A tribe hangs in the balance
[Kavya Chowdhry worked with the Kondh adivasis to study their agricultural practices, access to forest foods, and methods of preservation of seed diversity. In the Tallia Kondh community, she sees a chasm between the indigenous knowledge of older farmers who practice multi-cropping and a new generation that remains detached from their traditional food practices.]
We are in a rickshaw, travelling through the Niyamgiri hills, bristly with cotton plantations on either side of the road. I point outside and ask Sunadei Kilaka what she feels about the water-draining tree species and the chemical-intensive plants that have recently become pervasive in the Rayagada district. She says, “Dharni will be angry. She will cause us great trouble if we continue like this.” Caressing a fellow passenger’s child in her lap, she says, “Like this child that needs food every day, needs to be bathed to stay healthy, so Dharni needs constant care, to be healthy, to flourish. And when Dharni is well, every living being is well.”
Dharni is the Earth Goddess of the Kondh people. Sunadei Kilaka is a Desia Kondh, a group of indigenous Kondh people (another group being the Dongria Kondhs, whose struggle to protect their hills from Vedanta, an extractive mining company, has been well-documented). The Kondh people regard Dharni as a living being. She defines their relationship with the ecosystem, as manifested in their agricultural practices, food gathering and foraging, hunting practices, festivals, and other rituals. As Felix Padel puts it in The Sacrifice of Human Being (2000), “There is nothing sentimental about this reverence (to nature). It is part of a way of life that involves the killing of plants and animals in a continuous cycle, for food. But this killing is performed with a precise knowledge of nature’s laws and limits, as well as a profound respect for the spirit world that manifests through the nature.”
This ‘precise knowledge of nature’s laws’ is woven intricately into the daily lives of the Kondh. In winter, from November to January when there is an abundance of tubers, an integral part of the Kondh diet, they are mindful while foraging for consumption. The mundi (head) of the kanda (tuber) is left behind to ensure that it regenerates, and there is sufficient should other foraging person come pass that way.
While clearing the forests for shifting cultivation, trees are not indiscriminately cut, as is assumed in mainstream perception of shifting cultivation. Species like mango, tamarind, kendu, mahua are never felled. Forest fires for clearing are controlled, lit in demarcated areas and surrounded by a fire-line that is about about 5-10 feet wide, cleared of dried leaves, to prevent the fire from spreading. Another wonderful example of Kondh ingenuity are the festivals that closely align with the agricultural calendar. In the month of April, when the festival of Bihan Parab is celebrated, people come together to share seeds for the upcoming cultivation cycle. If misfortune has struck a Kondh farmer and destroyed her seeds, she can wait for Bihan Parab to restock her supplies from fellow farmers! This can seem a rather radical practice to ensure equity in a world where the concept of patented seeds is the norm.
Seeds were safeguarded from pests and rodents through storage in earthen pots, covered with straw and cow dung, then sealed with mud. Pulses, the most vulnerable to pests, were protected through regular sunning. Many seeds and grains were also stored in the lau tumba or dried bottle gourd shells. But today, plastic has replaced these traditional containers. The elders of Bondichuan explain that the potters have now stopped making huge earthen pots, and they now come at a very high price. So people resort to plastic bags for safeguarding seeds. Another unfortunate observation they share is that seeds stored in plastic bags do not germinate well. Why? “Because they aren’t in contact with air inside these bags.”
I climb the dongar (hill) of the village of Bardoguda on a sunny morning in September, and farmers point out tree stumps covered with velvet bean climbers. They explain that eating too many of these beans can cause rashes, swelling, sometimes even death. When cooking the beans, one must be careful discard the water in which they are boiled. We spot bamboo on the hill. Bamboo shoots are a delicacy here, and bamboo mushrooms are dried and stored for up to a year.
To understand the nature of indigenous knowledge systems, one has to appreciate that this vast ocean of knowledge has been formed through observation and repeated affirmation of these learnings across generations. Knowledge is transmitted orally, through songs, riddles, and stories. When Bappa from Kidimati explains that jhinka (porcupine) intestine is a potent cure for stomach ache, I wonder about the first person brave enough to test, and ‘certify’ this. How closely were they looking around? The foundation of Kondh life seems to be built on many acute observations of ecology. Sona Maa of Bondichuan, pulling out the weeds from her land, holds up a particularly stubborn weed for me, saying this wasn’t around when she was growing up. “A recent nuisance, probably because of these cotton crops.” She is worried, looking out at the expanding mono-culture plantations around her village. “They think neither of the past nor of the future. They are only concerned for the present.” As part of efforts to revive the traditional agricultural practices in the regions, Living Farms, an organisation dedicated to reviving traditional agricultural practices of the Kondh adivasis, attempts to facilitate dialogues in the villages and holds food festivals, seed exchanges and knowledge-exchange workshops. The growing detachment of the youth from their traditional agricultural practices after they leave for schools – most of which are residential – is a recurring theme. In every village we visit, the elders lament over their school-going children. The women of Pinda exclaim, “These school kids have become nisht (lazy). Do you think school-goers will accompany us to the forest or the fields? Getting foods from the markets seems easier.” Young boys in Kidimati agree that they consume less than half the food varieties their parents eat.
Can the youth be blamed, though? “Can someone learn to plough by looking at the picture of a plough, or know the uses of a mahua plant without touching it, or tending to it? They do not know their own language, how will they learn the wisdom in our songs? They go to the schools and come back only to talk in Odia, and move away from agriculture, away from our villages and fields, our way of life,” say the elders of Godhabhangari. These concerns are far from being recent though. Indigenous communities have long been portrayed as ‘uncivilized’ or ‘backward,’ and have struggled continuously against the expropriation of their lands and commons on this pretext. This is reflected in modern schooling embedded with disregard toward their way of life, focusing solely on preparing children to join an industrial workforce.
“We accompanied our parents everywhere. We learnt by observing them, and practicing later.” How is this way of life, which relies so heavily on hands-on learning and practical observations, to be sustained if the younger generation is schooled to not see value in it? Once they leave for residential schools, the youth barely return to spend time in their villages. A large number of young men migrate seasonally to Kerala every year, to work in factories, and miss the agricultural festivals of their hometowns.
Alongside, the attempt to regulate shifting cultivation by the forest department, the region has seen the fields descend from the hills to the plains; hill-slopes were converted into forests under the authority of the forest departments, or wastelands under the authority of the revenue department. This concerted effort to drive people away from their lands may not be necessary anymore, now that the youth themselves are slowly inclined to abandoning the fields and forests, for what they believe to be greener pastures.
Kavya Chowdhry used to work with Living Farms, an organisation dedicated to reviving traditional agricultural practices of the Kondh adivasis, securing their access to forests and forest foods, and preserving the traditional seed diversity. Thanks Sharanya Nayak and Krushna Kanhar for their inpu on this piece.
First published on Goya Journal on 30 Jul. 2019