to serve a range of objectives including subsistence, well-being, nutrition, health, taste, food security, and the generation of cash through the sale of products in local and international markets. Rather than specific products in most cases, it is these complex and diverse food systems that are endangered today, dependent as they are on threatened traditions and biologically diverse environments. 

Project activities often focus on the young, who are increasingly alienated from both their traditions and their environment, but they also seek to validate and re-enforce the knowledge of the elders, often dismissed by the young.  Project activities include the following:

  • Promoting sustainable harvesting and management practices to restore underutilized, rare or threatened food species;
  • Producing manuals on the management, harvesting and preparation of wild, semi-domesticated, and cultivated food plants;
  • Promoting exchange of recipes and locally-produced cookbooks;
  • Cultural revival festivals in towns to celebrate traditional food systems; these include showcasing home gardens, food preparation demonstrations, and traditional dance and music associated with harvest seasons and particular foods;
  •  Village-based theatre, workshops, and celebrations of disappearing local food preparation and management traditions;
  • Production of school materials, including traditional food packets, posters, and games, and associated teacher training programs;
  • Inter-active programs in local schools, including stories from elders, traditional food harvesting and preparation, lessons on the links between medicine and food, and historical uses of foods by ancestors;
  • Exchanges across regions, in which communities travel to others facing similar challenges in order to share experiences; this includes ways to bolster traditional food systems and conservation as well as addressing shared threats;
  • Traditional food videos, produced by younger members of the community, who are trained in design, filming and editing; videos will be shared with neighboring villages and towns, communities in other parts of the country, and will help groups around the world communicate with each other;
  • Raising awareness globally about the need to support and conserve biological and cultural diversity as integral parts of diverse and healthy food systems by producing articles, videos, and education materials for international audiences.





The Traditional Foodways Working Group. The Traditional Foodways Working Group brings together individuals and groups that work to support traditional food systems, promote social justice and food security, and conserve biological diversity. The Working Group shares experiences and lessons learned...Read more.


Brazil. The Amazon is the largest contiguous tropical forest remaining in the world, with 25 million people living in the Brazilian Amazon alone. However, deforestation, fire and climate change threaten the region. In addition to the environmental services they provide, forests like the Amazon are also a rich nutritional storehouse... Read more



Cameroon. Mt Cameroon is an active volcano, the largest mountain in West Africa, and one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. The indigenous Bakweri and other groups living around Mt Cameroon and in Southwest Province retain strong traditional resource management systems that grow from deep historical and cultural connections to place. However, biodiversity, forests and traditional knowledge... Read more

Colombia. The Kamentsá and Inga people inhabit a large area rich in natural and mineral resources in the Andean-Amazonian piedmont of Colombia. For decades, these indigenous populations have been caught in the midst of complex webs of drug-related, political and structural violence, linked to the economies of cocaine, oil and neoliberal policies that restrict their use and access to land... Read more

Mexico. The Nahua people of the State of Puebla and Veracruz in Mexico have based their livelihoods on the milpa agroforestry  system which in addition to corn, the dietary staple, produces a rich assortment of seasonal vegetables, tubers and fruits in addition to medicinal, ornamental and dye plants, among others... Read more


The Phillipines. The indigenous Negritos, with a hunter-gatherer background, share a strong relationship with the natural environment in which they live. For the Negritos, foods wild gathered from forests, rivers and coastal waters, are a key element of their diet... Read more.