Practicing Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Peoples and Agroecological Relationships in the Eastern Himalayas
The Himalayan region is well-known as a biodiversity hotspot with several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. It is also home to many Indigenous communities who continue to practice subsistence farming and depend on the land and forest for their sustenance. Practicing Food Sovereignty focuses on Indigenous communities and agricultural practices in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Northeast India of the Eastern Himalayan region.
Drawing on food sovereignty both as a conceptual and methodological framework, we explore emerging trends in food production and agricultural practices among Indigenous communities. Introduced by the transnational social movement La Via Campesina in 1996, the food sovereignty framework considers agriculture as a value system practice founded on culture and social justice. In a similar fashion, Indigenous communities in the eastern Himalayan region are re-valuing and reviving aspects of their traditional modes of agriculture – knowledge, heritage plants, and cuisines – to cope with contemporary environmental risks and continue sustainability practices. The broad question we seek to explore in the project concerns Indigenous livelihood practices and food security in the context of present climate change.
This project is supported by Swedish Research Council.
Bengt G. Karlsson
Beppe is a professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. He is a working member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. He has studied anthropology, development, and economics at Uppsala University. He received his PhD in Social Anthropology from Lund University in 1997.
Sanjay is a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Guwahati campus). He is affiliated to the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and also teaches core papers at the Centre for Sociology and Social Anthropology. He completed his PhD in Sociology from North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
Dolly is an associate professor in Development Studies and Anthropology at the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Melbourne. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University.
Meenal is a postdoctoral fellow with the project and based at North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati. She received her PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Hyderabad in 2016. Previously, she was involved in the study Gender, Land Rights and Labour in the Context of Socio-Economic Transformations in Northeast India at NESRC as Project Director. She draws on anthropological and historical approaches to explore the politics of gender and community in India.
Dixita is a postdoctoral fellow with the project and based at North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati. She completed her PhD in Social Sciences from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Guwahati) in 2021. She has received the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant for Young Researchers from Northeast India (2019) and the Annual VMMF-IAWS Young Research Scholars Award (2020). Currently, she is also writing a monograph under the South Asia Speaks 2022 mentorship program.
Joel assists as a research coordinator. He has lived in Northeast India for almost a decade now. As a peace researcher, his writings engage with law, violence, memory, food, and media. He has a masters degree in peace and conflict studies and a bachelor’s degree in mass media.
Seeds for the Future: Chapter One
The founder of the Annapurna Seed Library, Mahan Chandra Borah, shared that he was astonished to have once found seeds in a clay pot at home carefully packed and kept on a shelf just under the roof. It belonged to his great grandfather. When we met Mahan in March 2022, we saw how he had not only saved those seeds but had also increased its quantity by sowing it. Seeds afterall have life and need to be grown. Mahan has a collection of over 400 varieties of Indigenous paddy and his library located at Meleng Kathgaon in Assam’s Jorhat district is Northeast India’s first Indigenous seed saving library. In Assam’s neighbouring state Nagaland, the Chizami Women Society and North East Network set up community seed banks in 2018 thereby mobilising women from villages in Phek district. North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) in Meghalaya has undertaken similar initiatives over the years. The idea was to check the proliferation of market seeds in the villages and to preserve the ‘better acclimatised’ and ‘hardy’ Indigenous seeds. While saving seeds is an old practice, these organised initiatives are relatively new in Northeast India and have opened up an intimate conversation on the culture and conservation of Indigenous variety of seeds based on traditional knowledge.
Seeds are our hope for the future and soul for our food system. Of late, the twin factors of climate change and market seeds have globally disrupted the ways seeds are preserved and food is grown. This necessitates examining the possible Indigenous innovations in building a resilient food system. We do not perceive Indigenous as pitted against science but reflect on the science in the Indigenous ways of saving seeds. Talking to Indigenous farmers and agro-scientists in Northeast India, we locate their allegiance to traditional knowledge based on the experiences of the ancestors and the elderly duly proved by experiments in laboratories.
We hope to begin conversations by strengthening our knowledge on Indigenous seeds and exchanging information on the many individual and communal efforts in the region towards preserving landraces and becoming food sovereign. One of the key objectives of the event was to profile the stories and experiences of community custodians of food and their work on food justice.
The two-day workshop, Seeds for the Future: Chapter One, on 15th and 16th September 2022, began with a reflective evening with the resource persons. They motivated us to ask deeper and sharper questions while centring community knowledge and justice. The project team also felt it was essential to share with them our research findings, challenges, and questions that were emerging as we continued to dwell on the theme of food sovereignty. We believed our resource persons would carry our stories back to their communities, including farmers on the ground. We wanted to be open with the process of conducting research in the field, and not arrive at the end of simply showcasing the findings. On the second day, we had an interactive session at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati Campus. Moderated by anthropologist Dolly Kikon, the session opened with a panel discussion with the resource persons on the theme of Indigenous Foodways: The Future of Seeds, Food, and Community in the Eastern Himalayas. This was followed by a two-hour interactive session with students and faculty members. After the discussions, the students, research team, and resource persons proceeded to the Florica Nursery, Balipara, Sipajhar in Darrang district. Under the themes of seeds, plants, pests, and farm-to-plate, students formed smaller groups and participated in the learning process.
We present the learnings of Seeds for the Future: Chapter One workshop in our open-access book, Seeds and Food Sovereignty: Eastern Himalayan Experiences published by North Eastern Social Research Centre (2023). In this book, we centre community engagements and pedagogy to understand farming practices across the Eastern Himalayan region. In doing so, we aim to facilitate new ways of learning together. We hope that this book will inspire further engagements and research with ongoing farming initiatives and food sovereignty movements in the region.
Sustainable Futures: Agriculture, Ecology, and Conservation in India
On 27 May 2020, in the middle of COVID-19 induced lockdowns, a massive natural gas blowout occurred in Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district. The blowout caught fire soon after and caused immense damage. The fire covered the neighbouring villages, Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Park, and fragile wetlands of Maguri-Motapung. These ecologies are some of the richest Himalayan biodiversity zones in South Asia.
Sustainable Futures workshop aims to understand how reactions and reflections from such environmental disasters offer insights on emerging challenges on agriculture, sustainability, and communities (human and non-humans) on the ground. Following the blowout in Baghjan, the outrage from citizens in the Brahmaputra valley and beyond has resulted in social media and judicial advocacy campaigns against powerful agencies, such as Oil India Limited (OIL). The Baghjan disaster also witnessed how human, animals, and plants—as a cluster of beings—are threatened, thereby, breaking the ‘boundary’ that separates different species. In recent times, there have been increased encounters between humans and non-domesticated animals across the Brahmaputra valley, in rural as well as urban spaces. We invited researchers, activists, filmmakers, and journalists to draw from their intellectual and creative exercises in building a collective understanding of ecological and agricultural worlds in the eastern Himalayas.
Keeping these developments in mind, NESRC and the Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University, organised a two-day workshop that was aimed at four outcomes:
- Expand on the ongoing interest in ecology, conservation, and arising inequities in the region (Northeast India) with an eye on experiences across the country;
- Discuss the changes in agricultural practices and agrarian structures that might be accelerating encounters between humans and non-domesticated animals in the region with experiences from other parts of the country;
- Initiate an interactive map of infrastructure development that induce water–related disasters—floods, water logging, mudslides, landslides—for both humans and animals in the region with an eye on experiences in other parts of the country;
- Understand advocacy and evolving environmental law in India, especially in the last three decades with a focus on their impact in Northeast India.
Our invited guests: Kesang Tshomo (National Organic Flagship Program, Government of Bhutan), Dolly Phukon (Professor, Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University), Nitin Sethi (Media Lead, National Foundation for India), Aniket Aga (Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Ashoka University), Walter Fernandes (Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre), Kaustubh Deka (Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University), Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman (Programme Coordinator, Heinrich Böll Foundation), Bibhuti Lahkar (Head, Asian Elephant Research and Conservation, Aaranyak), Premila Bordoloi (Assistant Professor, Assam Agricultural University), Samir Bordoloi (Secretary General, Spread NE), and Chandan Kumar Sharma (Professor, Department of Sociology, Tezpur University).
Our invited participants: Dixita Deka, Amrita Pritam Gogoi, Deboleena Sengupta, Namita Brahma, Abhishruti Sarma, Dimum Pertin, Sayan Deori, Trishita Shandliya, Meenal Tula, and Shradha T K Lama.
Northeast India release of Genetically Modified Democracy (2021), Orient Blackswan.
Strawberry Farms: Adopting New Crops in Northeast India
The inherent curiosity of the human mind to explore, experiment, and try out new food is at the core of our human societies. In the last few years, there has been a strawberry boom in Northeast India. Started by individual farmers, the surge in demand for this red dotted tangy-sweet fruit has received the attention of government departments as well. There are ongoing interventions and workshops by state horticultural departments and scientists as this new crop occupies a special place in the Northeast palate. It is true that strawberry farms are simultaneously keeping entrepreneurs, traders, and scientists busy in Northeast India. The emerging farms and niche market for this fruit in the eastern Himalayan region highlight a changing pattern of crop selection, food choices, and livelihood opportunities.
Read more: https://raiot.in/strawberry-farms-new-crops-in-northeast-india/
Meenal Tula. (2022, December 14). ‘Thinking with Millets: The Future of Jhum Agriculture in Northeast India.’ Dibrugarh University.
Dolly Kikon. (2023, February 17). ‘Guns to Grains: Food Sovereignty in Northeast India.’ Yale University.