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Chapter 3. Treasures from shifting cultivation in the Himalayan’s evergreen forest Jhum, fishing and gathering food system of the Khasi people in Meghalaya, India

Section 2 Sustainability of the Indigenous People’s food system


Adequacy of income opportunities

People in the community have a diversity of livelihood opportunities. The most important is agriculture. Daily wage labour (farm labour) and artisanal activities (from local agrobiodiversity products like bamboo) are some of the other important livelihood activities. According to the community, all households are engaged in agriculture and daily wage, 95 percent are artisans, 50 percent rear livestock, 10 percent are employed in the public sector (government servant), and 5 percent have small businesses (selling fish and agricultural products). Except for daily wage work, in which members of the community may have to go to different areas for work, the remaining activities are very much linked to the local landscape.

Selling crop products contributes an estimated 40 percent of household income. Crops like cassava, sweet potato and its variety sla phan karo, yam, phan myngor (variety of potato), cucumber, maize, soy, sesame, Job’s tear, millet, banana, blackberry, tree brinjal, brinjal, pumpkin (Cucurbita sp.), silverberry, box myrtle, blackberry nightshade (Solanum americanum), passion fruit, bird’s eye chillies (Capsicum frutescens), ginger (Zingiber officinale), mustard leaves, rice bean, nei (Perilla frutescens, sesame), bay leaf, pineapple, guava, and wild edibles like jaïing, garlic chives and so on, are sold in local markets.

At present, the community does not process many of the items for sale. They just take the raw or washed foods, pack them, and sell them according to weight. Sweet potato and cassava are sometimes sold cooked, prepared the night before. Likewise, wild edibles like jaïing and cassava are cleaned and packed in banana leaves tied with threads made out of bamboo skin. An exceptional situation exists for millet. A group of 16 youths from the community have formed a cooperative society for marketing millet. They sell both raw (grains removed from stem) and processed form (ground into a powder) millet, the latter of which is packed nicely for sale at the market. The moment community members arrive at the market, the first task they do is search for a spot to sell the produce. Sometimes, shopkeepers offer to buy their entire produce at a wholesale price, which they sell again in their own shops. To avoid being oppressed by low prices, farmers try to sell the produce on their own. The community is known for bringing organic products for the market and therefore, in some cases, obtaining better prices than other villages.

Broom grass is a cash crop that has an entirely different value chain. Unlike other crop products sold by the community, broom grass is not sold directly to consumers. Intermediaries (Marwari in this case, a trading community originally from the Marwar region of Rajasthan) come to Sohrarim and buy the entire stock from the villagers. These traders then take the product to Shillong, where it is sent to other parts of India. In some cases, the broom grass is exported to Bangladesh.

Income from livestock contributes an estimated 20 percent of household income. Chickens primarily are sold within the community to friends and other members, whilst their eggs are sold outside the village. Pigs are sold directly to consumers both within and outside the community. Within the village, the pig seller organises a gambling session. Those who take part in this game win a certain amount of meat as well as money. Some households sell honey to middlemen.

Khasi woman selling products at the market.
© Lyngdoh NESFAS/André J. Fanthome.

Amongst non-­farm activities, basket making brings a substantial amount of income to the community. Their prices are quite lucrative, and demand is high thanks to the influence of middlemen who help market them in more distant markets. Shillong is the most important market for such baskets. Mahajans (business people) buy the baskets from the artisans and sell them to different business establishments in Shillong, which then sell them to consumers. A variety of daily labour activities and services are carried out in the community, including kit nong (carrying loads up and down the 3 000 stairs that connect Nongtraw to the main road), carpentry, shoh maw (breaking rocks into smaller pieces), infrastructure development under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), domestic work in Sohra or Shillong, thangrnga (charcoal production), driving, teaching, and working in NGOs.

Although they participate in several value chains, the community faces many challenges in accessing the market to sell their products. Because there is no motorable road to their village, they have to carry their products from the village up 3 000 steps to Sohrarim to reach the road. When they reach the top, they have to hire and pay people to carry their goods to Sohra or Shillong markets. Oftentimes, they have to wait for long hours to catch a vehicle to the markets and they may not make it there on time. If they reach the market late, they may have trouble obtaining a good price for their goods. There is no fixed price for selling the produce, as it depends on demand and quality. The mahajan to whom they sell the produce will offer them low prices because most buyers have gone back home. Those who sell on their own also tend to lower their prices because they have no place to store their produce for the next day. Demand for honey has increased since 2000, with the price going up to INR 55013 per kg, but the middlemen take all the profit. The beekeepers themselves have limited capital and recurring investments like construction and maintenance of beehives is very high.

Income is spent on many things, including different kinds of food and drinks, dresses, toys for the children, and other household materials like utensils. Money is also spent on rice and in tea shops during the journey to the market and on the way home as well. Other activities that require cash include transportation fares, education for children (school fees, books, uniforms, etc.), donations to the church, medicines and treatments, building houses, electricity bills, disc TVs, and recharging mobile phones. Expenses for agricultural needs include renting the land for cultivation and purchasing seeds. Potato is an important crop for the community and its seeds have to be purchased every year by the farmers. People also buy piglets from outside the village. Artisans have to buy bamboos from other areas to make their baskets since local production cannot meet demand. In addition to this regular spending, some money is spent on special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, Easter, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Moments of grief like funerals also incur a lot of expense in the form of contributions to the bereaved family. During such times, money is required for serving tea and food to those who have come to the funeral service. Money is also spent playing teer, a local gambling sport.

The community benefits from various government subsidies and welfare schemes. India is a welfare state and it has many programmes for rural development, upliftment and poverty eradication. The community receives support from different schemes, including the PDS, pension scheme, Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS), Widow Scheme for Housing, scheme for child delivery, PHE for water supply, ASHA, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), and Meghalaya Health Insurance Scheme (MHIS). All these subsidies are helping the community by reducing their financial burden and enabling access to services, such as vaccinations for which the cost may otherwise be prohibitive. According to men, people can survive without subsidies, but it will entail great difficulties. Women, on the other hand, agree that subsidies have helped a great deal in earning a liveable wage but also insist that they can sustain themselves in its absence as well. They would have to work harder, but they would be able to manage. Thus, supported by the Government’s welfare schemes, the local food system is able to provide income opportunities for the community.

Adequacy of diets

The community consumes a large variety of foods. Starches (cereals and tubers) are the most common food group (consumed by 100 percent of participants in the thematic discussions in the past 24 hours), followed by dark green leafy vegetables (> 50 percent consumed in the past 24 hours). Eggs are eaten three to four times a week and meat and flesh foods are consumed weekly. Other foods (e.g. fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds, milk) are consumed more sparsely. People consume rice daily at lunch, dinner and other occasions. Currently, it is the most important staple food of the community. In addition, at least half of the respondents had consumed a variety of tuber in the last 24 hours. Dark green leafy vegetables consumed by the community are mostly wild edibles collected from the surrounding landscape, such as garlic chives, jaïing, jatira (Oenanthe javanica, water celery), jali, jaut (Allium hookeri Thwaites, Amaryllidaceae, hooker chives), and buckwheat. Chicken and pork are the most important meat products. Pork is consumed at least once a week. Chicken, on the other hand, is consumed only occasionally, mostly during the winter season. Many festivals and celebrations take place during this season and people cook chicken dishes for these occasions. Everyone consumed chicken recently during the lunch break of the thematic discussions. Oil is used regularly to cook the various dishes.

Local diets change during the year as the food available from the local landscape experiences drastic seasonality changes. People like to eat fruits and nuts, but they are available only seasonally. The case is similar with pulses as dal and beans from the local landscape are very important. In the summer, wild edibles like buckwheat, jali, jakhria, jamyrdoh (Houttuynia cordata, fish mint), sla tyrkhang (Nephrolepis cordifolia, sword fern), Himalayan raspberry, latyrkaiñ, sla jajew (Begonia roxburghii, East Himalayan begonia) and pashor kait start becoming available in the landscape. People also begin harvesting some of the food crops from their agricultural fields in the summer and some people catch Khasi garra from nearby streams. By autumn, people consume many of the foods that they harvest from their fields. During the winter season, far fewer wild edibles are available and people buy more foods from the market. In the spring, dependence on the market is high because this is the sowing season and most of the crops are not ready for harvest. Only a few wild edibles like buckwheat and tit tung (Lactifluus volemus) are harvested from the wild during this season.

People use a variety of techniques to ensure that certain foods are available for longer periods. They store millet in sacks that they keep in a warm and dry place, which allows the grain to be stored for two to five years. Maize is hung near the fireplace to get rid of insects. People normally keep maize for the next season’s sowing, but it is possible to store it for 5 to 10 years. Similarly, potato and its varieties are normally kept for sowing in the following season (from November to February), but if kept in a dry place they can be stored for one year. Sesame wrapped in a jaiñ sala (white cloth) and kept in a warm place can last for one year. Generally, sesame is stored from November (harvesting) to April (sowing). Storing of rice bean follows the same procedure as sesame. Job’s tears are stored in sacks only until the next planting season but if their seeds, like sesame and rice bean, are wrapped in jaiñ sala and kept free of moisture, they can last for four to five years. Ginger, citron and shynrai (Curcuma longa, turmeric) are stored in the soil itself. Cocoyams are stored in sacks and can remain so for at least six months. Fruits like box myrtle, silverberry and chillies, and vegetables like brinjal and radish can be kept for longer durations by pickling them. The longer they are preserved, the tastier they get. Meats are dried by a fireplace so they can be stored for a long time before consumption. Meat of dohpieh can be kept for up to a year if properly dried. Thus, people in the community can prolong the lifespan of crops and meat, allowing them to consume such food during times of scarcity.

People in the community do not often consume five food groups a day. Nevertheless, the community is of the opinion that their local diets are adequate to fulfil their nutritional needs. By and large, they have enough cash income to buy food from the market when they need it. Nevertheless, they are not completely immune to food insecurity. In 2017, the community suffered huge losses in agriculture because of heavy rainfall. The people could not start their farming on time and the broom grass plants (the main cash income for many) were damaged. As a result of these losses, people had to reduce consumption and were only able to eat a few kinds of food items. This situation was not unique to a few households but was faced by everyone in the community.

Jingbam na iew (foods from the market) have become important in the recent past. Around 40-50 percent of the food now comes from the market. A diversity of nutritious foods is available in the market, including fruits, vegetables, pulses and meats, amongst other foods. People consider carrot, lettuce, grapes and apples to be amongst the healthiest foods, which can be easily bought from Sohra. The food available in the markets is generally considered to be of good quality. However, women noted that they do not know whether the fruits or vegetables in the market are fresh and it is difficult to find out if the food items purchased have been grown using pesticides. They have more faith in their local production in terms of quality and health effects. Food sold in the Nongtraw market is from the local landscape and people know that the food has been produced in a safe manner and will not have any side effects. Nevertheless, the diversity of foods available in the local Nongtraw market is low.

Whilst the availability of foods in the market is good, people’s access to it depends on availability of cash. Many in the community have adequate income to buy good food from the market, but for some it can be an issue. Currently, people spend about half of their income on purchasing food, with a single household spending around INR 2 00014 per week. Smaller households with less income spend around INR 1 50015 per week. People would like to have more of certain food items. In particular, meat and fish are highly sought, but they are expensive and out of reach for many households. The case is similar with processed food, oils, and orange- and red-fleshed fruits and vegetables.

Typical meal in Nongratw village.
© Lyngdoh NESFAS/André J. Fanthome.

The local landscape is well endowed in terms of food items from various food groups. Access to these local resources remains vital for local food security and diet quality, since the landscape provides 50-60 percent of the food in local diets. The community maintains a rich traditional knowledge of nutrition and feeding practices. People are aware of the nutritional value of crops like yam, which they know helps strengthen bones and teeth, rice bean helps with growth, and millet helps improve haemoglobin. The community is informed about the value of consuming nutritious foods in their diets, such as grams, milk and flour. Active and regular counselling is provided for children up to 6 years of age, as well as the elderly, pregnant women and adolescents. Local production is supported by the active involvement of ASHA workers, Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANMs) and Anganwadi workers, who follow up on the health status of people in different age groups. Availability of healthy local produce and support provided by health workers has ensured that the local diets provide the necessary nutrition to the community.

Those who enjoy good nutrition have certain characteristics, which are noticed by everyone in the community. Such persons are believed to have good height and are fat, fit and strong. They have a good-looking face and are always smiling. They are believed to be less susceptible to diseases, they are smart, wise and free from depression, and they drink less alcohol. Such people go to bed early to rise early in the morning. Generally, people in the village consider rice, meat and vegetables to be an ideal meal. Although they would like to have good diets, there are some practical difficulties. For example, sometimes both parents have to leave early in the morning to work in the fields and they do not have time to cook vegetables. Meat is only available two to three days a week because of its cost and perishability. People typically consume meat on the days after going to the market.

Changes in the provision of livelihoods and social well-being over time

Prior to the 1970s, food insecurity was a big issue in Nongtraw. Not having enough food to eat was a constant preoccupation. There was no breakfast, food at home was much less than today, and whatever was available was seasonal in nature. At times people were forced to skip meals and eat less than what they thought was needed. Sometimes, food would run out and people had to stay hungry for the night. This might happen when relatives would come unannounced. To deal with food insecurity in the family, parents would reduce the quantity of food. For example, instead of cooking three pieces of yam they would cook only two. Another strategy was to replace the staple food with another item. If there was not enough rice for everyone, the parents would ask the children to eat cassava instead. People had much less cash income and they were often unable to buy rice from the market. Sometimes when food items were less, people would mix rice and vegetables instead of cooking them separately. At the community level, collective sharing was an important strategy during periods of food insecurity. Such strategies were common 20 years ago.

Now things have improved. After Meghalaya attained statehood in 1972, the area’s fortune experienced an upturn, with the Government improving its service delivery, the transportation network getting better, and the market becoming more prevalent. Livelihood opportunities also increased, with more options for daily wage labour and sales of agri-food products. In this context, the introduction of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was a positive step for the people that improved their financial status. Working as miners in the nearby coalfields of Laitryngew, Sohra and distant locations like Jowai was an important source of income for many people from the community for a while. However, since the 2014 ban on coal extraction from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), people are not engaged in that work anymore. Basketry is an ancient practice for the community, but it has risen as an income-generation activity since 2000 as the price became more lucrative once several middlemen began marketing them in more distant markets. This has encouraged many people to learn the skill and has brought additional income to the community. In the past, most of the products from the community reached only Sohra and Laitryngew, with few reaching distant markets like Shillong. Now bamboo baskets from the community reach markets like Mawngap (on the way to Mawphlang Sacred Forest). Broom grass, traditionally present in the jhum fields, was introduced as an important cash crop, which started to be commercialized in the 1990s. After the market for crops, especially broom grass, started becoming more lucrative, families in the area began replacing thatch roofs with tin as a symbol of increasing prosperity. Better governance, availability of money, and a stronger market from which they could buy a diversity of food throughout the year were factors that led to an increase in income and the amount of food consumed in the community. Notably, the introduction of the PDS in the 1980s led to a big rise in the consumption of rice, which was only rarely consumed in the past. According to the women, however, the village’s food supply sufficiency has dropped since 2005. Declining soil fertility is one reason for this trend.

It can be said that the adequacy of income earned in the community has improved over time. However, whilst household income has been rising since the 1990s, at the same time, so have the various demands for the lifestyle people choose to adopt. New needs have emerged whilst old ones have transformed. For example, rather than using locally available traditional medicines, people now use modern medicines and have more associated medical expenses; instead of constructing houses with local materials, they are building concrete houses; they now purchase trendy clothing rather than using their traditional cloth; and they must pay bills for phone, electricity, etc. Expenses for agriculture have also increased in terms of renting land and purchasing seed and piglets. As expenses have risen, MGNREGS along with other schemes like ICDS, Person with Disability, Widow Pension Scheme, and the MHIS have helped the community increase their earnings to meet the demands. Adequacy of income therefore is not static but keeps on changing as income also changes.

Despite improvements in incomes and food security, according to the community, nutrition and health have seen a decline in recent years. People are less healthy, some illnesses have become more frequent, and new ailments have started to appear. The body mass of the present generation has declined, with strength also dropping drastically. People no longer can carry heavy objects like they once did, and they tire more easily. Gastric issues and diarrhea are more frequent amongst community members and their memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Alcoholism has increased in the community, with many young people mired in its grips. Previously, only people above 30 would consume alcohol, but now 18-year-olds are buying alcohol from the market with their own money.

Both men and women tend to agree that the changes in food consumption have had a negative impact in terms of health and nutrition. With the increasing availability of cash income, people’s desire to consume different varieties of food not found in their area also increased. In the past, people would eat sweet potato for breakfast. A typical meal would consist of millet, yam, and either rodent meat, dohpieh (frog meat), or Khasi garra. Jadoh (rice mixed with meat) and tungrymbai (fermented rice bean) was another important dish. Limb of a cow was also consumed, called doh lyngkhot (rationed meat), which was cheap and mostly eaten by poor families. Traditional beverages included drinks made out of fruits like blackberry, box myrtle, roots of plant like shiahkrot (Smilax perfoliata), and alcoholic drinks kyiad krai (millet beer) and kyaid jyndem (rice beer). Millet was a staple diet in the past but rice has taken its place. This has not only happened to millet but other grain crops like Job’s tears as well. Wild meat was a big part of the diet in the past, with people going to the forest to catch these animals regularly. People would hunt doh khnai (Sundamys sp., rat), mole rat, doh bsad (large Indian civet) and doh sim (birds), squirrel meat, doh skei (Axis porcinus, Indian hog deer), bat meat, doh dngiem (bear meat), doh dkhait, doh shrieh (monkey’s meat) and red wild fowl. However, presently, many of the larger animals like deer, khiat (a bigger deer) and kyrbei (Chinese pangolins) have disappeared from the local landscape. People now trap only smaller animals to eat. That practice is dying out, though, and in its place, people are depending more on meat from the market. People now consume meat less frequently but in larger quantity. Fishing in the Wahsohra stream also used to be much more common. The people never consumed dairy products in the past because they did not rear cattle and milk was considered taboo. Now they consume it occasionally with tea. Consumption of fruits, vegetables and pulses is more frequent throughout the year nowadays because previously these foods were only seasonally available. Non-traditional food items that have gained importance in the local diet are sohsaw (Solanum lycopersicum, tomato), prisbin (Phaseolus vulgaris, French bean), mustard leaves, radish, phulkubi (Brassica oleracea, cauliflower), cabbage, piat (Allium cepa, onion), shini (sugar), slasha (tea), oil, wheat (Triticum sp.), beet, lasun (Allium sativum, garlic), lentil, and others. Meanwhile, the consumption of certain traditional wild vegetables like jaïing, lung siej (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, bamboo), trykhang and jalyngiar has declined during the past 15 years, with many people preferring vegetables from the market. Consumption of fruits has also seen changes, with wild fruits like soh liia (Myrica nagi, bay berry), soh thylliang and soh lymwai declining, whilst those purchased from the market have become a more important feature in local diets. However, many items purchased from the market have been produced through the application of chemicals, which makes them harmful to health and nutrition.


Land and soil

The availability of good soil has made cultivation of the various crops and life in Nongtraw possible. The community has learned to read certain signs to determine the quality of the soil. Soil mixed with dew saw (red soil), dew iong (black soil) and particles of rocks is fertile and good for cultivation. Soils with an abundance of earthworms are deeper and have more moisture, an indication of good health. The presence of trees (especially fruit trees) is also good for the soil because it helps prevent erosion and increase water absorption. In contrast, according to the community, soil that does not mix with other types of soil, like sandy soil, is not good for cultivation because it does not contain enough fertility. Sandy soil needs to be combined with other soils to be suitable for cultivation. The return of weeds and trees to the previous jhum site is an indication that the soil is ready for cultivation.

Soil and land quality for cultivation is not uniform throughout the landscape. As such, the community adjusts by growing specific crops in certain locations. These decisions are not just based on soil quality but also orientation of the land and its exposure to sunlight. If the plot is in the rngi (south-facing slopes), people grow all types of crops but if the fields are in dymmiew (north-facing slopes), cassava and sweet potato cannot be grown.

The community has local practice and rules for maintaining soil fertility. In Jhum cultivation, the land is left fallow for 7 to 15 years to allow it to recuperate its fertility through natural formation of humus. Thang bun, the burning of biomass, is practised so that it can be used as manure. Sometimes people bring ash of wood from their home to add to the soil in the fields to improve its fertility. The people in the community practise mixed cropping to maintain soil fertility and to produce as much food with the available land. In the jhum field, potato is grown alongside jaïing, sesame, millet, mustard, beans, sweet potato, maize, cucumber, cocoyams and Job’s tears. These crops grow in the same plot but are harvested at different seasons. In the kitchen garden, compost made from kitchen scraps and pig manure is also used to enhance soil fertility.

A major problem in hilly areas such as Nongtraw is soil erosion. The community is well aware of this and takes certain steps to guard against it. Terraces are built in jhum fields to slow down the flow of water and stabilize the soil. Logs are kept laterally at the edges of the plots to prevent soil being washed away. People also grow shken (variety of bamboo) and synsar (broom grass) along field margins during the main rainy season to prevent soil erosion. These plants have deep roots and hold the soil in place during heavy rainfall events.

Labour and fuel energy

The most important sources of energy used in the food system are human energy, firewood, electricity, charcoal and solar energy. Human energy is the major source in the community for carrying out agricultural work, wild sourcing, selling and procuring products from the market, preparing food, and other activities related to the local food system. The community does not use much inanimate energy, instead depending on human energy to undertake most of their livelihood activities. With the topography being incredibly steep, people do not use any draft animals and rely on only a few power tools to support their work.

Firewood is the major energy source for cooking and heating water. It is known as kynrad (something that provides good care and makes people feel alive because of its presence). The people light firewood as soon as they wake up in the morning and it is lit until they go to sleep at night. Without it, there is a feeling of emptiness in the house. People cook with the traditional constructed hearth. Three stones known as maw byrsiew provide support for the pots, and above that is the ryngien, a hanging platform for drying meat and storing firewood. In some cases, the shawla (stove) is also used to cook food. Firewood is entirely sourced from the local landscape. Charcoal, produced from burning wood, is less commonly used for cooking but is preferred for warming the house during winter by burning it in the shawla (stove). Some charcoal is produced within the village from fuelwood in jhum fields, but most of it is purchased from the market.

Electricity is an increasingly important source of energy in the community. The Meghalaya Electricity Corporation Limited (MeECL) provides electricity to the community. Every house has a connection, but supply is not regular and is often interrupted. Electricity has a critical role in providing a lighting source for men to produce baskets at night, which is important for cash generation. For food processing and preparation, a few people have electric rice cookers and kettles, and the community’s grinding machine for millet uses electrical energy. People use electricity to charge their phones, watch television and play music. Electricity furthermore provides light for children to study and power for microphones and speakers during church and community events. Much of the electricity in Meghalaya comes from hydroelectric power generation in the State but a large amount of energy is also imported from other regions. Renewable power constituted just 33.6 percent of total capacity in India in October 2018, whereas the major source for electricity is burning charcoal (Central Electricity Authority of India). Electricity plays only a minor role in food system activities but its role in connecting the community via telephone and internet and in providing light for children’s education and community gatherings has an indirect influence on the food system. The streetlights in Nongtraw are powered by solar panels. People also use battery-powered torches for light at night.

Production and preparation of food in Nongtraw is primarily dependent on locally sourced renewable energy, especially human energy and firewood. Enough skilled people are available from the village for farm work and other jobs. Even if some labour is brought in from outside the community, it has more to do with a feeling of kinship and friendship rather than inadequacy of labour. The supply of firewood and charcoal is also considered sufficient for the needs of the community. The people mainly collect firewood from their own land/forest and if not, they rent or buy it from others. Local charcoal production cannot keep up with demand, but it is readily available in the market at Sohrarim at the price of about INR 3016 per kilogram. By contrast, the supply of electricity is highly insufficient. When it goes off, it becomes a great hindrance. This usually happens during the rainy season and it affects the work people do, especially basket making. Kerosene lamps and candles are used as backup energy sources for lighting but they are not sufficient. The energy sources used for producing and transporting the products purchased in the market requires further analysis. These foods would likely have a larger dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and may be produced using more non-renewable energy sources than foods produced within the community.

Community members use several tools to reduce the amount of time and drudgery to cultivate and wild source foods. The wait pam and wait lyngngun (types of machete) are used to cut down trees and clear shrubs and weeds to prepare the land for cultivation. They are also used to cut down dry trees from the forest for firewood and to harvest wild plants and mushrooms. The kurat (saw) is also used to cut down trees and saw logs. Unlike the waits, this tool requires two people to handle it but it gets the task done faster. Many people now use sdie (axes) as well. The mohkhiew (spade) is used to dig up the soil for cultivation. The tari (knife) is used to cut harvesting crops during the harvesting season, including both cultivated crops and wild plants and mushrooms. The khoh (basket) is used to collect and carry the crops after harvesting them from the field. The star is the harness that goes around the forehead of the person carrying the khoh from the field to home. Wild edibles are carried in ruhthepjhur (baskets for keeping vegetables).

Working together is important to reduce the amount of time and drudgery involved in food system activities. Jhum cultivation begins with clearing the land of wood materials and undergrowth. If a single person is involved, it takes 30 days, which is reduced in half if two persons are hired. People mostly hire someone from the village itself. The wage paid for a day’s work is about INR 300.17 For kynring dieng (collecting logs along the borders of the fields), a similar number of people is required, and a similar wage rate is paid. Thangdieng (burning the fallen biomass) requires a member of each household from the village to take part. In total, 40 people are involved in this activity. Sometimes children are also involved. The landowners provide lunch and alcohol to the participants. Dividing tasks by gender helps to optimize labour. After the field is burned, women are engaged in sowing seeds because men continue to be busy with kynring dieng. Women can be hired to help with sowing for a period of 30 days at the wage rate of about INR 150.18


Meghalaya receives one of the highest rainfalls in the world, with average annual rainfall of more than 1 000 cm. Water in Nongtraw is plentiful and available throughout the year. Water taps are available near most of the houses within the community. The taps bring water via metal pipes from the source at Kremlynbuit, which is a cave with a spring. Some storage tanks are located in the village as part of this water system. In addition, the community has several water tanks they use for rainwater harvesting and to store water for use in times of water scarcity. These water tanks are village property, which means that although individual households can use them, they have to leave the tanks behind if they chose to migrate. Nearby to Kremlynbuit is a jingdih um (spring), where people can collect drinking water. As of now, there is limited reliance on water from outside the local landscape. The sources of water are within the community’s boundary and they provide water for household consumption and livestock needs, as well as crops in the garden during winter.

Of all the needs in the community, the highest demand for water is for domestic washing and cleaning. Drinking and cooking are other important uses of water. Amongst the livestock, pigs require a lot of water. Some households that rear pigs clean the shed once a week and others clean it every day. Bathing the pig also requires one to two buckets. Jhum cultivation is rain-fed but water is needed for the kitchen gardens. For a small garden, around 20 litres of water is required every day during the dry months, November to March. A handful of houses grow flowers and they can use around 50 liters of water per day during the winter season. These are generally the most water-demanding activities in the community.

The people follow certain rules to ensure water availability both in terms of quantity and quality. It is strictly prohibited to dirty the source and the catchment around it is protected from any kind of deforestation. Water from the source is tested regularly to assess its suitability for human consumption. The community also has a filter, which cleans the water from the main source. Cleaning the village water tank occurs once a year. A general announcement is made so that the community can gather and clean the tank. At the household level, umsohkhawja (water that has been used to wash hands after eating food) and umkhawja (water that has been used to wash the rice before cooking) is given to pigs. Some crops are vulnerable to water scarcity, such as beans, mint, French bean, sohthliem, lettuce and mustard leaves. The community cultivates other crops that are tolerant to climatic stress, including maize, turmeric, cassava, sweet potato, phan jata and sohphan (varieties of potato), guava, banana, pineapple, blackberry, orange, sohjem (Citrus × aurantium, lime), citron, ginger and jaïing.


Households in the community generate biodegradable wastes like vegetable skins, spoiled food and sohkhawja (cooked rice that falls on the ground whilst eating). They also generate non-biodegradable wastes like torn clothes, used cups, plates, buckets, pots, umbrellas, mura (local stool), chairs, broken spoons, etc. At the community level, plastic bags, bottles, damaged disposable cups and other kinds of wastes are often left behind when programmes are held in the community. When people visit the community, they bring plastic water bottles, which are often thrown away without any thought. People have different ways of disposing waste depending on its nature.

Some people collect kitchen scraps and feed them to the pigs. Fruit and vegetable scraps are also thrown into the compost pit in the kitchen garden, a practice that was promoted by the Soil Department a couple of years ago. Traditionally, biomass, crop residues and ashes from shifting cultivation were collected in one place and left for mulching. Some households use these wastes as manure by keeping them near the roots of vegetables in their kper (kitchen garden). The same is done in the jhum plots as well, where the wastes are used as manure for the crops. Use of crop residues as manure for crops in jhum fields is a practice that people have been doing for a long time. Some of the seeds from the crops consumed in the house are kept in the kitchen near the fireplace to control weevils’ infestation so that they can be planted next season. People collect chicken droppings and sell them to farmers outside the village who use that as manure to grow crops like potato. The community prefers not to use the chicken manure because it is highly acidic and has to be mixed with soil. Pig droppings, on the other hand, are used more commonly as manure for the crops and some sell them outside the community. For dirty water, some households have soak pits. However, most of these pits are already full and people allow the water to flow into their kitchen garden.

Dustbins are kept around the village to stop waste from being strewn all over the area. Metals are sold to dealers from Mylliem, who buy them according to weight for recycling. Other non-biodegradable wastes like clothes, cups, plates, buckets, pots, umbrella, chair, stool and spoons have until recently been thrown in a pit dug for the purpose located near the school garden. People would then light fire to the wastes. In 2018, the PHE came to the community and taught them how to segregate wastes and stop burning plastic. Instead, they were asked to collect waste in plastic bags and inform PHE when they are full. Officials then come and collect the waste. This initiative from the Public Health Engineering Department is recent and people do not yet know how it will turn out.

Kong Healthynoris Kshiar weeding in jhum fields.
© Lyngdoh NESFAS/Alethea Kordor.

Changes in resource use efficiency over time

People still follow traditional practices in jhum cultivation to help them maintain and protect soil quality. At the same time, they admit that soil quality was much better in the past. This is because the fallow period was longer (around 15 years), which allowed the soil to regain its fertility. Now, that period has become shorter (7-10 years). With an increase in population, there is now more demand on the land. The forest area is declining and the fallen leaves from trees are essential for maintaining fertility of the soil. With fewer trees available from the landscape, the community has seen a decrease in the number of logs available to keep at the edges of the plots as well as landscape terracing. According to the community, these changes have resulted in a decrease in the yield of crops like sweet potato. Now more ash is brought from home to maintain the fertility of the soil.

Demand for non-renewable fuel and electricity has increased in the community over time. Since the installation of the electrical supply in 1992, the demand for electricity has progressively increased to provide light sources and charge electronic devices, amongst other uses. Previously, people used torches made out of local materials, such as prew (waste from bamboo) for lighting. Kerosene lamps were also a primary lighting source but are now used only as a backup when the electricity fails. The community’s increasing link with the market is associated with an increased dependence on fossil fuels. These are used to transport food and goods from elsewhere for local consumption and to bring community goods to buyers in Shillong and other parts of India. The production practices for foods sourced from the market may also be more dependent on non-renewable energy compared to locally produced foods.

Local food production, wild sourcing and processing remains, however, based in locally sourced renewable energy sources, especially firewood and human energy. Firewood is currently sufficient but sourcing it has become more difficult. Less wood is available from nearby areas and more travel is required. Some people have either started buying firewood from outside the community or they pay people to collect firewood for them from the surrounding landscape. In the past, children used to collect firewood from the forest but now they are sent to schools to learn rather than work in the fields. Children collect firewood only during holidays.

Human energy is critical in the local food system and demand for human labour is increasing in the system since people are becoming engaged in many activities other than farming, such as daily wage labour and basket making. Nonetheless, compared to the past, there is less time to work in the fields. The shortage of human labour can cause problems at times, such as during blackberry harvesting, which is time sensitive and delays can lead to a loss of harvest. The increasing role of daily wage labour is also associated with an increase in drudgery. The scope of relaxation was greater when people worked in their own fields. When they are doing daily wage labour in other fields, those who own the fields dictate their time. The case is similar for people who work in MGNREGA, where they have to follow rules and regulations for breaks, lunchtime, and when they start and end their workday.

Work in the fields is still very much exclusively manual and people continue to use traditional tools, such as machetes, iron cups and spades for cultivation, hunting and wild sourcing. These tools are mainly made from iron and wood. Iron smelting is a traditional practice known by the Khasi (Prokop and Suliga, 2013). A few innovations in production practices have occurred. For example, the use of the wait (machete) has decreased compared to the past as people now prefer kurat instead, which is faster for cutting down trees and sawing logs. Many people also now use sdie (axes), which have become more available at the market. Perhaps the greatest innovation and change regarding human drudgery has occurred in food processing. People in the community used to grind riewhadem (maize), krai (millet) and sohriew (Job’s tears) with the help of grinding stones. Now the community has an electric-powered grinding machine, which has lessened the burden for people. The change of diet has also contributed to less drudgery in food processing. The community is eating more rice, which means that they are spending less time processing millet, maize and Job’s tears.

Although water has always been plentiful in the village, people had to travel much further to collect water. During the 1980s, people collected water from two sources: Wahlyhuh Wahrit and Wah Mahep. The first was near the garden of Kong Gills, whilst the other was in the forest. It took around 20 minutes for a round trip to Wah Mahep and half an hour to collect water from Wahlyhuh Wahrit. They collected water in khiew khyndew (pots made with soil), khiew saraw, ktang and tangmoh, which were covered with leaves to ensure that water would not spill when it was carried in khoh. In 1984, the Government installed plastic pipes to transfer water directly to the village, thus saving travel time to the water’s source. Metal pipes replaced the plastic pipes in 1988, when the community received materials from the PHE to construct storage tanks and pipes to supply water within the village. Now water collection takes around 10-15 minutes.

In addition to the installation of water storage tanks, the community has also received water tanks from Khadar Shnong Organization (KSO) and Meghalaya Rural Development Society (MRDS). The people were taught about rainwater harvesting and how to store water in times of water scarcity. This intervention has improved the level of water capture and efficiency of water use in the community. The rise of pig farming as a livelihood activity has increased water demand in the community, although some recycling of water in the household is practised: umsohkhawja (water that has been used to wash hands after eating food) and umkhaja (water that has been used to wash the rice before cooking) is given to the pigs. In general, water limitation is not an issue in Nongtraw.

The protection of waterways and water quality has improved through better management of human waste. In the past, open defecation was the norm. People would go to the forest to relieve themselves. Now, that is prohibited and even when there are large church service gatherings, people are not allowed to defecate anywhere. Awareness programmes conducted by various government departments and NGOs were behind that change, as they educated people on the negative impact of improper waste management on the environment. Since 2012, every house has its own toilet.

Whilst management of biodegradable waste has improved over time, the management of non-biodegradable wastes has become a challenge. In the past, bamboo was a resourceful product from which many traditional implements were made, like baskets (small and big), ruh doi, tyndong mluh, maloi tongum (bamboo mug), tang moh (salt container) and rusiangja-jyntah (container for keeping spoons). But now plastic and aluminium have replaced bamboo as the materials from which household items are made.


Crop and livestock biodiversity

A high diversity of crops is cultivated in Nongtraw. More than 60 species were named by the participants in the thematic discussions that are cultivated in the jhum field or in the kitchen garden. These include cereals (3) and other starches (6), pulses (3), vegetables (17), fruits (22), nuts and seeds (1), and other edible species (8). Many of the crops grown by the community have multiple varieties, for a total of 34 recorded. In particular, potato has 13 varieties, cocoyam has 7 varieties and sweet potato has 7 varieties (Table 3.6). The other crops have fewer varieties.

TABLE 3.6. Variety diversity in Nongtraw image

Some of the crops and varieties are indigenous, whilst others have been introduced into the community. Indigenous crops from the region include Job’s tears, cocoyam, banana, sohniamtra (Citrus reticulata, mandarin orange), blackberry and neilieh (sesame). Nongtraw is situated within an important centre of crop origin and diversity and the process of domestication of local plants is ongoing. For example, jaïing is a domesticated wild edible that is planted in the jhum field. Wild fruits of yesterday are in fact the domesticated fruits of today. The community tells the story of a woman who had gone to the forest and tasted a very sweet small fruit. She brought the seeds to the village and sowed in her garden. With time, its cultivation spread all over the Khasi Hills and this particular fruit eventually became the world-famous Mandarin orange. Some crops grown in the community were introduced centuries ago and are considered traditional because of their long history in the region. These crops include millet, rice bean, maize, cassava, sweet potato and potato, amongst others. Some crops have been introduced more recently. These newer crops include lettuce, carrot, tomato, orange, guava, mustard leaves, pumpkin, radish, French bean, peas, lemon, beet, turnip, mango, papaya, pineapple, mint and cabbage. Quite a few of them were introduced by the Agriculture and Soil Department on a trial basis.

Nowadays, traditional crops are not being produced in large quantities. Cocoyam, millet, Job’s tears and cassava are grown only in small quantities. These crops are only used as snacks rather than as staples, which was previously the case. The most common varieties of potato are phan jyoti and phan myngor, from the Horticultural Department of Meghalaya. Other important potato varieties cultivated in the community are phan imslem and phan jyoti, both of which are introduced varieties from the Agriculture and Soil Department and are grown by many households in large areas. These are meant for household consumption and sale in the market. Two varieties of cassava are cultivated in local fields. Phan dieng saw is of the local variety and has been grown for a long time, whilst phan deing lieh was introduced by the Block office in 1964. The latter is bigger in size and is produced in larger quantity.

In contrast to the high diversity of cultivated plants, the community only maintains two species of livestock: chickens and pigs. Both species were indigenous to the region, whilst now, only chicken is. The community strictly forbids the introduction of non-local chicken breeds into the village. This is done to prevent the local breed from falling sick from illness brought from outside the community. By contrast, for pigs, sniang khasi (the local breed) has been replaced by snieng shitent and snieng pawa (introduced breeds) brought from Majrong, Mawngap and Sohra. These latter ones can attain a weight of 50-70 kg within a year and have a better market price compared to around 25-30 kg for the local breed.

Wild harvested plants and animals

In addition to cultivating and raising a large diversity of animals, people in Nongtraw collect a large diversity of wild edibles (such as plants, honey and mushrooms). Men and women pluck wild edibles on their way home from the fields and they collect them in the forest. Honey is quite sought after and people go to the forest to collect it. When they reach a beehive, they introduce themselves to the bee, informing the bees that they will only take what is required. Then they create smoke by burning jute so that the bees do not sting the person collecting the honey. Before the honey is collected, the queen bee is removed and kept inside the ruh ngap (basket) so that the others can follow her. There are no specific rules and regulations for harvesting wild edibles from the forest. Everyone is free to do so in any way in their own plots and in the forest. However, if they want to access private lands, permission from the landowner must be sought. Sometimes people from surrounding communities like Sohrarim collect wild edibles from the community’s lands, as there are plenty in the area.

In addition to gathering wild edibles, people from the community hunt and fish in nearby forests and streams. Men and especially children go to the forest to hunt and trap animals for food. At other times, they kill animals to prevent them from destroying their agricultural plots. People use guns or ryntih (bow) and nampliang (arrow) for killing animals from a distance. People also use jri siat sim (catapult) for hunting wild fowl. Apart from stalking and bringing down the prey, people also use pap (a trap that looks like a pincer) to capture animals. Wait (machete) and tari (knife) are other tools used during the hunt. Animals are hunted during specific periods of the year. Animals like dkhan (mole rat) are greatly sought after and are trapped during the winter. In the summer, they usually burrow deep into the soil and are difficult to find. Squirrels, on the other hand, are caught in the summer, with traps, because they come to the fields to eat the maize crops.

Only a few people from the community fish in the rivers of Wahsohra village. Fishing occurs primarily by a few people who operate a small business and sell the fish in the village. They mostly fish during the summer season as the fishes hide in crevices during winter and are difficult to catch. Furthermore, the khasaw fishes only come up the river during the summer season from the plains of Bangladesh and they return there during winter. Women occasionally make the trip to the streams during the winter season to bathe and wash clothes so they can spend some leisure time, and they often fish as well. The techniques used for fishing are riyngwiang (fishing pole) attached with hooks, khwai sai um (fishing line), tong bniej (a kind of net), tong jar (fishing net), tutia (sodium carbonate), and poison. Insects are important as bait. Some people use musari (mosquito net) as fishing nets to catch fish. They throw it to the water and bring it out with fishes and other aquatic creatures trapped in it. When women go fishing, they put on the jain tapmoh (headscarf) and jain kyrshah (traditional shawl). When the fish are caught, they are kept inside khohsiah or ruh (small baskets made for keeping fishes).

Ecosystem conservation and protection

The community is aware that the health of the wild edibles and wild animals depends very much on the state of the surrounding forest. A few areas in the landscape are under formal protection and are actively being restored. These areas are the Village Development Committee (VDC) lands, Wah Shah Roh, and the area under the water source. Farming is not allowed on VDC lands without the permission of the Durbar Shnong (village council). Strict regulations exist regarding harvesting of bamboo varieties like ktang (bamboo bigger in size) and rynai (bamboo with medium size) from VDC lands. Hunting, cutting and harvesting of other wild products is also strictly managed. Furthermore, planting of trees occurs in this area to improve the vegetation cover. In Wah Shah Roh, the Durbar Shnong has banned agriculture. This is because the area is highly susceptible to landslides and the community is apprehensive that the disruption of the soil could eventually lead to damage to their houses and water storage tanks. Cutting trees up to 10 metres from the water source is strictly prohibited, as are digging of soil and open defecation. This is done to protect the catchment. Furthermore, permission has to be sought to cut trees from law adong (restricted forest). According to the rules, people are allowed to cut trees only for purposes like house construction, construction of livestock sheds, etc. Collection of timber for firewood is only allowed from one’s own field. These rules are important to prevent soil erosion, which would negatively affect farming. Wild plants collection would also decrease if the forests are removed from the area, thus depriving people of the food and medicinal benefits that they currently receive.

Changes in the conservation and protection of resources over time

The community maintains many of their traditional and indigenous crops (e.g. cocoyam, millet, Job’s tears and cassava) in the jhum field but the area has decreased over time. The community informed that they have lost many traditional varieties in favour of introduced ones. Varieties of potato like phan syntiew, phan tira, phan thiahdieng, sla phan karo, phan pyllon sla, phan prak and phan sawlia have disappeared in the last few decades. In their place, new ones have been introduced like phan jyoti, phan meikha and phan saw. The same is the case for sweet potato with the varieties sawlia, heh sla, phansawlia, phanlynger and phanprak disappearing from the community landscape, but new ones such as lyniong and massar have been introduced. These varieties were lost after 2000. Generally, the new varieties offer better yield than the traditional ones. Several varieties of cocoyam have also been lost such as riew snem, riew kal, riew saw, riew siahiong, riew dahri and riew wai. The last two varieties were particularly vulnerable to pests and diseases and have been extinct for 50 years. In the case of millet, farmers are still growing rai long and rai jasheh but in lesser quantities, whilst rai soh and rai thohriaw have entirely disappeared in the last 30 years. Previously, people only reared the local pig breed but since the 1980s, they started breeding sniang shi pawa and sniang shiteng pigs, which were introduced from Mawngap. Other new crops introduced are lettuce, carrot, tomato, orange, guava, mustard leaves, pumpkin, radish, French bean, peas, lemon, beet, turnip, mango, papaya, pineapple, mint, cabbage, and new varieties of brinjal, chillies and banana. Quite a few were introduced by the Agriculture and Soil Department on a trial basis.

Many of the larger animals the community used to hunt, like deer and Chinese pangolin, have disappeared from the landscape because of the loss of dense forests. The process of the disappearance of wild game started in the 1980s and intensified in the 1990s. The community has reduced their level of hunting and gathering as a response and consequence of this change. According to the women, an awareness programme offered by different NGOs and institutions like KSO, Bosco Reach Out, North East Network (NEN) and North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) encouraged people to reduce their hunting, so the change is not only due to a decline in the game. These species are still available in the surrounding region. The most important reason for reducing hunting activities is that people have become increasingly busy with other livelihood activities. In the past, no rules or prohibitions existed for regulating hunting in the village. In 2012, rules were established that one cannot dig for rodents in someone else’s field but can do it in his/her own field.

People have long been aware of the importance of maintaining natural and protected areas in the landscape. They have long had a community forest where there are strict regulations to control harvest. At present, awareness has only increased and, as such, with increasing pressure on resources, people have come up with various rules and regulations to make sure that the local landscape is in a healthy state. In the past, no rules existed for cutting trees down in the forest. As years passed and the forest became thinner, people began to realise the importance of a healthy forest. In addition to wild animals, fruit trees are also disappearing such as soh thylliang, soh lymwai, sohkyrwiat, sohlum and sohliang. Some are still available, but they are far from the settlement and few in number and are continuously declining. In 2007 and 2008, the Forest Department and Social Service Center conducted awareness programmes on environmental protection. Since then, the village has established rules for cutting trees down in the forest. Similarly, in the past, no restrictions existed on fishing, but since 2012, the village committee along with the Soil Department developed regulations regarding what tools could be used for fishing. To prevent the extinction of the local fish species, only fishing rods and small nets are allowed. Many obey these rules out of fear of punishment. People are not allowed to poison or throw dynamite in the river to kill the fishes. However, some people still use those practices and cover an area of around 5 metres that they want to poison with a net of jaiñ kyrshah, although they have to pay a fine of about INR 300 to INR 400.19 They use poison extracted from the snep dieng (bark) and thied dieng (roots) of plants like khariew, sohliya, phyllud, shiwi, sohrumtheiñ and sohliang.


Governance of natural resources

The most important institution in the community governing the use of natural resources is the Durbar Shnong (village council) (Lyngdoh, 2016). The Durbar Shnong is part of the traditional administrative structure, which begins from the Hima Sohra (erstwhile tribal principality), under whom is the Raid Diengsaw (a collection of villages, viz. Mawlyngngat, War War, Phong, Kshaid, Mawthawtieng, Mawtuli, Nohshuit, Wah Sohra, Nongtraw, Tynniar, Dewlieh, and Diengsong) and finally the Shnong (village). The Rangbah Shnong is the head of Durbar and is assisted by office bearers like the secretary and treasurer, along with the executive members. The villagers make up the general body of the Durbar. The Durbar has many functions in the village including: (1) Maintaining law and order within the area of jurisdiction; (2) Looking after the welfare of the community, including the poor and underprivileged; (3) Law making and implementing activities provided by the Government through various schemes and programmes; (4) Settling disputes to maintain peace and harmony within the village; and (5) Making rules and regulations to protect and preserve the forest and other natural areas within the local landscape. People who have registered themselves in the village Durbar have the traditional right of cultivating, renting and buying land in the village. They also have the right to practise shifting cultivation.

The community sources its food from both private land holdings and community lands. Both community land and private land holdings are governed by the rules framed by the village durbar. In addition to the Durbar Shnong, the VDC plays an important role in managing natural resources. The VDC has a chairperson, secretary, treasurer and ordinary residents of the village as the general members. Its most important function is to obtain land for cultivation. The VDC also makes rules and regulations for harvesting of natural products from the community land. Their activities are done with the intention that in the future, people will not face land shortages to grow food and the landscape can continue to provide the natural resources needed to secure their livelihoods.

At present there are three community lands: (1) near the water source of the community; (2) along mawshongthait ba nyngkong (the site of the first resting stone); and (3) near the neighbouring Dewlieh village. The latter is the land where the current jhum occurs. It was purchased by the VDC from Bah Tariang (a resident of Sohrarim) and was distributed to all the community members through a lucky draw. Families can practise shifting cultivation upon payment of a fee of INR 200-INR 1 00020 for four years, based on the size of the plot. Members of the community are allowed to use this land only for farming and house construction. The VDC has restricted cutting of trees within the VDC land without obtaining permission. Strict regulations exist regarding harvesting of bamboo varieties like ktang (bamboo bigger in size) and rynai (bamboo with medium size). This was done to provide protection to the land against soil erosion and landslides, which represent a loss of highly precious fertile soil. In addition to these lands, the community has a restricted forest area. Cutting of trees from this community forest is only allowed to build houses for orphans and single mothers. People can freely collect and cultivate vegetables and fruits in forests that are not owned by anyone.

Private landowners are not bound by these rules. Harvesting or usage of private land lies within their prerogative. Private land holdings can be owned individually by up to 40 people from the community. The VDC established in 2001 also owned some lands available for rent in areas close to Riatlwar, Wahsohrot and Syngiar. Those who do not have their own land for farming can rent land from these private landowners. This process is known as wai lumrep (renting hill for cultivation). The price of the land varies according to size. People take on a plot of land to rent for four years and can grow whatever they want.

Ancestral lands are handed down through the family, usually given to the youngest daughter along with the ancestral house (Mukhim, 2008). The woman is custodian of the land and is responsible for taking care of it and maintaining it, but she cannot sell it without the permission of her maternal uncle. If she so desires, she can share the land with her siblings. If there are no female children, the ancestral house goes to the youngest son, but the land is divided amongst the other siblings. In the case of bri (self-acquired property), the owner can choose to transfer it to anyone (such as his wife, son, daughter or someone else) based on personal choice. On some occasions, the same formula used for ancestral land is used (i.e. priority is given to the youngest daughter or son, in cases of only male children). In the case of only male siblings, sometimes the parents offer the land for rent and divide the money amongst their children. However, if there is a lack of understanding amongst the siblings, the parents will sell the land and give them the money instead. It is strictly prohibited to sell village land to outsiders. Although privatisation occurs, the community has continued to maintain control by following this rule. Community members are allowed to rent land to anybody of their choice. Farmers from the neighbouring villages of Deingsong, Wahsohra, Nongtyngiar or Sohrarim have been farming in Nongtraw by renting land. Clan land is absent in Nongtraw but is available in neighbouring Dewlieh, where land belongs to the Langstieh clan.

Land holdings are generally respected and there are no disputes in the community. According to the community, land availability and access to it is “medium” because it is available to rent. Access is considered equitable because, apart from land that is rented, community land is available to all members of the community. Socio-ecological mobility is medium because people are able to move between different locations depending on rent.

Aside from the Durbar Shnong and the VDC, many other institutions have come up in the village to manage and guide the sustainable use of natural resources. The Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) has a main responsibility of maintaining the People’s Biodiversity Register. The Village Disaster Management Committee (VDMC), headed by the Rangbah Shnong, maintains a report of natural calamities like landslides and reports them to the Block Office. Barefoot Environment Educators (BEES) is an initiative of the Soil Department of the Government of Meghalaya, whose main activities are planting trees, digging compost pits for biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste segregation in all households, and constructing retaining walls. Four self-help groups (SHGs) have been trained in food processing (juice, pickles, jam and honey) and encouraged to buy land for cultivation and planting of trees and herbs for traditional medicines. The Nongtraw Multipurpose Cooperative Society Ltd. works to process millet and package it for sale in the market. Finally, a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) exists in the community to motivate farmers to increase production and encourage them to adopt organic processes.

The work of the village institutions, like the Durbar Shnong, is transparent and proposals made for community development are meant to look at the welfare of all the residents (children, women and general masses). It might happen that someone who is an MLA or MDC could become the Rangah Shnong and vice versa but typically these roles are kept separate, which means that one cannot assume a dual role in the community. Whilst only a man can become head of the village and take higher positions like Chairman and Secretary within the community, women are included in the Durbar and can hold positions on the Executive Committee. They are thus able to contribute to decisions regarding natural resource management. In fact, Nongtraw is the only village in the Hima Sohra that allows that. Women are also members of SHGs, women’s groups, social welfare associations (ASHA, Anganwadi), MGNREGA committee, VDC, Village Water Sanitation Committee (VWSC), Village Employment Committee (VEC), Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee (VHNSC), Power Committee, BEES, Church, Vigilance Committee, etc. As such, there is an adequate multi-stakeholder platform/institution to effectively plan and manage natural resources in the landscape. However, connection, coordination and cooperation between communities for managing natural resources is low because only Wah Sohra has a good understanding with Nongtraw in this regard.

Changes in governance of natural resources over time

Changes in the governance of natural resources have occurred over time. In the past, only the Durbar Shnong, which was formed in the 1950s when the village was founded, existed. Support from the Government for development activities was uncertain. Things have improved now. Apart from the Executive Committee, many other committees assist with implementing the various schemes and programmes introduced by the Government and other NGOs, including the MLA and MDC. Many new institutions have been developed recently in the village to deal with the use of natural resources and its governance, including the VDC (2004), SHGs (2007), VDMC (2009), BEES (2012), PGS (2016), BMC (2017) and Nongtraw Multipurpose Cooperative Society Ltd. (2017). These institutions formed with the support and encouragement of both government institutions and NGOs, including Bosco Reach Out (VDC), Khatarshnong Socio Organization (VDC/SHGs), MRDS, Block Office (VDMC), the Soil Department of the Government of Meghalaya (BEES), NESFAS (PGS/NMCS Ltd.), and The State Biodiversity Board of Meghalaya (BMC).

Many rules have been developed fairly recently to manage natural resources, including those regarding: areas where people can dig for rodents (2012), tools and methods acceptable for fishing (2012), and cutting trees (since 2008). Thus, in the recent past, community-based landscape governance has increased. The inclusiveness of governance is also increasing. In the past, only men who were 30 years old or older were allowed to take part in the proceedings of the Durbar. Women were not allowed because it was believed that they might disturb the decision-making process because they were supposedly more talkative. In 2004, when the VDC was formed, it intervened and advocated for women to take part in the Durbar, which began occurring in 2008.

Whilst in some ways governance of natural resources has become stronger, at the same time, since 2016, the Government has been intervening in the functioning of the community. The Government has implemented some new rules, notably one that deprives the local people from the practice of shifting cultivation. The Forest Department suggested that people plant more trees in areas where trees have been cut down. Additionally, from now on, a written document will be required from the Government for those who bought lands from others. According to the people, the Government does not fully recognize the rights of land use by the community. This is because it does not understand the community’s procedures and laws. As such, the community’s right over land, water and other natural resources is decreasing. There is thus a keen tussle between community members who are trying to strengthen the use and governance of natural resources and the Government, which is trying to increase its influence on the same.

The land on which the community now resides initially belonged to the Tariang clan. Because of a rise in population, the community bought some parcels of land from the owners. This land was again distributed to the members who had contributed to the fund for purchasing the land. These lands became private holdings. In 2004, more land was bought from the clan. But this time, the land was for community use and was not distributed as private plots.


A summarized assessment of 13 indicators of resilience is presented below. The food system of Nongtraw shows many indications that it is resilient and endowed with the capacity for adaptation and transformation.

1. Exposed to disturbance: Over the years, the community has experienced many environmental shocks including storms, landslides and unpredictability in rainfall, as well as pest outbreaks. Although disruptive when they occur, the community has recovered well after these events and they have not had an adverse impact in the long run.

2. Globally autonomous and locally interdependent: The community has a high self-sufficiency in food production (50-60 percent) by farming, raising livestock and wild sourcing. These activities also provide an important contribution to incomes (approximately 60 percent from crops and livestock). Local markets are supplying many foods that are produced within the region and, in this sense, a high level of regional autonomy in food provision is observed.

3. Appropriately connected: A few shops operate in the village but they offer a limited range of products. Accessing the weekly markets in Sohra and Laitryngew is challenging because of the required 3 000 steps, demanding effort and time. It can then delay community members’ arrival to the market and contribute to lower prices.

4. Socially self-organised: The community has several institutions that support and strengthen the food system with high participation from local people. The activities of these groups are working to strengthen capacities in local food production, market local foods, and protect natural resources, amongst other themes relevant to the food system.

5. Reflective and shared learning: The community is always learning, adjusting and improving its practices. They have introduced new rules for protecting forest areas and controlling hunting and fishing in reaction to observed changes in soil quality, forest cover and wildlife populations. Over the past few decades, the community has made many adjustments to its livelihood strategy to increase their incomes and meet emerging challenges and opportunities.

6. Honours legacy: Elders are respected in the community and the community maintains many traditional practices, crops and livestock. The community wants to maintain their traditions related to their local food system for the future and new ways are being used to document and transmit traditional knowledge.

7. Builds human capital: The school garden gives children an opportunity to learn about local crops but the responsibility of maintaining tradition rests mainly on individual households rather than on the community. Older students must travel outside the village to go to school and accessing medicine and medical attention can also require travelling outside the village.

8. Coupled with local natural capital: The community’s food system is very much linked with the natural resources found in the local landscape. Whilst depending strongly on locally available resources, the food system is able to provide a high number of products to support the livelihoods of the community, whilst not experiencing grave issues with water scarcity or shortage of fuelwood or labour.

9. Ecologically self-regulated: The community recognizes that if the forest is healthy, the soil is also in good condition and they have accordingly taken action to protect the forest areas to improve their yields in the jhum fields. Positive interactions between crops and animals and between different crops are recognized and leveraged in their farming practices.

10. Functional diversity: The community produces foods with a diversity of nutritional values, including starches, legumes, meat and flesh foods, eggs, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, orange- and red-fleshed fruit and vegetables, other vegetables, and other fruits. In addition to providing a wide diversity of nutritional values, the local landscape also provides a number of other useful products and functions such as livestock feed, medicines, structural materials, and wood for heating and cooking. Several stress-tolerant varieties and breeds are maintained that provide harvest security during periods of climate stress.

11. Optimally redundant: Multiple species and varieties are maintained in the farming system for different food groups, which provide a safety net for crop failure. Wild areas and the market provide an important supplement for local production.

12. Spatial and temporal heterogeneity: The community enjoys a diversity of ecosystems and land usages in the local landscape where they source both food and non-food items. Land rotation, mixed cropping and some amount of agroforestry in the form of coffee plantations are a handful of the practices the community follows to increase heterogeneity in the system. A few weaker points in resilience were highlighted in the assessment.

13. Reasonably profitable: Agriculture, including farming crops and raising livestock, is estimated to provide 60 percent of income. Secondary employment has an important role and the community depends on various subsidies and welfare schemes of the government. According to men, without subsidies people can survive but it will entail great difficulties. Women, on the other hand, agree that subsidies have helped a great deal in earning a liveable wage but also insist that they can sustain themselves in its absence as well. They would have to work harder but they would be able to manage the situation.

Kong Pliemon Barim harvesting tapioca.
© Lyngdoh NESFAS/Riteilang Khongrangjem.
  • 13 Equivalent to USD 7.8. Applying the UN Operational Rate of Exchange of 1 September 2018 (1 USD = 70.74 INR). This rate will apply throughout the entire chapter.
  • 14 Equivalent to USD 28.
  • 15 Equivalent to USD 21.
  • 16 Equivalent to USD 0.42.
  • 17 Equivalent to USD 4.2.
  • 18 Equivalent to USD 2.1.
  • 19 Equivalent to USD 4.2-5.7.
  • 20 Equivalent to USD 2.8-14.1.

“Burom ia ka mei ramew bad ka hi kan sa theh ia ki jingkyrkhu ha ngi.”

“Respect Mother Earth and she will shower her blessings on us.”

Richard Ranee, custodian farmer and artisan in Nongtraw.