Phrang Roy, better known as Bah Phrang, was born and raised in Shillong as an urban child, a step removed from his Khasi heritage tied to the land. He now works to preserve the knowledge of indigenous communities to ensure the children of today do not lose their links to their identity.
As chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, an organisation active in 41 villages in Meghalaya, he promotes indigenous forms of knowledge through food, agriculture and biodiversity.
He is also an international councillor for Slow Food International, and the organiser of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, a biannual event in Turin in Italy that celebrates sustainable food and biodiversity. A key part of the event is Indigenous Terra Madre, organised by Roy, which highlights the issues of people from such communities around the world.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Roy spoke of how his awakening to his indigenous identity came about while working in the administrative services in Maharashtra, about his efforts to strengthen indigenous cultures in Meghalaya, and his conviction that different systems of knowledge can work together for the betterment of such communities, especially in the face of climate change.
How did you come to be associated with the indigenous movement?
In 1975, I was working as an Indian Administrative Services officer in Maharashtra on a seed distribution campaign in Bandhara, which was very successful. When they transferred me to Thane, I tried to implement the same programme there. But the Warli community there refused our seeds, saying, “We have our own varieties, we do not need government seeds.”
I realised then that they had knowledge we could not access and it got me thinking about biodiversity. I wanted to highlight this because it is not as if all of us are born activists for indigenous people or women’s rights. Circumstances have shaped us. But all too often, we just do our work because we do our work. Our career and salary and comforts are important. There is no environment where you can have this understanding.
One aspect I like about Slow Food is the idea that food is a celebration. This is very important. In all our cultures in India and elsewhere, we have always looked at food as a celebration and not just production. Unfortunately, governments speak only about production, how to bring prices down and output up.
I think that is an advantage in indigenous communities – that they have access to the sources of their food that maybe a Dalit does not because land is an issue. If today it is said that indigenous people are the stewards of culture, it is because they are still connected to their lands. And once that connection is not there, it is quite difficult to carry on.
You said you never learned your mother tongue in school. Did you speak it at home?
When I did my Senior Cambridge, our options for study were French, Italian, Urdu or Hindi. I did not even have the option of my mother tongue. In terms of education, it was English-dominated.
But in Shillong, you are in your own habitat, so your relationships with your relatives bring in information about yourself. And in mannerisms, we were not completely westernised. Although we were English in school and in our table manners, our Khasi values were there.
My command over my mother tongue is quite weak. After some time, it became, like in many parts of India, half-Khasi and half-English. There are words you stop using because those original words, particularly those that concern the rural world, are no longer relevant to us because we do not see them. Even when we speak of shifting cultivation now, we say “shifting cultivation” because we never speak about it anymore.
A few months ago, a person from Mexico, who is helping us understand agroecology, came with us to these conservation areas. We came across a patch of land. He said it was beautiful and asked if we knew what it was. We said it was a patch of land in the forest. One of the older people then told us the phrase they use for it. That phrase translated into English as “garden in the forest”. That was where most communities nurtured wild edibles. But those of us who had been urbanised had lost those words.
So with the loss of these words, do you also begin to lose the concepts underlying it?
I now understand the concept of a garden in the forest because I work with agrobiodiversity. Twenty years ago, I probably would not have understood it because my closeness to the language or that sort of work was not that strong. That is one of the very big challenges we face.
What we have done at the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society is start what we call a biodiversity walk. Once in three months, depending on the season, we have elders and children walk through a forest, and as we walk, the elders identify what is important. And we have a student of botany or someone take a photograph or make a recording of it.
At the end, we take these wild edibles and make a meal of it in the afternoon. People like that.
I think now, even globally, people are beginning to recognise, at least when you hear discussions like these, that the issues of indigenous people are not only issues of being poor. But that, very often, they have in their knowledge systems information that is quite unique and important, especially today when we face the challenge of climate change.
Here is an example: I went to a village in Meghalaya where they showed me the markings for a particular river. There is an insect there and when that insect crosses a particular mark, it will be a year of flooding. And it always happens.
Does that work even now with the weather seemingly more unpredictable?
Yes it does, because these are localised systems.
Another such system is when the people see thousands of worms going towards the river. They know it will be a dry year and they change their cropping pattern. They grow more millet than rice. But when the worms start moving to higher ground, it means there will be rain and floods. So they grow paddy.
Most communities have this sort of knowledge that we, in our systems, do not acknowledge. Our challenge is to see how we use that knowledge system and combine it with science.
Are there people working towards that?
Yes. We had the principle scientist of a national organisation come to Meghalaya once. We were sitting atop a hill where the main road passes and the communities live 3,000 steps below. We were talking about the impact of climate change and the community said they had been moving their crops higher every year.
At this, the scientist asked me, “Do you realise Phrang, what they are saying? If the heat goes up the way it is, 60 years from now, all these crops will come to this level. What if they can’t go higher? Your traditional knowledge will not help then. This is where you need agricultural research.”
I thought that was a very important lesson. Our knowledge systems, both traditional and modern, have gaps. Are there ways in which we can make them speak to each other?
How do you learn from the knowledge systems of others, given that each framework is so localised and relevant to one’s own context? At what points can such interactions occur?
It is difficult for two reasons, in my experience. The first is that within indigenous communities themselves, there is, because of our respect for elders, a certain amount of romanticising of that knowledge.
By that, I mean there are certain things they do that I think need to change. In my community, for example, when somebody comes to your house, you have to offer them paan. But that has caused so much cancer in our area. So, I think some sort of change should take place.
The other problem is with science – the indigenous people find it difficult to understand this “voodoo” language. So, for a person coming from another knowledge system, some land might appear to be barren. He may use that as an argument to take that land away from the community.
These are the sort of problems both sides face. We need to create a platform or a forum where we acknowledge the two as different, and equal, knowledge systems. That is the problem. We do not acknowledge them as equal.
What happens when the government’s views on development enter the picture? Or market pressures?
The forces of both the government and the market are playing havoc with the lives of people. Not because they have any evil intentions, per se. They have their own agenda, which all of us, including indigenous peoples, have.
I think, first and foremost, it is important for indigenous communities to be connected to each other. Then they can speak from a position of strength. And once connected, we should give them a chance to discuss among themselves and with others what they can gain from this sharing of information.
When it comes to companies, their interests are much higher. Therefore, the people must be encouraged to say no – when they feel it is right to say no. And trained groups such as activists and non-governmental organisations have a role to play in this aspect.
We should, as far as possible, try to be inclusive and involve everyone, but there is also a stage where you must defend your own interests, at times when you must empower people to stand up for themselves.