By Nawaz Yasin Islam
Increased efficiency, ef fectiveness and sustain ability of any development process bank on Indigenous Knowledge (IK) as a significant resource. This forms the basis for community-level decision making in areas pertaining to food security, human and animal health, education, natural resource management and other vital economic and social activities.
Highlighting this aspect, and trying to amplify local voices in the global audience, the North East Slow Food and Agro-biodiversity Society (NESFAS), in collaboration with the Indigenous Partnership for Agro-biodiversity and Food Sovereignty, Slow Food International, Meghalaya Rural Development Society (MRDS) and North East Region Community Resources Management Project (NERCORMP), organized a two-day programme to emphasize on agro-biodiversity through preservation of traditional knowledge while celebrating traditional values and food.
The third edition of ‘Mei Ram-ew’ festival, aimed at celebrating indigenous communities and bio-cultural diversity took place at the apt location, ‘Law Kyntang’ in Mawphlang on December 14 and 15.
The two-day event saw the propagation of diverse local agro-ecological solutions to defend the rights of indigenous people to grow their own tested and tried food crops, maintain their cultural distinctiveness and protect the biodiversity they safeguard. This is objective of the Indigenous Partnership for Agro-biodiversity and Food Sovereignty (the Indigenous Partnership) with the steadfast support of International foundations like The Christensen Fund of California (TCF).
The food festival held at Mawphlang every year is not just about food but about the underlying principles governing food sovereignty of indigenous peoples. Similar festivals have been organized between 2010 and 2012 in Peru, Nicaragua, Kenya, Mongolia, Thailand and North East India with TCF, IFAD and local funding, which, along with the 2010 Cusco Meeting and the 2012 Banaue Workshop, have become important entry points for building alliances and expanding networks around food sovereignty, indigenous wellbeing and ecological approaches to climate change adaptation.
“If you look at the resilience of the ecosystems against the onslaught of commercialization, it is believed that the need of the hour is to collect the voices of people who could help us preserve the indigenous and cultural diversity. There is a similarity in the sense that cultural diversity is synonymous to the settlement of indigenous people. They coexist,” said Phrang Roy, coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agro-biodiversity and Food Sovereignty and Chairman of NESFAS.
Spreading the word on Agro-biodiversity is a goal that Phrang Roy has tried to promote.
This is a continued effort because agricultural biodiversity is not only the result of human activity but human life is dependent on it, not just for the immediate provision of food and other natural resources based goods, but for the maintenance of areas of land and waters that will sustain production and maintain agro-ecosystems and the wider biological and environmental services.
Though the terminology was relatively new for people of far flung areas, it has actually been part of an indigenous community’s lifestyle. They have the indigenous knowledge to naturally and carefully select food. Farmers herders and fishers over millennia have been the custodians of this knowledge.
Roy faced a dilemma on conveying the message and importance of Agro-biodiversity to people. “The best way to convey this message, I felt, is by people showcasing their food. They would be surprised to see the numerous varieties and ingredients that they have. In any normal Indian meal preparation there are ingredients used in huge numbers unlike Westerners who may simply have only 3-4 essential ingredients,” Roy pointed out
“Such events show that most food is foraged from the forests. Speaking to the communities following the end of the day’s proceedings, they say that the Government has come with offers and schemes to increase productivity but self sustenance has never been a Government priority. Money is playing a dominant role in practically everything and it seems to be the only way out for development,” Phrang Roy said.
Identification of species was stressed in this two-day event with Botany department students of Synod College coming forward to help identify and focus on the ethno-botanical aspect of this process. This can be a great step in raising awareness on the magnificent diversity that comes as a blessing in the hills.
Roy, in a brief interaction, said that the importance of such an event came about because of climate change which is affecting crops here and threatens food security. “We are so busy working for institutions that we tend to overlook the other intricacies. Even officers here know a lot but the job description entails that they walk through a huge field of diversity but tend to overlook everything in the search of ‘high-yielding varieties’ (HYV),” he said.
Another important aspect overlooked while organizing this event is to find ways to bring peace by working in a manner that does violate the rule of nature and also does not hamper development. Policies should be more sustainable and respectful of nature and be oriented to satisfy our needs rather than our greed, Roy averred.
Slow food is one way of celebrating the wonders of culture and food. Incorporating this with proper scientific research can enhance productivity and strengthen sustainability.
Universally, indigenous peoples are knowledge holders on food and environment. Capacity-building to use this knowledge for contemporary nutrition and promotion of health is important. But indigenous peoples also face dangers of loss of this knowledge because it is not transmitted to younger members of the society.
Phrang Roy believes it is important to propagate this knowledge. Additionally, indigenous peoples are also the most disenfranchised and poorest members of the larger society or nation, and they are targeted by most governments for health improvement and development.
But it has been shown that development leads to dietary change which in turn lead to increasing risk of chronic disease such as obesity and diabetes.
This unfortunate consequence of development can be moderated through increased attention to knowledge of diet and health already contained within the culture. Knowledge about the nutritional value of traditional food can be used to promote health.
The gathering on Friday comprised communities and enthusiasts who sat for a workshop that touched on several important aspects revolving around the entire idea of holding on to the indigenous roots. This workshop was an outcome of the suggestions of communities who participated in the Stakeholder meeting on November 24.
Following an introduction on the objectives and the rights of the indigenous people by Phrang Roy, the proceedings saw several informative sessions that dispelled common myths.
Prasert Trakansuphakon, regional director of the Indigenous Knowledge and People’s Network, Thailand spoke at length on the actual benefits of rotational farming which has otherwise been regarded as a ‘land destroyer’ method.
It was portrayed to be a sustainable and culturally rich technique which has been misunderstood and criminalized as a cause of deforestation.
Melari Nongrum, department of Social Science, MLCU spoke on ‘Wild edible plants and how to use and conserve gifts of forest.’ Bibiana Ranee, grassroots activist from Nongtraw village took the platform to educate the gathering on how to revive forgotten crops (like millet) and also shared her experience about the Terra Madre held in Italy.
Banteilang Rumnong, one of the speakers in the workshop spoke about the prospects of harvesting broom grass as a means of sustainable livelihood. Broom grass has received a fair share of criticism over the years on its usefulness but Rumnong asserted, “Everything that grows on mother earth has a purpose. It is only commercialization that takes things towards the wrong direction.”
Pius Ranee, member of the Youth Food Movement stressed on having a feeling of ownership towards this venture.
The declaration drafted by Phrang Roy following the day’s proceedings incorporated the voices of the communities who shared the same goals.
The highlight of the main festivities on December 15 was culture cooked into delicacies. Every spoon of the mouth watering dishes invoked a surge of passion to revive something that the new age world fails to see…indigenous greatness.
Thirty seven stalls representing the north east and several districts had something different to offer, contrary to the mushrooming hotels each offering Chinese, Indian and continental. There was something to learn in every step taken to move from one stall to another.
Though the much sought after item undoubtedly came in a cup (rice beer!), the various preparations and ignored edibles foraged from nature kept the crowd swaying to and fro from the coupon counter to the stalls.
The diversity of locally sourced ingredients that make up the culinary traditions kept everyone glued to food items before making a buy.
The stalls that stole the show (based on a few visitors’ judgment mashed with mine) were the ones that took control over one’s tongue.
The Karbi Anglong stall offered Kemung (delicacies cooked in bamboo stalk) and the hugely appreciated luscious pork pieces beaded together on a bamboo stick.
The East Khasi Hills stall offered Phan Karo (sweet potato) and Pashor-Khleh-Nei along with the usual but highly demanding Ja Doh with sausages.
The Diengsnong stall of East Khasi Hills presented fried millet as a food option. The Jaintia Hills stall had rice and meat preparations which was cooked keeping local tastes in mind. Ja Presbin and Ja Riew hadem were instant hits. East Garo Hills stall offered a simple chicken preparation with rice powder (Do-o-galda gisi pura) that invoked a surge of fulfillment is every taste bud!
Apart from cooked food, the various raw edibles were also put up in majority of the stalls. Local varieties of ginger, yam, wild citrus, berries and lemons were picked up by everyone. An innovative inclusion was that of a stall focusing on Traditional Healing practices together with one displaying handicrafts. Merging education with fun, the stall by MS Swaminathan Research Foundation informed the crowd on the different millet varieties that they were working on and could be propagated.
There were 7 varieties of Finger Millet, 7 varieties of Little Millet and 5 varieties of Italian Millet on display.
Consume green; an organization from New Delhi also propagated the use of millet by actually cooking ‘live’ in front of the crowd.
Such food festivals, apart from bringing out the possible combinations that you can have in your plate, also involve promoting community – based grain bank, developing urban and rural food insecurity atlases to understand the factors involved in food insecurity, providing livelihood training to women farmers particularly in the “farmers’ suicide hotspots”, etc.
The Mei Ramew festival aims to make agricultural research, currently dictated by scientific research, to also incorporate the expertise of farmers in the area.
The government, NGOs and private sector should work together in empowering communities, for which money is a criterion and Phrang Roy is leading the battle up front. NESFAS will also host the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2014 in Meghalaya. (The first, held in Jokkmokk, Sweden, in June 2011 brought together 360 participants from 60 indigenous groups.)