Empowering and nourishing a vulnerable yet eco-literate tribal community through strengthening a sustainable indigenous food system
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
For the past 8 years, our team has been exploring the indigenous food environment and its contribution to health and nutritional status of tribal communities of Jharkhand. For this purpose, we have been visiting Godda district in Jharkhand where our current vision is focused. While working in this geographical region with the indigenous population residing here, we have developed a deep insight into their food systems and the presence of high nutritive value indigenous foods in this area. However, we have also identified inconsistencies between the availability, access and utilization of these indigenous foods for nutritional well-being. These discrepancies along with other socio-ecological and economic factors such as geographical isolation, difficult terrain, extreme poverty, illiteracy, scarcity of water, migration, socio-economic shifts, local agricultural policies, and climate change are leading to widespread malnutrition in the region along with poor development indicators. Policies to address the needs of these vulnerable tribal communities in this region exist but their implementation are far from satisfactory. Despite all these odds,we have witnessed the resilience of these tribal communities (while working with them as part of our field team) that allows them to work in extreme and challenging situations. A window of opportunity therefore exists for spearheading sustainable development in this region through strategies that will revive indigenous food systems as central to overall development and well-being of these communities.The area has immense scope for intervention by utilizing the indigenous knowledge of the communities while creating value for these and reviving them based on sound scientific principles and modern day technology. This can be achieved without disrupting their natural resilience and efficient use of indigenous food systems.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
We plan to work with an indigenous tribal group of India called the Sauria Paharias. A large proportion of this tribal community resides in the Sundarpahari block of Godda district of Jharkhand although they also inhabit some other districts. The 13 panchayats (wards) and 221 villages in the block have a tribal population of 50,133 comprising mainly of Sauria Paharia and Santhal tribes. The hilly terrain of Sundarpahari is entirely inhabited by the Sauria Paharias who are original inhabitants of the Rajmahal Hills and the neighbouring region of Santhal Paraganas. The cultivable land is about 21% and food crops such as rice paddy, wheat, maize, indigenous pulses like cowpea, pigeon pea are grown. Sauria Paharias are one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs are the indigenous communities who have pre-agricultural level of technology, stagnant or declining population, low levels of literacy and subsistence level of economy) and lag behind on several development indicators. The tribes belong to the Austro-Asiatic sub-family of the Austric family of languages, are of Dravidian origin and follow a patrilineal tradition. Their traditional religious beliefs common to this region encourages forest conservation with certain areas called Jaharthan/Majhithan treated as sacred and flora and fauna within the area are conserved. Historical conflicts and cultural and economic dominance of the Santhal tribal group in the region, have resulted in a somewhat isolated existence of the Sauria Paharias and restricted their interactions with other communities.The hilly ranges and wild dense forests around their villages provides a rich biodiverse food environment. The community, living in smaller villages with dense housing, primarily depends on agriculture-based livelihoods farming on small areas of land, home gardens (Baris) and shifting slash and burn hill cultivation (Kurwa). Simultaneously, forests, rivers and nearby areas are accessed for food and other commodities, either for household consumption or income generation. Our work on the food environment of this community elicited a rich traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) about indigenous foods (IFs). The community reported 193 IFs which included varieties of rice, green leafy vegetables, pulses, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, insects, honey, wild animals and fishes. However, only about half of these IFs are currently consumed owing to difficult availability and access. Certain IFs were reported that are valued for their taste but are little used owing to difficult access. In summary, we found a community very much in sync with its environment but struggling to match the pace of certain critical development indicators. They have strong communal networks and non-formal barter systems still exist within this society. They aspire to maintain their TEK along with adopting modern good practices and technology (like better education and stable livelihoods) to improve their current living conditions.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Indigenous Knowledge is a key element of social capital of our eco-literate Sauria Paharias and a keystone asset to retain control over their lives. Despite this knowledge about biodiverse environment, Sauria Paharia households are nutritionally deprived and food insecure. Their diets lack diversity, and have poor nutritional quality. High prevalence of maternal and child undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies (e.g., anemia, vitamin D, etc.) as well as malaria endemicity exists. Several factors like geographical isolation and difficult terrain have led to poor implementation and monitoring of tribal welfare programs. This has led to restricted access to basic amenities like safe drinking water, healthcare facilities, education etc. leading to poor health and nutrition, low literacy rates and income that is much below the minimum requirement for a decent living. Water scarcity is a huge problem in many villages and energy poverty associated with use of firewood and cow dung cake as cooking fuel have caused widespread indoor air pollution affecting health in the absence of low cost technology. Their agricultural system is primarily rain fed. Climate change (erratic rains and long summers) has taken a toll on agricultural productivity. The recent promotion of hybrid varieties has led to loss of indigenous seeds. A transition to water resource intense rice cultivation from historical practice of growing climate resilient, water efficient indigenous millets has led to unpredictable agricultural production. Several indigenous species are little used. Water scarcity inhibits productive backyard gardening. To support households economically, males resort to seasonal migration. This affects agricultural activity and foraging due to limited manpower. Though forest food products from foraging diversified food plate in the past, it has reduced now due to diminishing forest cover and opportunity costs. Policies addressing forest conservation, improving their quality in degraded areas and better forest management need to be reinforced not only for food but also as crucial factor for water availability and agriculture. Government food security programs promoting mono diets and rice compound an already compromised dietary diversity. Despite a unique cultural character and historical isolation, contextual policies aimed at mainstreaming this community are limited and prevailing development models may be disruptive for their harmonious co-existence with environment. Despite the impoverishment, nutrition transition has also made inroads and processed foods from markets, perceived as high value items are being preferred over indigenous foods which are now considered as poor men’s food. If these issues are not addressed now, the consequences of climate change with possible extinction of indigenous seeds and water scarcity may jeopardize currently challenged agroforestry environment and may have dire consequences on this already impoverished community by 2050.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is for a thriving Sauria Paharia tribal community that leverages it's indigenous food system (IFS) to end malnutrition and create a society built on the foundation of local traditional practices enmeshed with sustainable development strategies. The revival aims to bring nutritious diets to the plates of Sauria Paharia families, while simultaneously delivering clean fuel, clean water, better forest cover, hygiene, health care, education and economic empowerment .To this end, we propose to build a framework for intersectoral convergence while engaging with the community, grass roots level NGOs, Government departments of tribal welfare, health, women and child development, forest and environment ,drinking water and sanitation and the research community (nutrition, food systems, agriculture, economics, environment and experts working on sustainable development and policy). We will begin with approaching the community to build acceptance of the proposed approach and foster cultural respect for their bountiful heritage. We intend to build upon a circular food system where arable land is used for food production, biomass unsuitable for human consumption is recycled as animal feed, by-products are used to promote soil fertility, etc. thus creating a complementary, sustainable system.
Our approaches would include: Agricultural diversity supported through improved production and access to indigenous climate resilient seed varieties, farming equipment and irrigation systems and bolstering the subsistence economy by selling surplus and creating local cooperatives. Nutrition gardens promoted by indigenous seed production and access, transplantation of forest species, supporting water management, and creating non-formal barter system for sharing surplus within the community or supplying to government feeding programs. Sustainable use of forests and water bodies, while improving forest cover, judicious community foraging and exchanging forest products while promoting balanced use of resources such as firewood or gradual replacement with clean fuels to reduce indoor air pollution to ensure sustainability and improve health. At a policy level, existing policies will be tweaked at local levels like incorporation of IFs into government supplementary feeding programs and self-help groups trained in decentralized production of IFs products as take-home ration. We would examine, assess and negotiate within the existing framework of policies and programs on forest conservation,access to clean drinking water, healthcare, education, crop insurance etc to support our vision. Thus the core strategies for promoting IFS would be enhanced with approaches to improve livelihood, access to clean water, clean fuel , health and education with a strong behavior change and communication component to create an enduring solution for the community to live a healthy and contented life for generations to come.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
We live in a highly inequitable world where superabundant resources and mechanized lives leading to obesity and lifestyle related diseases are juxtaposed with severely resource limited communities without some of the essential necessities of life. Our vision will channel strategies to re-purpose the existing food supply chain and revive the diminishing yet sustainable components of indigenous food systems of Sauria Paharias and maximize their production, propagation and utilization. Though we would initiate our vision with Sundarpahari, our goal is to cover all Sauria Paharias living in 4 districts of Jharkhand.
By leveraging on strategies working in tandem while engaging with interconnected sectors, our vision’s holistic approach will revive the environmentally friendly, water efficient indigenous food systems of this tribal community. This will involve utilization of agricultural and nutrition garden produce, sustainable use of forest and water resources for foods and markets selling locally produced foods that will support the community’s own economy. This will be contextualized to current threats of climate change and supported by innovations like sustainable sources of clean water, clean fuels, health services that are functional and accessible, and conveniently located educational opportunities. If these are fulfilled, we dream of a revitalized community where every child, every adolescent, every man and every woman leads a life of dignity without hunger, consuming high quality culturally valued nutritious diets and clean drinking water with access to sustainable water supply, a health system, a pollution free environment and high quality education.
In 2050, we envision that the Sauria Paharias, who are considered PVTGs now, will be the torch bearers of a food system that has retained the traditional knowledge yet chosen the best of what modern development and science can offer to tackle environmental challenges while keeping their food system sustainable.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Photo credits: The visuals are from the fellowship work of Dr Suparna Ghosh-Jerath supported by the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (https://www.indiaalliance.org/) [IA/CPHI/16/1/502639]
Photo credits: The visuals are from the fellowship work of Dr Suparna Ghosh-Jerath supported by the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (https://www.indiaalliance.org/) [IA/CPHI/16/1/502639]
The presentation provides a glimpse of the formative research work done so far with the Sauria Paharia community by the team. This is a part of a fellowship awarded to Dr Suparna Ghosh-Jerath by the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (https://www.indiaalliance.org/) [IA/CPHI/16/1/502639]
Our vision is for a thriving Sauria Paharia tribal community that leverages it's indigenous food system to end malnutrition and create a society built on the foundation of local traditional practices enmeshed with sustainable development strategies. This will be achieved through intersectoral convergence and engagement with the Sauria Paharia community, policy makers, program implementers, grass roots level NGOs working in agriculture extension, research community (nutritionists, environmental experts, agriculturists, economists, experts working for sustainable development and policy). Our holistic approach towards improving the nutrition, health and livelihoods of this community puts sustainable and climate resilient food systems' strengthening at its core.
Food systems to address nutritional well-being and overall development may not just include food, but food preparation fuel and water, which have distinct health and environmental impacts as well as other social determinants that need to be addressed for sustainable development of our society and its overall well-being. For example, nutritious, affordable indigenous foods may not work well for women who are exposed to the ill-effects of indoor air pollution due to unclean cooking fuel use or for children who are having diarrheal episodes and infections due to consumption of unclean water and lack of immunization. Our vision for this holistic development will try to address all these determinants of a healthy and malnutrition free society.
A pre-requisite for our vision is to build cultural respect among the community for their bountiful heritage, incorporate it’s sentiments towards the traditional indigenous practices and promote acceptance of the proposed approach. For example, inputs from experts and utilizing the community's inventory of indigenous crops, appropriate crops would be selected. Thereafter, expertise of plant gene resource organizations for production of indigenous seeds at scale, and support from agriculturists for incorporating modern farming technology would be solicited. Incorporating contextual strategies that align our visionary approaches to present day environmental problems is a necessary component of the package. Apart from these, it would be crucial to examine and assess the existing framework of policies and programs of Government departments of agriculture, health, education, tribal welfare, women and child development, drinking water and sanitation and forest and environment to find out how they could be made more useful in achieving better health and nutritional outcomes for the Sauria Paharias. It would also be useful to identify specific programs that require minor tweaking, in processes or in substance, which can be achieved at the local level (block / district) e.g. improving access to isolated pockets for better program penetration.
The community is still at a stage of nutrition transition where modern food systems have just made inroads into the habitual diets, edging out some of the traditional foods. This is a fast diminishing window of opportunity, where a timely intervention could possibly stem the tide and support a revival of these food systems in order to offset the inevitable effects of nutrition transition in this traditional community.
Our vision conceives the amalgamation of the tribal community’s knowledge with our scientific inputs to explore ways to revive an affordable, nutritious indigenous food system that is climate resilient, culturally acceptable, economically viable and addresses fuel poverty. The revival should bring nutritious diets to the plates of Sauria Paharia families, while simultaneously delivering clean fuel, clean water, better forest cover, hygiene, health care, education and economic empowerment to this community.
In order to end malnutrition by reviving the healthy and sustainable indigenous food systems of the Sauria Paharias, our vision will be to adopt a circular food system where arable land is used for food production, biomass unsuitable for human consumption is recycled as animal feed, by-products are used to promote soil fertility, etc. thus creating a complementary and sustainable system.
1.Agricultural diversity: Bringing back agricultural diversity and reviving climate resilient, water efficient indigenous millets, rice, pulses and legumes that are currently as well as historically consumed by our community. Activities will include production and access to climate resilient, water efficient indigenous seeds (large scale production and access to indigenous seeds through scientific inputs from organizations working in plant gene resources or by promoting traditional methods of seeds production, storage and distribution in consultation with the community), sharing of mechanized farm equipment and revival of traditional ways of rain water harvesting. Efforts will also be made to address the subsistence economy by selling surplus and creating cooperatives for achieving economies at scale. Supportive policies on crop insurance, incentivizing farmers to grow indigenous crops could be considered. Traditional practices of raising livestock for household consumption and livelihood purposes will be supported.
2.Nutrition gardens: Kitchen gardens will be revived and indigenous varieties of green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, fruits etc will be promoted for consumption through programs that will support water management. Small scale indigenous seed production and distribution as well as indigenous practices on seed production, storage and distribution and cutting and transplantation of indigenous plants from forests, will be promoted. A non-formal barter system for sharing surplus within the community or selling to the government supplementary feeding programs will be encouraged. Culturally acceptable recipes will be developed and popularized for the kitchen garden produce.
3.Sustainable use of forests and water bodies: The existing frameworks of policies and programs of the department of forests and environment emphasizing conservation of forest cover, improving the quality of forests in degraded areas and better forest management would be examined and advocacy for better implementation would be ensured. Cultural beliefs and practices that promote conservation of forest will be reinforced through non-formal education of the younger generation by the elders in the community. Exploitation of forests for firewood will be restricted through promotion of clean fuels. A co-benefit of this will be better health for women who face substantial indoor air pollution while cooking. Foraging of nutrient dense indigenous foods (mushrooms, tubers, greens and animal foods) and fishes, insects and water animals from water bodies will be encouraged. Community foraging and exchange/sharing of forest products for nutrition garden produce will be encouraged to reduce opportunity costs.
4. Supplementary feeding program utilizing indigenous foods: Efforts will be undertaken to promote uptake of surplus produce from community nutrition garden and foraged products into the government feeding programs like school mid-day meal programs and Integrated Child Development Services’ (ICDS) supplementary nutrition programs, thus assuring returns from public funding on surplus produce as well as enhanced diet quality of supplementary foods for children and women.
5. Women’s self-help groups for promoting indigenous preparations and livelihood intervention: Existing policies on decentralization of production of take home ration under ICDS programs will be reinforced by trainings self-help groups (SHGs) for preparation of supplementary foods incorporating indigenous food ingredients. Community level centres may be operated (after due trainings) for preparing indigenous food products like processed preserves, sun-dried green leafy vegetables and other vegetables and other culturally acceptable recipes and supplying to the supplementary feeding programs, or selling products in the local market. This can yield returns to the members of the groups.
6.Hygienic environment: Promoting clean water, sanitation and clean cooking fuels will be an integral part of our approach. The ongoing efforts under the Swachh Bharat Mission (promoting universal sanitation coverage in the country) will be acknowledged and supported. This crucial social determinant of health will be addressed using low cost technology for provision of clean drinking water, safe disposal of waste and sanitary practices. Clean cooking with low cost bio gas plants using livestock waste manure, chimneys, improved stoves and other technologies will be explored.
7. A strong behavior change communication (BCC) component: All the efforts mentioned above will be reinforced with a strong BCC component. Community mobilization will be a core strategy and community will be empowered to take charge of their own well-being and partner with the program implementers in successful execution of the key approaches. Knowledge, awareness, beliefs and feelings about the agricultural practices which are nutrition sensitive and consumption of diverse diets consisting of indigenous foods at household, community, institutional and commercial level/markets will be addressed. Community approaches like focus group discussion, awareness meetings, demonstrations, streaming success stories, video extension etc through active engagement with Sauria Paharia community, community leaders, school children, adolescent peer groups, pregnant and lactating women, mothers and women's SHGs will be used. Making school education accessible to all and a value system that promotes indigenous culture will create an enabling environment during the formative years at school.