Phlida Kharshala of Meghalaya’s Khasi indigenous community and
her 8-year-old grandson sell mushrooms in Shillong city, India.
Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS
By Manipadma Jena
SHILLONG, India, Oct 29 2019 (IPS)
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
“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
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.
A little Khasi tribal boy peeks from behind a large variety of
pickled chilly pepper, chopped bamboo-shoots, wild fruits and
berries being sold along Assam to Meghalaya highway, northeastern
India, as his mother attends to buyers. Credit: Manipadma
“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
“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 tiles 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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Mother Earth’s Café Dares Climate Crises in India