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Indigenous Terra Madre, the 140-tribe gathering

Indigenous Terra Madre, the 140-tribe gathering

A report from Indigenous Terra Madre congress held in Shillong, India: organized by Slow Food, the event gathered 600 delegates from different 140 tribes.

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In our tribe everyone feels an inter-generational responsibility. We need to grow a new generation of world citizens. In the end, we are all inhabitants of Mother Earth, and we all have the same aim: to share the blessings of Mother Nature.
Manuel Onalan, farmer (Philippines)

It is hard not to sound rhetorical when reporting on events such as the Indigenous Terra Madre, an indigenous peoples’ congress held last November in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya: the event was organized by Slow Food, with the aim of bringing 600 delegates from 140 tribes into contact with some of the foremost world experts in nutrition, agroecology, anthropology and, indeed, any other field of study whose contribution may improve the living conditions of indigenous peoples. In practical terms, this meant passing the time dedicated to the event with people from 58 different countries.

Sitting next to a member of the Khongodor clan of Buryat-Mongolian people who, accustomed to the temperatures of around -50 °C typical of their Siberian winters seemed to be totally oblivious to the humidity of India. Or, prior to an interview with a fascinating Maori lady, her face decorated with Tāmoko, discovering that she wishes to probe me with her “eye of truth” – the third eye tattooed on her forehead - before answering any questions, so we have to draw closer and rub our noses together.

Down through the years, we have lost 36% of plant species. 75% of genetic biodiversity. And the nutritional value of what we eat has decreased by 5-45%.
Stefano Padulosi, Marketing Diversity at Bioversity International (Italy)

Biodiversity was obviously one of the core focuses of ITM. Or rather, the loss of biodiversity. It is no coincidence therefore that the congress was held in North East India, located in 2 internationally recognized centres of crop diversity: an area in which hundreds of different species grow – the most important of which are all types of citrus fruits, rice, taro, black gram and beans – but, above all, this is a particularly exemplary and virtuous geographical area thanks to associations such as NESFAS (North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society) which support the maintenance of local indigenous food cultures and agrobiodiversity.

The loss of biodiversity implies a loss of health and nutrients.
Daphne Miller, Physician, Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California (USA)

One of the most impacting talks was that of the San Francisco University researcher. Ms Miller compared the frequent incidence of diabetes in Shillong with its inexistence in smaller villages but, above all, she explained that when a population abandons the countryside to go and live in the city, health conditions always suffer. Why? Because of the so-called migration effect. Indian people “acquire” fast food, smog and a sedentary lifestyle but lose something else: biodiversity.

Just consider the main crops of the Native American Group in North America, the three sisters: squash, corn and beans. These three plants grow together, intertwining their leaves and branches, helping each other to absorb nitrogen and make the land more fertile. As in nature, the three sisters also prefer each other’s company in our organism where they jointly provide us with all the nutrients we need, as well as having a low glycemic index. Then, if we go on to consider the wealth of medicinal plants which may justifiably be defined as extinct (834 species in the State of Meghalaya alone, used for treating cuts, wounds, coughs, pain, stomach problems and liver disorders), we realize what Miller means when she refers to ecological and nutritional harmony.

To us, corn represents humanity. In every culture there's an identity food, ours is corn. We have more than 150 varieties. There are always fruits and vegetables that bring people together.
Clayton Brascoupé, Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA)

This is what Indigenous Terra Madre came to focus on afterwards. We began to feel proud of our traditional food system, and more people began to take an interest in their culture.
Anneli Jonsson, Slow Food Sapmi (Sweden)

The Sápmi or Sami, as they are sometimes called, are the only indigenous population of Europe. In 2011 they hosted the first edition of Indigenous Terra Madre. Theirs is a complex history: they inhabit an area between Russia and the extreme north of Scandinavia, subdivided between Norway, Finland and, to a greater extent, Sweden. As from 2011, the living conditions of approximately 70,000 inhabitants have improved considerably: Anneli tells me about it herself, explaining that the knowhow they risked losing has now become a shared heritage which more and more young people are attempting to master. There is a growing number of what they call Sami Chefs, that is to say, people who know how to forage plants and medicinal herbs, prepare traditional dishes and suovas (the smoked and cured reindeer meat which is probably the most representative expression of their cuisine). They have even written a book entitled, Taste of Sápmi. Finally, she makes a particular point of saying: «We didn’t just share everything we knew. We had to decide what we wanted to keep for ourselves and what to give away. We don't want the industries to take it and use it for profit».

The challenge facing indigenous populations probably lies in achieving this fine balance in the future: that of safeguarding their traditions without being hindered by them; to focus their efforts equally on preservation and transmission; to move forward without forgetting to look back.

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