When indigenous peoples begin to eat foods that are neither local or sustainable, there is reason for concern. The past decade has seen rural, indigenous communities steadily increase their dependence on global, processed food products. If the current trend continues, then we are looking at a future where indigenous diets will consist of packaged products, and the rich bio-cultural diversity of their past history will lost.

At stake is the eradication of generations of traditional knowledge, passed on within communities, on the value and medicinal benefits of wild edible plants. These plants are almost always categorised as ‘neglected and under-utilised,’ and yet they represent resilience against climate-change and greater food security. They are low cost, widely availability and high in nutritional content. There are more than 30,000 varieties of edible plants, of which only 30 are widely used as staple food-crops, and only three (wheat, rice and corn) are the dominating monocultures.

The Northeast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), founded in Shillong, India, profiles and supports the role of indigenous communities as guardians of agro-biodiversity and local food systems. The NESFAS acts as a breeding ground for innovation and ideas that have the potential to build sustainable food projects from the ground up. Through NESFAS, traditional knowledge and modern science are becoming part of the local dialogue. By organising food festivals and participatory research projects that bring together communities, ethno-botanists and plant breeders, NESFAS creates meaningful entry points to showcase the incredible agro-biodiversity available, and to discuss common issues such as local livelihoods, climate change and the depletion of traditional knowledge amongst younger generations.

Communities that possess such a vast knowledge of ecological indicators for climate resilience should be celebrated and included in progressive discussions on the future of our food. This is why NESFAS has started documenting the “custodians of biodiversity.” This initiative grew from a collaboration between communities wanting to revive the use of wild-edibles and scientists interested in capturing the knowledge these communities have. Two female farmers from the North East of India were invited to take part in an international workshop, where custodian farmers from across the globe gathered together with scientists in Kathmandu, Nepal to exchange knowledge on local food systems.

Recently, the small village of Tyrna, located in the hills of North East India and comprised of about 100 households, organised a biodiversity walk and food festival as part of a students intergenerational knowledge sharing programme. Realising that their youth had a declining interest in the wild edibles that grow in the forest, the elders and teachers of Tyrna developed a day-programme focusing on the importance of nature in their community’s health and independence. Along with collecting wild edibles through an interactive walk, the event also included learning sessions on how to cook these plants and on their medicinal and nutritional value. In total more than 120 plants were identified as edible and useful, which astonished farmers and scientists alike.

This same community has found through their engagement with local wild edibles, a solution to a growing malnutrition problem. Children were receiving a mid-day meal provided by the central government (on an irregular basis) of imported polished rice and one boiled egg. There was no budget for fresh vegetables in the provided meal. Children are now served wild edibles twice a week to compensate for the missing nutrition. An example that perfectly illustrates the value of this local, native and secure food source to the people of Tyrna.

Many indigenous communities have understood that the more we can strengthen local food systems from the ground up, the more authority and voice will be given to indigenous custodians, and the less dependent these communities will become on the global forces that are today threatening their cultural survival. In this way, the long-term vision of NESFAS is the increased health and well-being for indigenous communities, and a sense of identity that is built on local and diverse food cultures.

Photographs by Annelie Bernhart

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