INDIGENOUS FOOD SYSTEM: A BULWARK AGAINST FOOD INSECURITY

On the way to the world famous Sohra lay the village of Sohrarim, which as claimed by its residents, was the original location of the now famed tourist destination. The village has one of the oldest Churches in the region and a sacred forest inside which is a depression claimed by the locals to be the resting place of a boat long forgotten from the time when the entire area was underwater. The village has a football field along whose margins is a path leading to the edge of the tableland. And lying at the end of a steep descent of more than 3000 steps is the village of Nongtraw. From the viewpoint, the village looks like a “slice of paradise”.

Nongtraw has roughly 40 households and was founded by the two brothers of the Nongtraw clan who were the first to settle in the area. After they left the place four clans, viz., Dohling, Rani, Khongsit and Khonglam came to the area and established the village in the 1950’s. These four clans came from different directions in search of suitable lands for cultivation. Establishment of a school in the village, epidemics and better governance attracted other families to flock to the village. Nongtraw is remarkable for the fact that its inhabitants are deeply committed to preserving and defending their indigenous food system based on shifting cultivation or rep shyrti.

Under this system, the community is acutely aware of the close relationship between forests and agriculture and between nature and culture. Without good forest cover the productivity in the field also goes down, the community explained. Though fallow periods vary from place to place a period of 7-8 years is considered sufficient for allowing the landscape to rejuvenate. The present plot being cultivated had remained fallow for more than a decade. Not just during plot selection are ecological principles followed by the community but during farming as well. The multiple crops grown in the plot, promote a rich biodiversity unlike the monoculture under industrial farming. Such ecological practises are internationally recognised as being very important for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Apart from being ecologically friendly, significant benefits also accrue to the community in terms of food security. The multiple varieties are supplemented by collection from the wilds assure a regular supply of food throughout the year. Regularity in fact, is a very important attribute of food security: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences in order to lead a healthy and active life” (Food and Agricultural Organisation). Indigenous food systems fulfil all the criteria mentioned, i.e., regularity, access and safety for creating a resolute and vibrant food secure community. NESFAS is therefore working closely with The Indigenous Partnership for Agro-biodiversity and Food Sovereignty (TIP) headed by Phrang Roy to form a global Indigenous Food Communities Alliance (IFCA).

In general food procurement constitutes over half of the disposable income of low income households. This leaves very little for fulfilling other consumption needs and savings for investments. This is circumvented when the community produces most of its own food, as in the case of Nongtraw. However, this keeps the community tied to farming which because of its subsistence nature does not bring great financial returns. As such, many in the local community supplement local food production with daily wage labour. As opportunities and markets for non-farm labour increases, this brings additional income but also reduces supply of farm labour. In this context, cash cropping becomes highly attractive. All these attractions point to a change in the political economy of the landscape, i.e., replacement of an economy of (if not total but partial) self-sufficiency by a market economy based on displacement of the importance of the local situation. Production is for the market (local and distant) rather than for the community with goods (including food) required by the community being purchased from the market. This system may sound rational but in fact it is not. The biggest danger of this change is the increasing vulnerability of the local population to market fluctuations which are an endemic feature of the global business cycle.

Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102 %, 115 %, and 204 % (FAO). This rise in prices led to food riots in different parts of the world, e.g., Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameron, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Haiti, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Latin America, Mexico, Mozambique, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Yemen, and others. The market is the place where everything can be purchased at a price but this price is out of reach for the poor. With Meghalaya being categorised as one of the least developed states of the country, there are plenty of poor people in our own State. Many of them live in rural landscapes like Nongtraw. For now they have been buffered by the shocks of the market because of the resilience of their indigenous food production system. But what will happen when that is no longer the case?

Nongtraw does take part in market transactions (commodities including food items entering and leaving the village) as a result of which items like rice have become a staple diet for the community in place of locally grown sweet potato, yam and millet. The penetration of the market though has not become all-pervasive as to make the community totally dependent on it. People may face some hardship if the market fails but they will not go to bed hungry, a sad reality for the 194 million people in India.

At the beginning of his semester course on Geography, David Harvey, eminent social scientist, often asks his students where their last meal comes from. Tracing back all the items used in the production does not reveal “whether the food has been produced by happy labourers working in a co-operative in Italy, grossly exploited labourers working under conditions of apartheid in South Africa, or wage labourers protected by adequate labour and wage agreements in Sweden”. Not just labour relations but production process also remains hidden. In search of greater yield, tons of fertilizers and pesticides dumped in the fields not only kill the soil but poison the food as well. Such practises are not surprising considering profit is the only motive.

In contrast indigenous food systems focus not only on profit but also in safety and building a trusting relationship between the community members and the local weekly markets. The community in Nongtraw have vowed to never use chemicals in their fields. This commitment was reaffirmed when a visiting farmer from Himachal Pradesh (participant of recent All India Millet Sisters Network meeting organised by NEN at the Barapani ICAR Complex) told the community how use of chemicals resulted in a lot of people falling sick in his area. Indigenous food system, in contrast to industrial farming, is based on the principles of communal good which goes beyond monetary gains.

Food is integral to indigenous rights because it represents control over the most basic requirement for decent life – affordable and safe food. When that is lost the indigenous people also lose a part of their sovereignty. Almost 70% of the food in the world is produced by small farmers, like those of Nongtraw. These small actors though are always forgotten. It happened during the Green Revolution and it is still happening now. India is a food-surplus country but still has nearly 20% of its population going hungry. Communities like Nongtraw stand as a bulwark against such a prospect for the State. The future for food security in the State will depend on whether communities like Nongtraw are forgotten again or they become the foundation on which the State designs its food production system.

“My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer” (Brenda Schoepp, inspirational speaker).

About the authors:

Bhogtoram Mawroh is working as Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management NESFAS, Shillong.

Lamphrang Diengdoh is a resident of Nongtraw who is helping the NESFAS team in conducting the study on indigenous food systems.

(This research is part of an initiative on indigenous food systems led by Bioversity International and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in close collaboration with indigenous communities, the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (TIP), Italy, the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), France and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Indonesia. This initiative creates a platform for indigenous communities to advocate for the importance of their food systems, supporting their recognition and protection. NESFAS is a partner for India.  Ethical clearance of the methodology of the Study was given by MLCU for the Nongtraw site).

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