The Raid Iapngar Cluster under the Khyrim Syiemship or Chieftanship of the Ri Bhoi District of Meghalaya is a collection of around 16 villages. Among the 16 is the village of Sohliya, one of the oldest in the cluster, where reside the Karbi, a community ethnically belonging to the Karbi Anglong State of Assam, India; the rest 15 are inhabited by the Khasi (Bhois).
The Bhois and the Karbi differ from each other in more than one aspect including origin, cultural practices, language, and food, among others. The differences, it would be expected as in most other such cases, would be grounds for conflict between them and the other communities of the cluster. In fact, there have been reports of ethnic clashes between the two communities in the last few decades in the region. However, the people of Sohliya have been Living peacefully among the Bhois for generations. A common cause ties the communities together speaking volumes of the conviviality that is born out of a united purpose, cultivation of their land.
“Ka Rep Bara,” meaning working together, is one of the most unique aspects of the people of the Raid Iapngar Cluster. Till today, the “Rep Bara” unites the communities, as it did for decades, by bringing them together to till each other lands. They slash and burn, plow, plant paddy and even harvest the crops together. Every time a family from the cluster requires help, all the villages contribute with labour. This tradition of community farming has become a part of their culture and further strengthens the sense of unity.
Over the past two decades, international efforts have been made to improve the rights of indigenous peoples, to bring awareness to their issues, including their engagement in developing policy and programmes in order to improve their livelihoods. In the First Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995 – 2004) , proclaimed as thus by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/163 of 21 December 1993 with the main objective of strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health, the United Nations created the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as well as the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. During the Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (2005 – 2015), there have been further initiatives such as the creation of Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007 was a major step for the United Nations as the Declaration had been debated for over twenty years.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. At its twelfth session, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues reviewed health as one of its mandated areas and stated the right to health materializes through the well-being of an individual as well as the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural well-being of the whole community.
Interestingly, this year, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is hosting its 15th Session from the 9th to 20th May and has taken up the theme of: “Indigenous peoples: conflict, peace and resolution” at the UN Headquaters, New York.
How does this concern us? Bringing the topic closer home, we could, perhaps, look at an event that took place in Meghalaya that brought Indegeniety in focus. The Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) 2015, with the theme of ‘The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives and Actions,’ was organised by NESFAS along with The Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiverity & Food Soverignity (TIP) and Slow Food International with the support of the Government of Meghalaya. This served as a platform for representatives of 169 Indigenous Communities from 62 countries to discuss the issues that they considered important to them.
As a result of close interaction with these communities at the ITM 2015 and previously over three years of dialogue with local Indigenous communities of India (Meghalaya, Nagaland and Koli Hills), Thailand, Kenya, Ethiopia, Peru and representatives of other countries and participation in meetings at Terra Madre gatherings in Turin, Italy in 2012 and 2014; a document titled the ‘Shillong Declaration’ was drafted that would reflect the areas of concern of the people, based on the sessions held at ITM 2015.
What does the document say? Stating that everyone has a fundamental right to good, clean and fair food and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage, tradition and culture that make this possible, the communities have stated, “We, the representatives of 169 Indigenous food communities and delegates from 62 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Arctic, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific, who have gathered in Shillong, North East India, from 3 to 7 November 2015, to participate at the Second Indigenous Terra Madre, hereby agree by consensus to the following commitments and proposals for action:”
To have a better sense of the document, we could look at the first few points put forth:
- We highlight the fundamental and spiritual connection that people have to the Earth, and how that relationship is the foundation for the health or ill of our food system;
- We reiterate that the agrobiodiversity created and maintained by Indigenous Peoples and rural communities throughout the world plays an essential part in achieving agroecological production for assuring improved nutrition for all;
- We reaffirm that traditional knowledge plays an essential part in ensuring that agrobiodiversity and agroecological practices are maintained and made available for current and future generations;
- We proclaim that Indigenous Peoples have already demonstrated the many ways in which agrobiodiversity can be used to adapt and build resilience. Adaptation to change, especially climate change, requires the use of the diversity present in and around production and consumption systems. Indigenous food systems can offer solutions to these current global challenges;
- We call upon Governments and other constitutional bodies to make certain that Indigenous Peoples and local communities who care for and maintain their lands and territories be allowed to continue to protect, sustainably use, restore and enrich the variety of seeds, breeds, fish, bees and other living organisms they host. They must be respected and acknowledged in appropriate ways for their stewardship role and capacity to generate marvellously diverse food for people and cultures. They must be encouraged to nourish and strengthen the languages and traditional knowledge, practices and institutions that evolved with their agrobiodiversity, and be secured in their spiritual domains, collective governance, and management of relevant land, water and natural resources;
The document does direct us to absorb a few new words into our vocabulary. Agrobiodiversity – or agricultural biodiversity, is a vast subset of biodiversity that encompasses all of the genetic resources related to food and agricultural. It includes not only the crops, livestock breeds, and fish species we consume but all of their wild relatives and the species – from soil microbes to pollinator – that support agricultural ecosystems and productivity. Agroecology – a branch of science concerned with the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems and practices.
The document was presented on the 13th of May at a side event at the 15th UN Permanent Forum this year by the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (TIP) with the theme of ‘Harveting Peace: Indigenous Perspectives on Food and Well Being’ by Mr. Phrang Roy, Coordinator, TIP and Chairman of NESFAS that briefly reported on the outcomes of the ITM 2015 .
Our interest in the document perhaps depends on whether we consider ourselves as ‘indigenous’ and whether it speaks to us where the Oxford English dictionary defines the word ‘indigenous’ as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” We might want to listen to the voices that project “The Future We Want,” and also mull over the potential of good, clean and fair food leading us to “Harversting Peace” together.
By, Raja Sharma Rymbai
*The Article appeared in The Sunday Shillong on 15th May 2016