At an ancient sacred grove in Mawphlang, orchids bloomed on towering evergreen trees. Our guide picked a fallen rudraksha seed that is used as a prayer bead and medicine. Nestled in East Khasi Hills in the Indian state of Meghalaya, meaning the abode of the clouds, this sacred grove is a stunning example of how indigenous communities are guardians of their forests and territories. People are forbidden to disturb the grove or gather any forest resources to respect labasa, the forest deity. We walk in quiet contemplation and awe through emerald hues of ferns and vines.
The walk in the sacred grove was part of Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) that brought together 140 indigenous food communities from 58 countries in November. A collaboration of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, Slow Food International and North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), ITM celebrated the rich food cultures of Indigenous Peoples and showcased their resilient food systems and sustainable practices.
“Indigenous Peoples have a lesson for all of us as we search for a way forward to overcome the crises we face today,” said Phrang Roy, founder of NESFAS and an advocate of indigenous food systems from the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. “Today there is growing awareness that indigenous knowledge that had been ignored and marginalized as a primitive knowledge system is something we need to look to to build a sustainable, fairer system where food security, nutrition and well being of people is held together.”
Indigenous Terra Madre spanned five days, where delegates dialogued at a conference, visited matrilineal Khasi communities on jaw-dropping mountainous vistas and tasted the stunning culinary diversity of their local foods—roots, greens, tubers, millets, chutneys and meats. “We are the people who care for the food and water, our Mother Earth. We are the people who care for our traditions, care for our future generations and our relatives whether they have wings, or fins or roots or paws,” said renowned Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke at the opening ceremony. LaDuke shared how Indigenous Peoples are part of a growing movement that is resisting the theft of native seeds and lands.
Tasting workshops showcased the breathtaking diversity of indigenous foods: fermented foods, wild edibles, wild rice, honey and a lively tasting session on insects that demonstrated how food sovereignty was deeply interlinked with environmental health and relationship with nature. The convening closed with the Mei-Ramew Food Festival, meaning Mother Earth in local Khasi language, at Mawphlang, where over 50,000 people across North East India and beyond joined the celebration of indigenous foods through food exhibition stalls, dances and songs from Khasi, Naga and Kuki tribes and a special performance by Mongolian throat singers.
Dayamani Barla, tribal journalist, who is on the frontline of land grabbing struggles in Jharkhand, India, shared how indigenous culture and identity is inextricably tied to the health of their surrounding environment. “Our very culture and identity is tied with nature. We can’t survive when nature is being looted by the current economic paradigm. If we want to promote our food sovereignty, we have to stop the displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands and territories. And we have to be rooted in resistance.”