Revival of indigenous food system: Hill paddy cultivation in Madanrtiang

Gratia Dkhar, Naphishisha Nongsiej and Bhogtoram Mawroh

“There is no alternative” or TINA was a slogan used by Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which basically meant that there was no alternative to a market economy and globalised capitalism was there to stay. Among those that suffered greatly because of this ideology was the Indigenous Food System (IFS) of countless indigenous communities around the world. Intensification, homogenisation of the food production system coupled with increased dependence on the market brought valuable income for some but increased the vulnerability to external shocks for many putting at risk their food security. Covid-19 has exacerbated this threat.

The globalised market economy is dependent on uninterrupted flows of goods and capital. Movement is paramount. This seamless motion came to a halt because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among those affected were also the indigenous communities of Meghalaya whose access to the market as a destination for their produce and source of their food was affected. During the early days of the lockdown NESFAS was informed by many of its communities that food shortage had become a big issue in their areas. This included principal staples like food grains as well as vegetables. The Government of Meghalaya tried its best to make up for the shortage but delays were inevitable. Such delays for those living at the margins meant going to bed on an empty stomach. Things have improved but the shock of that lockdown has forced some of the communities to rethink their food system strategy. One of such communities is Madanrtiang.

Madanrtiang is a village in the Bhoirymbong Block of Ri Bhoi. NESFAS had instituted an Agroecology Learning Circle (ALC) in the village to stress on the importance of preserving and promoting its rich agrobiodiversity. With the help of Bah Kynsai Borlang Shadap, the Community Facilitator appointed by NESFAS, the ALC prioritised saving of local seeds, using organic compost and protecting wild edibles in the villages as the key aspects of IFS. As the lockdown was in effect, Bah Kynsai informed the NESFAS team about the eight households from the community who had decided to revive the cultivation of hill paddy.

In the southern part of Meghalaya millet was the principle staple crop grown in the past. Research done by NESFAS found that rice was mostly bought from the market. But with the introduction of the PDS cheap rice provided under the scheme displaced millet as the staple diet. With market access improving and income opportunities rising after the formation of the State of Meghalaya, people began buying rice from the market as well. In the northern region of Ri Bhoi though, the flat valley bottoms and low hills provided an ideal landscape for rice cultivation. In fact the highest number of rice varieties (+40) reported during NESFAS’s participatory research mapping was from Marmain, a village in Ri Bhoi. This included hill as well as valley rice. Apparently in Madanrtiang this used to be the case as well. But the community stopped growing hill paddy and it is being revived only now.

In the past hill paddy was grown extensively in Madanrtiang. Muro, Muthei and Mynai were the three varieties of hill paddy that were mostly cultivated. Muro variety of hill paddy was preferred for its taste and its higher yield than Muthei, while Mynai was least preferred because of its hard texture, taste and susceptibility to infection. However, hill paddy cultivation gradually decline and in the last 15-20 years. The cultivation of hill paddy had become almost negligible in the village. This was because cultivation of the crop was previously done on communal lands. Privatization of forest land (forest land owned by individuals from within the community) reduced the land available for hill paddy cultivation. The number of family members in a household who are engaged in farming also decreased with years which also contributed to the decline.

It was during this pandemic that some farmers in the community who already have the knowledge of this type of farming decided to revive hill paddy in their land. The farmers who took the initiative are, Shildamon Lamare, Aroma Sakra, Jba Mary Lamare, Wing Lamare, Kerbah Lamare, Phai Sumer, Sngewbha Sakra, and Banylla Lamare. Fellow farmers from neighbouring villages who usually assist in their field helped them to network with famers who save seeds of hill paddy. Some farmers bought the seeds from farmers at the rate of Rupees 20 per kilogram; for some, friends and family donated seeds; while some farmers exchange one variety of seed for an equal amount of the desired variety with other farmers. Seeds were obtained from the neighbouring villages of Khliehumstem and Sohliya. Unlike in the past this time the cultivation was carried out in private plots. Hill paddy is being sown in the plot where ginger was previously planted (rotated with ginger). This is slightly different from the past practices where hill paddy was grown on new jhum fields.

The revival of the hill paddy was because of the pandemic where people faced shortage of rice and the self realisation of importance of local seeds and Agrobiodiversity by the community. Covid-19 is here to stay. The community of Madanrtiang understands this very well. In such a scenario, securing their food security means thinking in terms of food sovereignty. Rice is the main source of macro-nutrient for the people of Madanrtiang as well as Meghalaya. When this is combined with the local sources of micro-nutrients available from the local Agrobiodiversity (both collected and harvested) food security which includes nutritional adequacy is assured. Hill paddy also has potential for climate change adaptation.

Climate change models have predicted that extreme weather events are going to become normalised in the future. The recent report in Shillong Times dated 22nd July 2020 carried the news items ‘Rain spoils paddy fields in West Khasi Hills village’. It is highly probable that such an occurrence will become a regular feature. Hilly paddy provides an option during such times and the cross pollination of such varieties with those found in the valley could produce a progeny which is more resilient to climate change. The benefits of this move by the community of Madanrtiang to revive the hill paddy are therefore myriad.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced a rethink of the TINA paradigm which had retained its hegemony for more than three decades. There is indeed an alternative and that alternative is strengthening the IFS. The local indigenous community needs such a change and the world needs such transformation. One of the farmers who is part of this initiative had this to say “Ka jingthmu ka long ba nangne sha khmat ngin iai pynneh bad ban iarep kham bha shuh shu bad ban pynshlur ia kiwei ruh ba kin ia rep ia u kba lum” (My hope is that going forward there will be more people who will be encouraged to take up the cultivation of hill paddy). In the other villages of NESFAS similar attempts are being made by the community to revive and strengthen the IFS. It is hoped more will follow in the future as well.

NOTE: This article has also been published in Sunday Times (Sunday supplement of the Shillong Times newspaper).

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