Climate change and resilience of Indigenous food systems: Lessons from Meghalaya's food diversity


As climate change makes food security vulnerable, the resilience of indigenous food system of the small state in India’s Northeast holds promise for the whole world.

Teaser Image Caption
Agrobiodiversity, a critical element for climate resilience, is the bedrock of indigenous peoples' food systems. Photo: Alethea Kordor Lyngdoh

Changing climate demands changing food systems

The past year has been a year of extreme events for Meghalaya. Sohra, known as Cherrapunjee by tourists, and Mawsynram, known for receiving one of the highest rainfalls in the world, broke their respective single day rainfall records in the year. Heavy downpours resulted in roads, including the national highways, getting washed away with floods and landslides claiming dozens of lives.

Such extreme events have been predicted to become more frequent in the future, possibly affecting the intensity and timing of the monsoon1 itself. Since about 65 per cent of the total crop in the country is rainfed2, any change in the rainfall regime will have an adverse impact on the nation’s food apparatus. This will expose many, especially those belonging to marginalised communities, to the dangers of severe food insecurity.

Such grim predictions are keeping in line with the “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report has made dire predictions about the future of food security of the world3. According to the report, there is high confidence that climate change is already affecting food security and will increasingly do so in the future as well. Similarly, according to the 2021 Global Hunger Index: Hunger and Food Systems in Conflict Settings report, based on the GHI projections, the world as a whole—and 47 countries in particular—will fail to achieve a low level of hunger by 2030. Climate change will be one of the three of the most powerful and toxic forces wiping out any progress that has been made against hunger in recent years4.

But not everything is doom and gloom. The same IPCC report has predicted with high confidence that reforming the food system through both supply and demand side practices can enhance the resilience of the food systems3. This can help the world and India avoid the former prediction.

The principles governing the indigenous people’s food systems derived from the place-based, experiential and dynamic knowledge system of indigenous communities (in India and elsewhere) will have an important role to play in it. This is keeping with the growing consensus that the vast repository of traditional knowledge of indigenous communities, if systematically promoted or up-scaled, holds tremendous potential to prepare for, mitigate and manage disasters related to climate change5.

Resilience of Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems

Although indigenous people occupy about 25 per cent of the earth’s surface, their territories and lands have preserved 80 per cent of the remaining terrestrial biodiversity6. In India, while the tribal (i.e. indigenous) population makes less than 9 per cent of the country’s population, they are found to be living in areas, which are very rich in natural resources7 and are biodiversity hotspots of the subcontinent. Among others, this rich biodiversity also includes agrobiodiversity, i.e., the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries, developed and nurtured by indigenous communities.

Globally, many indigenous peoples’ territories are found to overlap with the regions identified as centres of origin of crops and crop diversity – the so-called Vavilov centres, where about 12,000 years ago many of the food crops were domesticated6. Since then the seeds and breeds selected, crossed, shared and handed down through generations have provided the genetic materials for crops and livestock to continue to adapt and evolve to a range of stresses including pests, diseases, increased temperatures and drought8.

In fact, agricultural practices of indigenous communities have demonstrated great adaptiveness and resilience in the past and are still helping in the domestication, conservation and adaptation of genetic resources and agricultural biodiversity at all scales – gene, species, ecosystem and landscape. Insights from these communities, hence, are very important for addressing the challenges facing food and agriculture today and the future9 particularly in light of climate change.

An important feature of indigenous people’s food systems which has enabled it to be highly resilient to ecological challenges is the diversity within the system itself. In contrast to widespread monoculture agriculture, the high floral and faunal diversity of food systems practised by indigenous peoples has been linked to increased resilience against environmental shocks including pests and disease. These food systems typically include the generation of foods from across multiple distinct areas of the landscape and from a rich diversity of species, varieties and breeds.

A diverse food base contributes to flexibility and resilience of the food systems, especially when faced with environmental variability, and diminishes the comparative risks associated with relying on any single resource for food. Biodiversity-rich practices increase resilience of the food system in four ways, vis-a-vis, by providing insurance against resource failures; enabling adaptation of food resources over longer time frames through evolutionary processes; encouraging positive symbiotic interactions between species and areas in the landscape that support nutrient cycling, control pests and disease, and facilitate pollination; and by sheltering the food system from the impact of ecological shocks6.

It is therefore not surprising that the recent publication by the Food and Agriculture Organisation/ Alliance of Bioversity International, “Indigenous peoples' food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change” for the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has listed eight indigenous food systems as ‘game changers’. One of these is from Meghalaya, India10.

This food system listed in the publication is, however, from only one village of Meghalaya, i.e. Nongtraw in East Khasi Hills, and is representative of only one system that is based on jhum or shifting cultivation. There are multiple food systems practised by indigenous communities of Meghalaya who make up more than 80 per cent of the total population of the state.

The Diversity in Meghalaya’s Indigenous Food Systems

In 2018, North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) undertook a participatory mapping exercise in 28 villages of Meghalaya as part of its project “No One Shall be Left Behind Initiative: Biodiversity for Food, Nutrition and Energy Security, Meghalaya and Nagaland”, supported by the Rural Electrification Corporation (REC). The villages belong to the districts of East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi, West Jaintia Hills and West Garo Hills.

The NESFAS study covered three ethnic groups: Khasi-Jaintia, Garo and Karbi. Karbi and Garo belong to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group while Khasi are Mon-Khmer speakers. While the Karbi are patrilineal, the Khasis and the Garos are amongst the few groups in the entire Indian subcontinent to follow a matrilineal descent11. Despite such differences, the three groups share similar features when it comes to their food system – a generation of food from across multiple distinct areas of the landscape.

Indigenous communities in Meghalaya source their food from six different sources – the forest, water bodies, shifting cultivation fields (jhum), terrace farming or bun, home gardens, and valley-based paddy system. While jhum, bun, home gardens and the valley-based paddy system are crucial for the cultivation of various crops, naturally occurring wild plants and animals are also harvested from the forest and water bodies. Community members also purchase a few specific food items, such as rice, salt, oil, and lentils, from markets. The market source, however, is omitted from this scheme because many of the commodities sold in the market can have origins beyond the region, like rice and fish coming from Andhra Pradesh.

Food Sources in Meghalaya
Figure: Food Sources in Meghalaya


As the term jhum or shifting cultivation suggests, it involves moving from one location to another. Sometimes this form of cultivation is also termed as rotational farming, swidden farming or slash-and-burn agriculture. Bun is a relatively more settled form of cultivation and is specific to Meghalaya. Terraces are constructed that run across hill slopes and raised mounds are created on which crops are grown12. This system marks a transition from jhum to a more intensive land use by the Khasi farmers – a move motivated by concerns over increasing limits on the availability of land.

The home gardens are much smaller than the jhum or bun plots, and are attached to, or located close to, a farmer’s residence. While in jhum and bun, crops are grown for a certain period, one and three years respectively, home gardens are a permanent feature. Another permanent farming system is the valley-based paddy system. This system is especially common in the highly fertile northern zone of Meghalaya, which is characterised by broad stretches of flat land nestled between low hills. In this zone, the gradient is gentler and these flat lands are used extensively for paddy cultivation.

As mentioned above, food is also harvested from water bodies and forests. The water bodies are in the form of streams, rivers and ponds (both natural and man-made). Various species of fishes, crustaceans and amphibians are harvested from the water bodies. Food is also collected from the streams that flow through paddy fields. The biodiverse forests represent occasional sources of wild foods and non-timber forest produce. The forests consist of old growth that has not been disturbed for more than 20 years and other patches that have experienced disturbances in the last decade or so.

In general, a single village will have access to at least four of the six food sources. Some, in fact, have all the six sources making their system highly diverse and resilient. But diversity is not limited to these sources. The participatory mapping exercise was limited to only food plants, and yet the agrobiodiversity documented was astounding.

The highest number of 319 food plants was documented in Khweng village. It was followed by Marmain with 297 and Umsawar with 284 food plants. The first two villages are located in Ri Bhoi district while the last is from the district of East Khasi Hills. Not surprisingly, in terms of districts, the most diverse villages were found in Ri Bhoi with an average of 252 food plants per village, followed by Garo Hills with 210, West Khasi Hills with 196, East Khasi Hills with 194 food plants, and finally Jaintia Hills with 175 food plants. An average of 202 food plants was documented from the 28 villages who took part in the participatory mapping exercise in Meghalaya.

The diversity was not only recorded in terms of individual food plants, but also in terms of species and varieties within a specific food group. For example, starchy staples (a group which includes cereals and tubers) in Marmain consist of eight species: Rice (which includes sticky rice), millet, taro/ Colocasia (white and black), maize, potato, sweet potato and other wild tubers. Among them rice had the highest diversity with 41 varieties, which includes wetland and dry land, i.e., hill varieties. Similarly, the number of potato varieties ranged from five to 15 in the selected villages of East Khasi Hills13.

When it comes to different land use criteria, jhum has the highest agrobiodiversity. For example, Rasong is a village inhabited by the Khasi located in Mawkynrew CDB of East Khasi Hills district. The total number of food plants from the village is 202 out of which 99 were recorded from the jhum plots. Even in the paddy-based system where rice is the main crop, biodiversity is an important feature. Here, other vegetables are also sown during January-February and harvested in June, just before the paddy sowing season commences. Some of the important vegetables are potato, pumpkin, carrot, beet, onion, tomato, french beans and beans.

Another category of vegetables are the wild varieties found in abundance in the paddy fields. These grow on the bunds dividing the plots or along the banks of the stream flowing across the fields. More than a dozen wild vegetables are harvested at different times of the year and are an important source of micro nutrients for the community, especially when the cultivated crops are not ready to be harvested.

There are also various creatures that have made the paddy fields their home. Rodents and amphibians like crabs, insects and fishes and others are harvested from the paddy fields. Fishes are normally caught from the streams that flow through the paddy fields. During the monsoon season when the streams overflow, fishes are swept into the paddy fields along with the floodwater allowing the farmers to collect them14.

All this agrobiodiversity has been made possible by the diversity of practices contained in the knowledge system of the indigenous communities of Meghalaya. These practices, while being traditional and contextual, are also highly dynamic. Over the years, innovations like the bun have been introduced to deal with changing ecological conditions. Bun is an adaptation of jhum for the usage of degraded landscape of the tableland found in the central parts of Khasi Hills. This has added to the diversity of food sources that is available to the Khasi community.

Existing diversity is being further enriched with many new varieties being developed by indigenous farmers. Kolishon Barim, an indigenous farmer from Liarsluid, a neighbouring village of Khweng, which took part in the participatory mapping exercise, is recognised for developing a new local rice variety called Khaw Jwain in 2008. Today, this rice variety is grown in many parts of Ri Bhoi and West Khasi Hills15.

What can we learn from Meghalaya?

The Indigenous peoples’ food system of Meghalaya is a biodiversity-rich system made possible by the long-held contextual, experiential and oral knowledge system of the indigenous communities. This has allowed for a high degree of diversity of land uses and species (along with traditional landraces), which is continuously being enriched. Economic sustenance and ecological sustainability are both achieved by the rich biodiversity still available in indigenous territories.

Such diversity is crucial for imparting resilience to food systems and climate change adaptation. This is critical in light of the challenges climate change is creating (predicted to intensify) for global food systems. This includes India as well where food security is highly vulnerable to climate change disruptions. In this regard, the food system developed and nurtured by indigenous communities of Meghalaya has important lessons not just for India but for the world as well. And it is time those lessons are heeded.    



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