Contributed by Karim-Aly Kassam

Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, Article 24, Section 1).

Sovereignty is about individuals and communities exercising agency. The notion of sovereignty incorporates dimensions of ecological possibility, cultural appropriateness, knowledge capacity, and social governance structures of communities or regions with respect to meeting their food, health and energy needs.

The notions of health security and health sovereignty are analogous to the discussion of food security and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty encompasses the right and ability of individuals and groups to choose their own food based on the sociocultural and ecological contexts they inhabit (Mousseau 2005; Kassam 2010; Nabhan 2009; Windfuhr and Jonsén 2005). Similarly, the idea of health sovereignty includes the ability to choose medicines that are socioculturally and ecologically appropriate; thereby, providing practical, reliable and contextually relevant health care options (Kassam et al. 2010).  Furthermore, food and health sovereignty are interrelated; although not all medicine is food, food is often medicine.

Denial of self-determination or agency over food and medicine is a repudiation of fundamental rights of autonomy as guaranteed by Article 24, Section 1 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (quoted above).  Throughout the world, health sovereignty is compromised by many forces, including colonialism, social conflict, natural disasters and global climate change.  At the same time, health sovereignty provides individuals and communities agency to respond to these same threats, giving them health care options when they need them most. Our research among communities under social and ecological stress in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan provided the context for a critical exploration and articulation of health sovereignty (see Kassam et al. 2010).  This spawned further research in indigenous communities in North America as well as other mountain regions of the world.

Health sovereignty relies on knowledge.  Ecological knowledge is derived from the web of interactions between humans, plants, animals, natural forces and land forms.  For example, presence of knowledge about medicinal plants is directly connected to their use.  In addition, researchers can contribute to health sovereignty by building on local and indigenous knowledge and generating new insights that are practicable for novel realities.

In this newsletter, our research group at Cornell University provides contemporary and compelling examples of collaborative research with indigenous communities that contribute to health sovereignty (see Figure 1). Rajeev Goyal describes the role of schools in conserving medicinal plants as well as indigenous knowledge in Eastern Nepal to safeguard health sovereignty. Jeffrey Wall describes how communities in the Caucasus of Azerbaijan seek medicine for the chestnut blight to cure trees that are central to their livelihood and food systems.  Building on this, Morgan Ruelle describes how plant diversity within an agricultural landscape contributes to health sovereignty in the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia. Michelle Baumflek draws from her research among the Maliseet of northern Maine to demonstrate how habitat modeling can contribute to health sovereignty. Each example shows a distinct application of indigenous agency to illustrate sovereignty. Four main elements are foundational to sovereignty: the ecological system, indigenous knowledge working in tandem with institutionalized scientific understanding, the dynamism of native cultural fabric, and social governance structures. These elements, while distinct, are not exclusive but in mutual engagement, thus reinforcing each other.

Figure 1. Locations of research sites described in this special issue

Figure 1. Locations of research sites described in this special issue