Food and Indigeneity in Belize

By Alia Karim


As many of you were aware, last Thursday October 16th was World Food Day! I attended a discussion by Dr. Filiberto Penados, adjunct professor of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto and founder of the Tumul K’in Centre of Learning. The subject of Penados’ talk was his centre in Belize that was established to teach about agroecology and indigeneity. His discussion raised questions such as, what do we mean by indigeneity? And, how can students begin to understand indigenous food cultures?

Penados explained that Belize was only made independent (from British colonial rule) in 1981, so they are facing challenges of developing countries (e.g. food insecurity). Belize has also seen an erosion of its traditional Mayan culture, yet an indigenous movement has remained. In reaction, Penados and other educators wanted the Tumul K’in Centre to ‘decolonize’ education. For example, their educators incorporated indigenous knowledge into the centre’s curriculum. Penados even gave the centre a Mayan name meaning “new day/light”. By incorporating indigenous knowledge, the centre has challenged the “hegemony of Western knowledge”—namely, by asking who ‘owns’ knowledge, or “who knows?”

About four years after the centre was established, one person criticized it for not cooking Mayan food, which he thought it to be an important aspect of their culture. This introduced a conversation about food insecurity and indigeneity. Penados remarked that many people in Belize eat less nutritious processed foods from stores and not indigenized, healthy food from agroecological farms. He advocated for agroecology because he claimed that the practice re-introduces a significant connection between people, traditional foods, and the land they inhabit: “The less we produce our own food, the less we eat traditional foods… this changes our relationship with the land”.

In May 2014, 10 students from the University of Toronto participated in a collaborative 8-day program in Belize, guided by Dr. Penados and Dr. June Larkin. This group met two indigenous groups in Belize: the Garifuna and Q’eachi Maya. Visiting students participated in activities such as tasting traditional fruits and plants (e.g. cacao fruit) on Mayan farms, and making chocolate from scratch. They were also exposed to various stories of food, for instance, that the long-lasting cassava vegetable was so important to Africans who came to the Caribbean, and is thus intimately linked to African diaspora.

The students explained that the trip challenged their assumptions about indigenous peoples and developed consciousness of food (e.g. production, consumption, waste), which they would like to see more of in Toronto. One student who identified as black Metis was so inspired by her time in Belize that she started an organization, Sisters of the Soil, where indigenous women and women of colour who look at connections between food, story and indigeneity.

For more information on the Belize program please contact Dr. June Larkin, Equity Studies Program Director, (

For more information on Sisters of the Soil, see their website.

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