By Bhogtoram Mawroh and Bankerda Chyne
About an hour’s drive away from Mawkynrew lies Umsawwar village, a quintessential Khasi upland village surrounded by grassland and patches of pine. A couple of years ago the approach road to this village was in a highly dilapidated condition. Now, it has been repaired and travelers who are traveling to Syntung can drive through the village. To the south lies the deep forest covered V-shaped valleys. Product of millions of years of erosion, which is still giving shape to the ancient tableland of Meghalaya, this mesmerizing landscape is a sight to behold. Meghalaya is part of the ancient landmasses that were once part of Gondwana whose northward movement gave birth to the Himalayas around 50 million years ago. The village of Umsawwar is located at the edge of this tableland and home to an equal ancient people – the Khasis. What makes this village all the more remarkable, apart from the antecedents of its people and the landscape, is that it is also a hotbed of agrobiodiversity.
Agrobiodiversity can be understood as the variety and variability of animals, plants, and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry, and fisheries. Out of the 250,000 to 300,000 edible plant species, humans have used only 4% or 150 to 200 plant species. Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. If the assault continues the diversity which has taken 10,000 years to come into being will disappear entirely. At the same time, some communities still maintain a high degree of agrobiodiversity. Many such are indigenous communities with Khasis being one of them.
Since 2018, NESFAS had implemented the project “No One Shall Be Left Behind Initiative: Biodiversity for Food, Nutrition, and Energy Security, Meghalaya and Nagaland, North East India”, supported by Rural Electrical Corporation (REC). Identification of micro-nutrient and climate-resilient species for increasing consumption and production is one of the main goals of this project. Lukas Pawera, an ethnobotanist from the Czech University of Life Sciences, Prague in collaboration with NESFAS helped in designing a participatory methodology for documentation of agrobiodiversity from 32 project villages in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Umsawwar had the third-highest number of food plants recorded from this survey – a total of 280 food plants. The top two villages are from Ri Bhoi, viz., Khweng and Marmain.
The Minimum Dietary Diversity for Women (FAO and FHI, 2016) classified foods into 10 standard food groups, viz., grains, white roots and tubers, and plantains; pulses (beans, peas, and lentils); Nuts and seeds; dairy; meat, poultry and fish; eggs; dark green leafy vegetables; other vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables; other vegetables; and other fruits. Although principally designed to assess diet quality, this indicator is very useful to assess the provisioning role of land uses as sources of food groups for dietary diversity. Diet dietary diversity, which contains all the food groups, is essential in reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome and cancers (Nackvak et al., 2017). In the process, it helps in fighting what is called hidden hunger (chronic lack of vitamins and minerals).
All the food groups were found to be available in Umsawwar. Since the study concentrated on food plants so data on dairy; meat, poultry and fish; and eggs was not collected during the survey. Still, information on these food groups is available from personal observation. Umsawwar does not raise cattle for milk production but instead, they rear pigs and chickens for meat and eggs. From the streams that flow through the village and the paddy fields, people harvest fish for household consumption. Thus, except for one, i.e., dairy, the other two food groups are also available in the village. The most remarkable though is not the availability of all the food groups (save one) but the diversity of food plants found from each group in the community, both cultivated and collected from the forest.
Among the food plants recorded during the survey, the maximum was documented from the Other Fruits category. Under this category, a total of 86 fruits were named with common ones like kait (banana), sohtrun (pineapple), sohphan (jackfruit), sohbrap (passion fruit), sohniamtra (orange) among others mentioned alongside those harvested from the wild like sohphie (boxmyrtle), sohthri (rattan fruit), sohshiah (similar to raspberry), sohryngkham, sohum, sohlyngkhait, sohlyngi, etc. The lowest number of food plants were from Pulses (varieties of rymbai/bean) and Nuts and Seeds (and Nei Lieh/Perilla seeds and Soh Ot/chestnut) categories having only 8 food plants each (just over 5%). Though, the highest number of food plants were recorded from the Other Fruits category it was still only 30% of the total food plants with half of the food plants coming from Other Vegetables, Green Leafy Vegetables, and Starchy Staples.
Together with the 23 species of mushroom, Umsawwar has a total of 71 food plants that belong to the other vegetable category. Some of the important food plants from this category are biscot (chayote), bindi (ladyfinger), kerala (bitter gourd), wang (taro stem), sohbaigon (eggplant), pathaw (pumpkin), lung siej (bamboo shoot), etc. An important thing to remember is that there could be many varieties of the same food plant species. For example, in the survey, seven varieties of kait were mentioned by the community while sohbaigon had 10 varieties. These are local landraces which the community has been cultivating for many generations.
On the other hand, 60% of the food plants under Green Leafy Vegetables are those that are collected from the local landscape. Some of the important ones jali, jarain, jamyrdoh, jatira, jarem, jangew, jalyniar, tyrkhang, jajer, jaum, jabar, japhri, etc. The prefix ja means food and according to the elders, many of them were a very important part of the community’s diet in the past. These greens are one of the few foods that are available to the community especially in times of food shortage. Also when crops are not ready for harvest, the community depends a lot on these greens. Some wild greens like jali and jarem are also naturally occurring alongside cultivated crops. Most of them though, are still harvested from the forest with domestication not proving to be very successful. This extensive knowledge of the wild greens is a testament to the depth and richness of the ecological knowledge of the community.
Then, there is the very important category of Starchy Staples which has six different species which together with their respective varieties result in 28 food plants. Food plants in this category are important sources of carbohydrates which is the main source of energy for the community. The Starchy Staples documented in Umsawwar are kba (rice), shriew (taro), phan karo (sweet potato), krai (millet), riewhadem (maize), and sohlah (vine potato). Except for riewhadem for which only one variety has documented the others were reported to have multiple varieties with kba, shriew, and krai having seven each. But maybe the most exceptional among all these food plants is phankaro which has a particular variety of great importance. This is the variety of phankaro stem or orange flesh sweet potato. Foods which are highly rich in Vitamin A provides a boost to the immune system and helps prevents serious conditions like early onset of blindness. In Africa, the promotion of cultivation of orange flesh sweet potato is a very important initiative in the fight against malnutrition.
All this agrobiodiversity is the result of the efforts of custodian farmers like Tronila Lynshiang. A resident of Umsawwar she is an ardent supporter of NESFAS and has vast traditional knowledge based on farming and natural resources management. She is part of the ALC (Agroecology Learning Circle) and PGS (Participatory Guarantee System) initiatives of NESFAS working towards augmenting food security and achieving food sovereignty for her community of Umsawwar. Originally belonging to Khliehasem village, she moved to Umsawwar when she got married in 1998. Her husband is a school teacher in the village and together they have nine children, five boys, and four girls. It was Kong Tronila who introduced the phankaro stem into the community. She got the seeds from a village called Mawlang in Ri Bhoi. Through the sharing of seeds in the community, this variety is now available with everyone in the village. Planting usually starts from May with harvesting done in November. From her field, Tronila can harvest up to 40-50kg of phankaro stem in a year. The product is used for household consumption.
The rich agrobiodiversity that is available in Umsawwar has been made possible by the efforts of indigenous farmers who have a deep knowledge of not just agriculture but also the ecology of the local landscape. This, in turn, has turned the village of Umsawar into a lighthouse whose example is to be emulated for the struggle against malnutrition, especially hidden hunger. Ritchi et al (2018), estimated that nearly half of the two billion people suffering from hidden hunger are living in India. More than 80% of the Indian population risk deficiencies in calcium, vitamin A, B12, folate, in addition to lysine limitation, with more localized deficiencies (<25% population) in iron, zinc, and vitamin B6 because of a combination of a monotonous cereal-dominated diet lacking in diversity, and overall insufficient food intake. Umsawwar’s agrobiodiversity and food plants like phankaro stem hold the solution to these problems. Not just the state of Meghalaya but the entire country and the globe needs to learn the lessons of Umsawwar. Only then the fight against malnutrition can be won.
FAO & FIE (2016). Minimum dietary diversity for women Minimum: A guide for measurement. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Nachvak, SM, Abdollahzad, H, Mostafai, R, Moradi, S, Pasdar, Y, Rezaei, M, and Esksndari, S (2017). Dietary Diversity Score and Its Related Factors among Employees of Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences. Clinical Nutrition Research, 6 (4), 247-255.
Ritchie, H, Reay, DS, Higgins, P (2018). Quantifying, Projecting, and Addressing India’s Hidden Hunger. Frontiers in the sustainable food system, 2, 1-13.