Forests can not only suck climate-heating carbon out of the atmosphere, they are also an important source of food for many Indigenous peoples.
“Western food is making our people sick. Our bodies are adapted to eating bush foods,” said Seith Fourmile of the Gimuy-Walubarra Yidinji Nation of Cairns.
Australia’s Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples suffer from rates of diabetes three to four times greater than other Australians. Rates of high blood pressure, cardiovascular, and kidney diseases are also higher. Similar health problems have been found among Alaska’s Eskimo and Canada’s Inuit peoples.
The world’s forests “offer a cornucopia of 80,000 species of plants as foods,” writes botanist and medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger in her book The Global Forest. Western foods rely on just a few species, while oral knowledge of the other thousands of species is rapidly being lost, according to Beresford-Kroger.
“Our goal is to make bush foods more accessible to local people,” said Jenny Lynch, the Abriculture Development Officer here in Cairns. The term “abriculture” is an amalgam of the words aboriginal and agriculture.
Easier access to bush foods will improve the health of local people. It is also a key component of transferring traditional knowledge from elders to younger generations, Lynch said at a Climate Change in Australia workshop.
The Western or conventional form of agriculture and food production is amongst the largest sources of climate-altering greenhouse gases - more than 20% globally according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Agriculture is Australia’s second largest source of emissions behind the energy sector.
Abriculture is like permaculture where nature does all the work of growing food as long as people understand and respect nature’s complex interconnections. If you take a yam from the forest then you plant one in the same place, said Fourmile.
Bush foods have become difficult to obtain but they contain high levels of vitamins and other nutrients, said Lynch By looking after the forest, local people also maintain its ability to take carbon from the atmosphere and preserve or even enhance forest biodiversity.
The Abriculture Project is collecting seeds and traditional knowledge about food plants that grow in the tropical forests around Cairns. Those forests have lost many traditional food plants due to invasive species of plants and feral pigs, as well as a dramatic decline in native animals like the southern cassowary — a large flightless bird found only in north-eastern Australia and parts of New Guinea.
“Every time a cassowary is killed, it means some of the forest dies,” said Fourmile. He means this literally. The cassowary aerates and mixes forest soils as they scratch for food. And their droppings are excellent fertilizer. There are only 1,500 cassowaries left.
Fundraising for plant nurseries and a pilot project are currently underway so that relatively soon local people will be able to plant bush foods in their backyards and create semi-natural forests.
“Ultimately, we hope to restore the natural vegetation in our forests for the benefit of our people,” said Fourmile.