Nongtraw, a village solely inhabited by the Khasi, has diverse traditional food systems supported by jhum (shifting cultivation), home gardens, forest and water bodies.
A United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation report, highlighted by Mongabay-India, says that the Indigenous food system of the Khasi community in Nongtraw village in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, India, offers lessons in climate resilience and sustainable food systems.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report on ‘Indigenous People’s Food Systems’, co-published by FAO and the Alliance of Biodiversity International, and CIAT includes the profiles of eight Indigenous Peoples food systems from around the world, including Uttarakhand and Meghalaya in India.
The Mongabay-India article points out that in Nongtraw, a village solely inhabited by the Khasi, diverse traditional food systems supported by jhum (shifting cultivation), home gardens, forest and water bodies, shying away from synthetic chemicals in food production and community-led landscape management underpin this Indigenous food system’s resilience to climate change and sustainability. Lying in one of the world’s wettest regions, honey is a sought after resource by the Khasi Indigenous community. They go into the forests to collect it. Once they reach a beehive, they introduce themselves to the bees, “informing the bees” that they will only take what is required. This legacy of respect for local agrobiodiversity by not disrupting the ecological balance has stood the Khasi community of Nongtraw in good stead when it comes to climate change-linked food stress, according to the United Nations report.
Nongtraw lies along the mid-slope of a deep gorge in the Cherrapunji region, a highly dissected plateau along the southern margins of the Meghalaya Plateau. It sits in an important centre of crop origin and diversity, and the domestication of local plants is ongoing. The UN report emphasizes that wild fruits of yesterday are the domesticated fruits of today, referring to edibles such as the Mandarin orange. Some crops grown in the community were introduced centuries ago and are considered traditional because of their long histories in the region, such as millet, rice bean, maize, cassava, sweet potato, and potato, according to Mongaby-India. As many as 63 species of plants, including cereals, legumes, roots and tubers, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and other edible species, are grown in the jhum fields or the kitchen gardens. Many of the crops grown by the community have multiple varieties.
The traditional food production system is supported by jhum (shifting cultivation), home gardens, forest and water bodies and shies away from the use of synthetic chemicals. Jhum is the primary food production system in the community, involving two distinct land uses — agriculture and fallow forestry — that alternate in sequence and time on the same plot of land. It is based on community-led landscape management practices, regulated by local governance.
Mongabay-India points out that factors such as the emergence of cash crop production (broom grass), the impact of India’s public distribution system on the local subsistence system and over-reliance on market-based products are weakening the food system’s resilience. Research priorities on Indigenous food systems should include systematic documentation of a wide variety of Indigenous foods known to the Indigenous communities, their contribution to food security and dietary diversity. The community uses no external inputs, especially synthetic chemicals, for food production. The local governance oversees the food production system, ensuring that the landscape is healthy and strengthening the food system’s resilience. The Durbar Shnong (village council) is the most critical institution in the community governing natural resources making rules and regulations for protecting and preserving the forest and other natural areas within the local landscape.
The UN publication, as per the FAO website, provides an overview of the common and unique sustainability elements of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, in terms of natural resource management, access to the market, diet diversity, indigenous peoples’ governance systems, and links to traditional knowledge and indigenous languages. While enhancing the learning on Indigenous Peoples food systems, it will raise awareness on the need to enhance the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems as a source of livelihood for the 476 million indigenous inhabitants in the world, while contributing to the Zero Hunger Goal. In addition, the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) and the UN Food Systems Summit call on the enhancement of sustainable food systems and on the importance of diversifying diets with nutritious foods, while broadening the existing food base and preserving biodiversity. This is a feature characteristic of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems since hundreds of years, which can provide answers to the current debate on sustainable food systems and resilience.