UNESCO Conference at the UA to Focus on Desert Food, Water
International experts in food and water systems will arrive in Tucson to meet with UA scholars and community members invested in sustainability.

By UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Oct. 31, 2016

San Simon harvest.JPG

Heirloom vegetables from the San Simon school in the Tohono O'odham Gu Vo district
Heirloom vegetables from the San Simon school in the Tohono O'odham Gu Vo district (Photo: Moses Thompson)

Experts panelists from Oman, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Peru and Mexico will discuss their experiences with water management and water scarcity, and their work toward just food systems and sovereignty, during an international conference to be held this week at the University of Arizona. 

During the 2016 ITKI ● UNESCO ● City of Gastronomy conference, titled "Food and Water in Arid Lands: Dialogues Across Contemporary and Traditional Knowledge," experts also will share their insights on the roles of local knowledge in adaptation and climate change.

Organizers expect about 230 attendees, including students, faculty, community members and international dignitaries, interested in hearing and participating in a dialogue that incorporates traditional knowledge, academic science and citizen science. Attendees also will include guests from other United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, Cities of Gastronomy.

"We are interested in fostering more productive dialogue and long-term collaboration among those conversant with both traditional knowledge and 'modern' knowledge of desert food and water resources," said Gary Paul Nabhan, founding director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies and the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Food and Water Security. "Such collaborations can potentially move us all toward a more just and resilient future in the face of climate change."

Tucson is the logical site for the conference, given its location in one of the most biologically diverse and culturally rich regions of the world, with plenty to share with — and learn from — those living in other arid regions. Much of this learning can come through broader explorations of traditional knowledge around dry farming techniques, water conservation and sustainable desert harvests. Such cultural history is essential to food security in arid environments.

The city of Tucson was selected last December as a World City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, becoming the first U.S. city to receive such a designation. At the same time, the UA launched the Center for Regional Food Studies, which plays an essential role in helping the city carry out educational and outreach commitments connected to being a City of Gastronomy.

"In Tucson, we have many people in our neighborhoods and schools trying different ways to harvest water and grow food," said John Paul Jones III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a presenting sponsor of the conference. "We have practitioners and scholars of traditional knowledge, academic scientists looking at emerging technologies and synergies, and citizen scientists testing new ideas."

Specifically, traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous communities are essential to the legitimacy and efficacy of the conference. In addition to the conference's active solicitation of panelists whose experience or expertise is rooted in traditional knowledge, conference partners also raised funds specifically earmarked for travel and accommodations for tribal members and indigenous groups as conference participants and as attendees.

The UA is co-hosting the conference with the city of Tucson, Pima County, the International Traditional Knowledge Institute (ITKI)/UNESCO and other local and global partners.

Also represented during the conference are affiliates across multiple UA units, including the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; the School of Geography and Development; American Indian Studies; the Department of Mexican American Studies; and the Center for Regional Food Studies. Others include representatives of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, San Xavier Cooperative Farm of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, Waterlock LC3, the NGO Tohono O'odham Community Action and the Black Mesa Trust.

The central role of food heritage also will be reflected in the conference menus, which will feature traditional crops that have sustained peoples of the region for centuries. A planned dinner in downtown Tucson will enable conference attendees visiting from around the globe to connect to the richness of foods, cultures and environments in the region. The conference also will offer excursions to San Xavier del Bac, the San Xavier Co-op Farm and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Extra info


UA Student Union Memorial Center, 1303 E University Blvd., North Ballroom


Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5

The conference is free, but registration is required. Space is limited. Registration is available online.


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Mika Galilee-Belfer

UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences