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The Future We Want for Meghalaya

 

By Phrang Roy

The indigenous peoples of Meghalaya and Nagaland will be hosting the International Mei-Ramew gathering (also internationally called the Indigenous Terra Madre 2015) from 3 to 7 November 2015 on the overlal theme: The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives and Actions. The gathering will bring together delegates from more than 52 countries and representatives of over 100 indigenous communities around the world making it one of the world’s most representative indigenous meetings to date. As representatives of so many indigenous peoples are about to gather in Shillong, I congratulate the leadership of the United Democratic Party (UDP) for organizing this introspective-interactive session on its 18th Foundation Day to reflect on the policies that will be needed for a brighter future for our people.

As Khasis, Garos, Hajongs and all the other tribes of Meghalaya, we are a part of the 5000 distinct indigenous cultures with a global population of about 300 million people. We are to be found in 75 of the 164 countries of the world. We make up only 4 % of the world’s population but represent 95% of the world’s cultural diversity, a fact that we tend to forget. Our traditional territories occupy only about 22% of the world’s land surface but these areas hold about 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. Until recently, this contribution of indigenous communities has been ignored and even ridiculed as a sign of backwardness. However, as the international community searches for a meaningful way forward from the our evolving crises of food security, climate change and unsustainable development, many scientists and policy makers are increasingly turning a thoughtful gaze towards indigenous peoples and their culturally rooted agro-ecological practices. Indigenous peoples hold unique knowledge and wisdom which has enabled them to sustainably manage resources and to respond to their ever-evolving opportunities and threats. UDP will do well to make this its core strategic thrust and framework.

We have traditionally been attached collectively to our ancestral land and territories. We have organized our society at the level of the community and have made decisions on a consensus basis. In short, we have been holding a very different worldview- a worldview places emphasis on relationships rather than services, on the sacred rather than the materialistic aspects of life. It is therefore not surprising that we are often seen as misfits in a more self-centred and competitive development paradigm of mainstream societies.

Our rural peoples have been responsible custodians of our biodiversity, wise knowledge holders of diverse plants, animal behavior and smart researchers of climate smart agro-ecological approaches for advancing health and well being. Their understanding of ecology has developed over thousands of years of interaction with nature while our recent western theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches are based on our recent events. For example, the discovery of the existence of tropical forests is only a few centuries old and the recognition of their global importance is of an even much more recent date.

Our rural people have their own ways of monitoring climate and weather changes that many of us who have professional degrees and who tend to migrate to urban areas, seem to have forgotten. For example, the people of Nongtraw village in Sohra Sub Division monitor climate or weather changes by the movement of schools of worms from and to the river. The indigenous pastoralist communities of East Africa predict a likely drought by studying the innards of a slain camel. The Inuits of Canada foretold climate change from the changing rhythms of a sledge. Dr. Daphne Miller, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who will be coming to Shillong to speak at the International Mei-Ramew, in her bestselling book, The Jungle Effect, showed that indigenous communities can teach the world some of the healthiest diets of the world and about health and well being in general.

In preparation for the International Mei-Ramew 2015, we have been frequently visiting many rural areas especially the 41 villages that will be co hosting the International Mei-Ramew gathering. Three issues have consistently emerged from these meetings and they are the following:

  • the sacredness of their lands, shifting cultivation and the nurturing and controlling role of women especially of the Kur land in Lyngngam and West Khasi Hills;
  • the dramatic loss of soil fertility with modern cultivation practices;
  • the yearning for the peace and harmony of the past when governance for the good of all was the primary concerns of their local chiefs and headmen.

 

The future of our rural people will very much depend on the future of our food system. For too many years, we have been asking our local communities to improve their livelihoods by changing their farming practices by increasing the productivity of their lands through a chemical based modern agriculture system. In doing so, our extension workers have rather naively ridiculed the shifting cultivation and the other traditional food and agriculture systems of our ancestors. Today, the world has come to realise, except for big corporate bodies, that the modern system of food production that is based on chemicals is not sustainable. Look at what has happened to Punjab. Einstein noted: “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Prince Charles also said: “We have to realise that in food production we are dealing with living organisms be they farm animals, plants or the soil”.

The future of our food will therefore have to be based on a very different paradigm that is more embedded on the diversity of our cultures, species, economies and landscapes. This is an area where all of us can unitedly play a proactive role for the future of our own people. Our rural people must become important partners in search for diverse and environmentally sustainable local food systems. We need their knowledge as much as they need our research support for new challenges. We need to have a greater appreciation and respect of the traditional learning processes of our rural community members that is based on observation, reflection and learning through trial and error and not only on academic memorising. This must be part of our new approach to education where our school programmes must have a compulsory inclusion of local agro-ecology along with the learning of modern science. Dr. Franscisco Rosado May, a Mayan Professor of Agro-ecology from an Inter-cultural University in Mexico who visited Meghalaya and Nagaland in August 2015, as part of the pre events of the International Mei-Ramew, said that his University teaches students both modern agronomy and also traditional agro-ecological practices of local communities. He said that 95% of his students, on coompletion of their studies return to rural areas. This has helped the Government to find extension workers and researchers who are very comfortable with their own rural areas. Perhaps this is the future of our rural communities and of our rural youths.

I see a lot of opportunities for Meghalaya to move forward using an agro-ecological framework and to create platforms to promote sharing, learning, research and collaborative practice. The challenges are of course many given the influence of market forces, media, peer pressure and the vested interests of the more privileged. But a beginning can be made and we should with some luck be able to crack the hurdles as they pop up.

But to build a genuine partnership based on agro-ecology, we will need to respect the ancestral lands and territories, the traditional organizational structures and the local cultural identity of our people. We need to face the causes of the growing landlessness in some of our areas. We need to have the courage to use the constitutional authorities vested on us to consider declaring some areas as traditional local food sovereign areas similar to the international initiative of indigenous community conserved areas (ICCAs).

(The author is Chairperson, North East Slow Food and Agro-Biodiversity Society (NESFAS) and former Assistant President IFAD. This paper was presented on the 18th Foundation day of the UDP on September 11, 2015)

 

 

 

 

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