Sunday, August 31, 2008

Water for the Pima

A few months ago, I published a post about the Pima Indians (Akimel O'odham) of Arizona. The Pima are one of the most heart-wrenching examples of the disease of civilization afflicting a society after a nutrition transition. Traditionally a healthy agricultural people, they now have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world.

The trouble all started when their irrigation waters were diverted upstream in the late 19th century. Their traditional diet of corn, beans, squash, fish, game meats and gathered plant foods became impossible. They became dependent on government food programs, which provided them with white flour, sugar, lard and canned goods. Now they are the subjects of scientific research because of their staggering health problems.

I'm happy to report that after more than 30 years of activism, lawsuits and negotiation, the Pima and neighboring tribes have reached an agreement with the federal government that will restore a portion of their original water. Of the 2 million acre-feet of water the Pima were estimated to have used since before the 16th century, the settlement will restore 653,500. An acre-foot is approximately the personal water use of one household. The settlement also provides federal funds for reconstructing old irrigation canals.

Now we will see how the Pima will use it. Will they return to an agricultural lifestyle, perhaps with the advantages of modern technology? Or will they lease the water rights for money and continue to live off Western foods? Perhaps some of both. They are definitely aware that Western food is causing their health problems, and that they could regain their health by eating traditional foods. However, white flour "fry bread", sugar and canned meat have been around for so long they are also a cultural tradition at this point. Only time will tell which path they choose.


Unknown said...

The post reminded me of problems with our system of foreign aid. As it is, we try to help other countries through programs that benefit mostly the governments of those countries and not necessarily the poorest of the citizens. We also send cheap western food which of course is better than no food but according to author/researchers such as Raj Patel and Vandana Shiva, many of the countries we send to actually have enough food to feed the starving. They're just not distributing it to those who can't afford it. In my view, the best foreign aid would support local and sustainable growers as well as educational programs with an emphasis on health, diet and ecology.

Gyan said...

Do Pima consume vegetable oils?
Is thr flour available to them fresh?. I am from India so I dont know how fresh is flour in US generally?.
(The problem may be a deadly combination of PUFA and sugar).

Stephan Guyenet said...


According to a paper I read, they now get about 5.5% of their calories from polyunsaturated fat, out of 35% total fat. That means their total fat intake is about 16% PUFA, which means they must eat some vegetable oil. How much is anyone's guess.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Oh and I have no idea how fresh their flour is, but white flour has very little fat in it if that's where you're going.

AngloAmerikan said...

I see canned meat is mentioned. Is there anything specifically wrong with canned meat? I often argue that canned goods are quite good due to minimal preservatives if any at all and no leaching out of nutrients due to the food being cooked in the can. Also with fish the bones are rendered edible.

Stephan Guyenet said...


I don't know whether or not canned meat is healthy. It does seem to often appear alongside white flour, sugar and vegetable oil when the disease of civilization appears, but I don't know whether it contributes to the problem. White flour doesn't seem to require anything else to wreak its havoc.

I don't worry about eating canned sardines, salmon etc., but I do try to eat most of my meat fresh.

Gyan said...

5.5%en PUFA isnt that bad. I try consciously to minimize PUFA and yet I average 4%. The doctors and media tell us to consume 10% PUFA.

If Pima get obese on 5.5% PUFA that probably indicates genetic factors-they are not just adapted to wheat yet.

Stephan Guyenet said...


You're right, 5.5% isn't as bad as it could be. It may be about the ratio of n-6 to n-3 though. If they aren't getting n-3 then that could be way too much n-6.

There are probably some genetic factors at play. However, the Pima eat a poor version of the American diet. If you look at poor Americans specifically, they have high rates of obesity and diabetes as well. So their genetic susceptibility doesn't have to be that strong.