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Stage all set for ‘ITM Shillong’

‘North East’s strength lies in its immense diversity of food items’

The International Terra
Madre, a conclave of
indigenous peoples worldwide is scheduled to be held in Shillong from November 3-7. The local name for this event is International Mei Ramew (meaning mother earth in Khasi). The event talks about reclaiming food biodiversity and food sovereignty. The North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) is anchoring this mega event and has been working for over two years to plan and execute it. The Shillong Times spoke to Phrang Roy, President NESFAS to give an insight into the Slow Food Movement and why it is relevant to indigenous peoples.
ST: For the benefit of the uninitiated could you tell us briefly what the ITM is all about and whether Slow Food is a counterpoint to Fast Food?
PR: The Slow Food philosophy can be summed up as good, clean and fair and an emphasis that we, as consumers, are co-producers. These values are embraced by over 10,000 members in 160 countries. We now have successful farmers’ markets in the US; Africa is known for its large network of community and school gardens and Italy is known for its emphasis on the diversity of regional food products. All these are important contributions which link the pleasure of tasty food to environmental responsibility.
NESFAS is collaborating with Indigenous Partnership, a global organisation to give a regional and national outlook on “Sustainable Foods”. We learn from grassroots people, who have for generations been watching and listening to nature and forming their beliefs and knowledge systems. This is in tune with the seasonal calendar from which are born the cultural traditions, songs, dances and prayers. This is the indigenous version of “Slow food” which is in tandem with the word sustainable agro-ecology.
The bio-cultural models and interpretations of the Slow Food philosophy is different for those still connected to their lands, and where consumers also produce the food they eat. These include indigenous peoples, pastoralists, swidden farmers, fishermen and herders. Their habitats also coincide with the most biodiversity rich areas that provide the resource for their dietary and other needs. The Indigenous Partnership gives voice to the marginalized. For instance swidden (jhum) farmers across South Asia grow diverse food crops. The use and value behind those crops is communicated through stories, myth and dances that interpret nature and people as interdependent. But for a long time this practice was deemed inefficient and destructive because we only looked at one side of the coin.
ST: What is the programme line up for the 4 days?
The plenary and thematic sessions at Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 (ITM 2015) are designed as forums to explore the above concepts and to spark future collaborative initiatives. ITM 2015 will take place in various locations in and around Shillong. Day 1-3 will take place at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) Convocation Hall which will be open only to ITM delegates and invited guests due to space constraints.
On Day 1 the Inauguration Ceremony is at the Convocation Hall followed by Plenary, Track sessions and Taste Workshops over days 2 & 3. Taste workshops will connect the participating delegates to the pleasure and importance of eating local food. Honey, Wild edibles, fermented food and insects will address the significance of consuming neglected and under-utilised plants. Hopefully the Taste Workshops will help participants discover the lesser known delicacies, indulge in eco gastronomy and learn from producers, chefs and farmers.
The Chief Minister is keen to share these indigenous thoughts and flavours with local audience hence we have something called “ITM on Campus” where institutions will be the harbours for indigenous knowledge through lectures, exhibitions and film festivals. This programme will be shared with the public during the first three days of the conference.
Theatre of Taste sessions will be held at the IHM where groups from Slow Food Germany and Slow Food USA will demonstrate the concept of curing and “Slow Meat” from rearing to butchery. The aim is to inspire and educate about animal welfare and hygienic standards of meat production. The workshops will bring together local and international butchers and those in animal husbandry to share and exchange knowledge and ideas on good, clean and fair meat production. The cuts will then be used at the Mei-Ramew Food festival at Mawphlang on 7th November. The closing session will unveil the “Shillong Declaration” to be shared with the 58 participating countries and global organisations like the United Nations.

ST : How many international guests are you expecting and from how many countries? Why do you think they would want to be part of the IMR travelling long distances?
We have confirmed participation form 600 delegates from around 58 countries.  They are all travelling to share the common denominator of concerns which ties them together – the sustainability of indigenous knowledge systems wedded by land, foodways and culture. The numerator for this equation is their call to the world, “The Future We Want”.

ST: How are you looking at promoting indigenous culinary traditions through Indigenous Terra Madre 2015?

We must first understand the strengths and weaknesses of our own gastronomic traditions.
The prime strength of the North East and many indigenous cultures is the immense diversity of food items with unique flavours and the connectedness of people to their lands. Conversations with farmers reveal that they perceive a better taste from organically home-grown foods as compared to market produce. The weakness of our local cuisine is often the aesthetic and hygienic conditions in how we present and serve our food.
Currently the rich bio-cultural diversity behind food is not much valued by the urbanites. Even the rural youth is losing touch with the values of local food. They now go for processed, packaged foods like instant noodles or chips. So we must outsmart the fast food companies. Their food looks clean and hygienic and is neatly packaged so we are attracted to them. But these foods have led to modern life style diseases like obesity. If we can glamorise our cuisines and reinstate a sense of belonging to our own cuisines, we can become the trendsetters of tomorrow. Hence KFC will be called “Khasi Fine Cuisine”. You will be able to get a taste of this idea in our fine-dining area- the ITM Kitchen.
At ITM we will showcase these ideas through our cook’s alliance which has created innovative ways of preparing items such as Putharo (some examples of innovative recipes). We have the strong support of ITC chef Manjit Gill who has praised the culinary potential of the Northeast and will be interacting with the youth and communities.
There is also a butchery workshop since people here are big meat eaters but the hygienic standards are quite weak.  All these workshops will be running with what is locally available and drawing from the knowledge of communities and their produce.
We are also planning to bring people closer to their bio-cultural roots of taste by hosting themed workshops on honey. Did you know that each honey’s taste is determined by the flowering season, which in turn is determined by the management of peoples and their forests? We will also in the process learn to appreciate the taste of grilled insect meats and many wild edibles that are healthy but that might need to be prepared in new ways for us to appreciate them.

ST: Is the Govt supportive of this event?  Who are the other partners from the North East you are teaming with? Is this movement likely to expand across the region?

One of our campaign points has been “Join the moment, it’s a movement”. The ITM 2015 has brought all stakeholders together like two sides of the “development coin”- the people and the Government! The Government has truly supported us and partnered to make this possible not only with financial support but also by upgrading the urban and rural service lines.  It all began with the 41 host villages joining hands with NESFAS and working towards set guidelines for hosting delegates. We have worked with villages which have since been declared ODF (Open defecation free), our work with BDOs as they ensure that the roads allow access and cleanliness standards are maintained.
All Government departments are organising their resources to welcome our guests. From the Transport to the Police department managing and training volunteers, to MUDA helping with branding allocations and urban upgradation. The IT department is allowing us to access better setup for internet connectivity. The DCs from all Districts have helped us in every effort to maintain standards and communication. In the East Khasi Hills we have a cleanup drive suggested and guided by the DC on Oct 29th and 30 involving schools and colleges of Shillong. The DIPR is supporting with advertising and free communication on the MIIS system to Shillong and all the districts of Meghalaya.

We believe these current tie-ups with Government will lead to stronger bonds with our indigenous roots and can also reveal to the world the heritage and opportunities we can offer. We are currently exploring the idea of an agro-ecology school, and to attach the knowledge gained there to our school garden projects. This will not only build progressive farming methods and agrobiodiversity, but also to look into how a value-led production system can transform our food networks for a better tomorrow.
Similarly, we have adopted the idea of Slow Food’s Chef’s alliance and turned it into a “Cook’s” alliance as we believe that women from remote villages have skills and knowledge to understand what “good food” means.  There are significant studies mentioned before on well being, matriarchal societies and nutrition which will lead to a long-term dialogue globally truly translating our efforts for “local voices – global audience” and also, “The Future We Want- Indigenous perspective and actions.”

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