Case Studies, Systems Thinking

An innovative approach in support and celebration of Indigenous food systems

In Dewlieh, a small village in northeastern India, young students from the local school are going on a field trip to forage for wild edibles. Still dressed in their school uniforms, they run into the forest at the heels of Charles Diangdog, a knowledge holder from the village.

Stopping at a clearing in the brush, Diangdog holds up a plant called Lapong Dieng, explaining that its taste makes it an appropriate accompaniment to potatoes, lentils, and eggs. Next, he shows the students Jajew Kynih, a medicinal plant that helps to reduce fever when it’s pounded into a paste. The students observe with wide eyes.

Biodiversity walks like this happen across India’s Meghalaya state, organized by the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). Established in 2012, NESFAS is a collaborative initiative between the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty and Slow Food, an international non-profit association. The organization is led by a team predominantly from Meghalaya, including Executive Director Pius Ranee, who is from Nontraw village, one of the 130 communities in which NESFAS works.

Through diverse activities, the initiative connects people to the pleasure and importance of local foods as a way to preserve Indigenous culture and knowledge, protect biodiversity, and address the stressors of climate change.

Listening and responding to community needs

Local community members, especially women, have played a central role in shaping NESFAS. This is par for the course in Meghalaya villages, matrilineal societies where knowledge, ancient seed varieties, and property are passed from mothers to their youngest daughter.

Meaningful dialogue with villagers determined that biodiversity walks, as well as festivals of taste and flavours, were the most relevant way for NESFAS to engage with the public. The organization has since hosted 31 Mei-Ramew (Mother Earth) Food Festivals, bringing together the food cultures from more than 150 villages.

NESFAS has also created a Tastes and Flavours Network, an initiative where professional chefs and local cooks concoct delicious dishes using local ingredients and recipes. These dishes fuse cultural heritage with modern cooking techniques. In doing so, the network encourages people to consume diverse local food as a way to celebrate their culture and also address high rates of acute malnutrition in Meghalaya state.

Just as NESFAS believes in listening to its community members, it wants to share this value with a wider audience. It does this through innovative digital storytelling that shares Indigenous wisdom locally, nationally, and internationally.

The organization’s YouTube channel has more than 7,500 subscribers, and NESFAS has offered a number of participatory video workshops to support local community members to share their personal knowledge of the natural environment and agricultural practices.

NESFAS’ activities also recognize the value of agroecology in protecting traditional ways of farming. Long before agroecology was conceptualized as a way to naturally farm, Indigenous Peoples in Meghalaya upheld the land as sacred and respected and cared for its biodiversity. “We take agroecology as a framework to revive, defend, and promote our Indigenous food system,” explains Gratia E. Dkhar, NESFAS’ Lead Associate of Agroecology & Training.

Activities that benefit consumers, community, and the environment

To thrive, communities depend as much on economic security as they do on food security. “NESFAS has always believed in empowering the local communities towards becoming self-reliant, taking ownership, and encouraging local economies for increased income and overall well-being,” says Janak P. Singh, Senior Associate of the organization’s Livelihood Initiatives.

Singh describes a number of activities that have been developed in collaboration with the community: cafes in rural areas that serve meals prepared with local ingredients and a creative flare; weaving and embroidery businesses (traditional handicrafts in Meghalaya villages); and farmer’s markets that connect producers and consumers. Each of these initiatives are consumer, community, and environment-friendly.

These various activities and community relationships are what enabled NESFAS to respond quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic started. The organization rolled out its Mei-Ramew Farm on Wheels, a vehicle where farmers can sell their chemical-free produce directly to consumers as a way to earn a continued income. The platform was especially key at the start of the pandemic when local markets were shuttered and people were staying home.

NESFAS’ partnership with villages and its grounding in local culture are the very reason why its initiatives have been successful in reaching 10,000 community members across Meghalaya state.

Says Richard Ranee, a local knowledge holder in Nontraw village: “NESFAS has made us realize the importance of defending and sustaining our Indigenous food systems, be it our farming methods and practices, wild edibles, our hills and rivers, or the land that we are custodians of wherein we sow our seeds.”