What indigenous farmers teach us about wellbeing

Indigenous communities are widely credited as the best stewards of nature, but could their philosophies of wellbeing lead the way towards a sustainable life?

The traditional idea of wellbeing is about understanding the links between nature, community and ancestors, and is integral to a truly sustainable society.

That was the view of indigenous farmers speaking at last week’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, in a session that explored some of the words used by indigenous communities around the world to sum up their approach to ethical living.

Indigenous communities oversee 80 per cent of global biodiversity despite only making up five per cent of the population, so it’s easy to see why many people see them as the natural stewards of the land.  

And while these cultures can be completely distant from one another, they often express the concept of living well with a deep sense of belonging to the land and community.

From Latin America to Wales, from Gaelic culture to Southern Africa, each culture has its own concept of wellbeing, but they all have a common thread. 

Alfredo Cortez, an indigenous agroecological farmer from Guatemala, says the definition of wellbeing is grounded in a way of life that views the land and nature as a living entity and places an importance on ancestorial values and social responsibility.   

“We’ve been fighting hard not to lose those values, those that our ancestors have passed on to us,” says Cortez. “It’s about placing a value on ancestral peasant farming practices that have given life to us.” 

We might not associate indigenous culture with a place so close to home, but according to Welsh farmer Gerald Miles the same concept of wellbeing applies to him.  

Indigenous wellbeing is stongly linked to heritage and culture. Credit We Feed The World

“When I see Alfredo, we have the same values,” declares Miles. “In this, we should invest more time and share more.”

“I strongly believe that my farm has a spirit,” says Miles. “I look at myself as a guardian of this place, it has been the grounding of who I am today.”  

Culture and heritage are crucial to Miles’ sense of wellbeing and links him to sustainable practices.

He is a passionate speaker of the Welsh language and has been reviving ancient varieties of Welsh black oats. He believes looking back to his ancestor’s way of farming holds the solution to the world’s great crises.

“I believe passionately that these ancient varieties have the answer to climate change and allow us to farm more sustainably,” says Miles. 

The cultural health of a community is just as important as the physical health. This is why language plays a role in wellbeing, according to Nathan Einbinder, regenerative farming lead at Schumacher College in Devon.

“Language, the old practices, the values behind it,” he says. “There’s no way to quantify how important that is.”

The language of wellbeing

Buen vivir

Translating as ‘living well’ in Spanish, the social philosophy of Buen Vivir is used across indigenous and non-indigenous communities in Latin America. “It means caring for mother earth. It means having fertile soils, it means not polluting our surroundings. It means having good food, the right food, produced in a healthy way, taking care of the forest, restoring our woodland, and returning to our ancestral ways,” explains Guatemalan farmer Alfredo Cortez.  


There is no direct translation for this Gaelic word, but it communicates a feeling of belonging to the land and the community. It encapsulates a belief that everything around you is interconnected. 


‘I am because you are’. There are many translations for this southern African word, which is used across the African continent by different cultures. But the wider meaning is that humans are part of a more significant, communal, environmental and spiritual world. 


This Hebrew expression means peace, harmony, wholeness and wellbeing. It embodies the belief that this wholeness and peace come from a harmonious and interconnected relationship with all of God’s creations.  


Leave a Reply

  1. Seriously…indigenous peoples? Spanish term in South America, Hebrew term…..of all the possibilities, these are what you choose to highlight?? Riverford, I love what you do, but how little thought went into this article?

    1. https://theconversation.com/buen-vivir-south-americas-rethinking-of-the-future-we-want-44507

      Spanish of South America ( to use your term) are adapted versions of European Spanish and are integral parts of all peoples’ lives ( unless the language is Portuguese!!!)…it is a commonality, not a replacement for indigenous people.
      A Palestinian Arabic expression maybe as well as a Hebrew one ( a Middle Eastern language that can be traced back to over 3,000 years ago https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hebrew-language and a language that has to be delineated to Modern or Classic Hebrew) could have been utilised.

      https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-language-is-spoken-in-palestine.html .

      For me, the use of a common language alongside an indigenous one is no big problem…except if the indigenous one is in danger.

    2. Very interesting reading – thanks.

      I regret being so hasty in my response to this article, though I still think the ‘indiginous glossary’ is pretty light on substance. The context and deeper meaning of these terms is what’s important and lacking from the article. Maybe you should write for Wicked Leeks!

    3. Thanks astralstroll and regenagrewild for your points and links- we are always really pleased to hear from readers, their thoughts on articles, discussion points or further reading.

      We hope the article sparked thoughts of how the language of wellbeing is used in different communities and cultures, including indigenous.

      The piece aims to show our connections across cultures in how ideas around wellbeing are expressed, and the crucial role these concepts can play in restoring links between us and nature, for the good of people and planet.


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