– The sun has barely risen when Phlida Kharshala shakes her 8-year-old grandson awake. He hoists an empty cone-shaped bamboo basket on his back, sets the woven strap flat across his forehead and off they go into the wilderness.
By the time they reach the V-crossing at Mawpat Circle, mothers are walking children to school, while others are on their morning walk. They are all Kharshala’s prospective customers. She quickly lays and smoothens a tattered sackcloth on the asphalt and out come mushrooms from the cone basket. Raw sienna, purple-grey, snow white, dried white, funnel shaped – jostling in tiny heaps.
“Come post-monsoon it’s mushroom time,” the 60-year old grandmother of six tells IPS in this street corner of Shillong city — perched 1,525 metres above sea level in the Indian Himalaya’s north-east Meghalaya State.
“In my childhood women and girls would sally out in large groups singing loudly in the dawn to forage for mushrooms and many other wild greens, berries and roots, and the forests gave us plentifully,” the Khasi indigenous community matriarch explains.
Khasi women see the climate crisis as already upon us and are determined to not only bring back their traditional cuisine but also the wild edibles that made their sustainable food system so nutritious, chemical-free and virtually free of cost.
India’s northeastern region is one of the richest in biodiversity with vegetation ranging from a tropical rain forest in the foothills to Alpine meadows and cold deserts.
“Older Khasi women’s knowledge about local agro-ecology is phenomenal,” says Bhogtoram Mawroh, senior researcher and knowledge manager at North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), a Shillong–based organisation that runs multi-pronged programmes to enhance sustainability of local agro-biodiversity and supports family farmers, with the ultimate goal of achieving food sovereignty.
“Traditional ecological knowledge is equally important to modern science,” Mawroh tells IPS. “Indigenous food systems are a good way to deal with the climate crisis because there is diversity of land and diversity of food crops not only the ones we grow but those that are in the wild, they have survived for hundreds of years and are more resilient to climate stress than the farmed crops,” he adds.
While generally dryland crops, krai — or millets in the local Khasi language — are the heritage food of the indigenous people. It flourishes in Meghalaya’s heavy monsoons. Forty years back, each household in the Nongtraw village in East Khasi Hills district used to get an yield of around 500 kilograms annually, assuring food as well as nutritional security.
“Indigenous women too have been growing local crops, collecting and using variety of food and medicinal plants from forests. They are the seed keeper, the knowledge repositories of agro-ecology, best equipped to manage food security in times of climate change,” Mawroh says. Several of the wild foods have been successfully domesticated by women family farmers, he adds.
In Shkenpyrsit village in the West Jantia Hills district, recently Phron Kassar a 52-year-old woman farmer and a traditional healer concocted a strong pesticide from a plant the local community has been using for generations as a toothache cure. It has local anaesthetic properties, so Kassar deduced pests would not be particularly drawn to it if applied on plants. Now she trains others to make the concoction.
In other seasons Kharshala sells wild, hand-picked leafy greens; Jatira (Oenathe linearis) and Centella (Centilla Asiatica) which she sells tied in handful bundles with forest vines side by side with homestead-grown spinach (Spinacia Oleraca).
“These make my grandchildren strong and able to climb hills without tiring, but the youngsters are keener on non-traditional spicy, fried food they see on television and in markets today,” the Khasi grandmother says regretfully.
Jatira is rich in Calcium (24 milligram per 100 gram), Potassium (85mg) and Sodium (3mg) the latter two help prevent hypertension and arteriosclerosis and helping normal functioning of cardiac muscles and blood coagulation. Likewise Centella leaves that grandmother Kharshala sells, contains 15 mg of iron per 100 grams while the more widely used spinach contains just 3mg.
To bring back the traditional indigenous cuisine into favour with the youth, NASFES has begun monthly Mei Ramew or the Mother Earth local-food farmers market where women growers sell local fruits, vegetables, wild edible plants and other food while dishing out delicious recipes like blood rice – a cereal dish with chicken or pig blood or local strawberry dessert.
Also springing up are Mei Ramew Cafés in villages set up by indigenous women who still cook traditionally. NESFAS is working with six Mother Earth cafes and their partners are working with three more. The society is also working with other shops that do not necessarily sell indigenous food — ones that mostly sell rice, meat, tea and usual packaged snacks — to upgrade their offerings.
“These are our efforts to advocate for our ancient chemical-free, healthy, local food,” Mawroh says.
“If we don’t have forests around our villages, our diets and our food won’t be there,” environmentalists in Meghalaya say.
In Khweng, a village in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district a boiling smoked beef aroma wafts in the air. Plantina Mujai (35) has already cooked the Jadoh Lungseij – Bamboo-shoot rice, a traditional late-monsoon staple that is harvested when bamboo shoots are abundantly sprouting in forest and farm hedges, that will be served with the beef.
Hungry farm workers wait impatiently as Mujai adds pumpkin and wild Taro leaves, string beans to the now tender beef quickly stir-fried on high flames with sliced onion, ginger paste and a dash of black pepper.
At Dial Nuktieh’s Mother Earth Café in the same village rural customers ask for dry fermented fish boiled with luscious Roselle leaves plucked fresh from the wild, and garnished with black sesame powder.
Mother Earth Cafés — also known as Kong shops — are fast coming up in rural Meghalaya. Set up and run by indigenous women to popularise traditional cooking with traditional local ingredients, they are growing in popularity.
Kharshala cooks up a mouthwatering dish she loved as a child in order to entice her grandchildren to eat the greens, which the NESFAS survey found is sorely lacking even in adult diets in Meghalaya.
Adding onion, ginger and garlic paste and a dash of red chilly to hot oil, she fries them to a golden brown. Next some preserved smoked beef goes in while she finely chops healthy handfuls of jatira and jalei leaves stirring till the greens merge with the beef and the kids do not notice or object to it.
The Indian government’s 2019 Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Indian Himalayan identifies three major drivers of vulnerability to climate change in Meghalaya. With 80 percent of livelihoods depending on agriculture, yield variability is a major risk especially because half the population lives below the poverty line.
Degradation and fragmentation of forests adds to their vulnerability as forest food constitutes a large supplement both in terms of income and nutrition.
“Discouraging shifting cultivation locally called ‘jhum’, the government is pushing indigenous people towards cash crops like areca nut and broom grass, hitting food security,” Mawroh says.
Researchers have now established that the food system contributes substantially to climate change.
Apart from deforestation, the biggest causes of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions globally are the use of fertilisers and rearing livestock, in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Food miles in terms of transportation, refrigeration and packaging adds to the environmental impact from what we choose to put on our plate, according to Slow Food, a Piedmont-based global, grassroots organisation, that works to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how food choices affect the world around us.
The key to the solution say experts involves spreading the concept of zero food miles, where farmers and food producers sell their food to local consumers, tap into local biodiversity and grow chemical-free. All of which the indigenous women of Meghalaya are fighting to put in place within their families and community and beat climate change.