Saturday, 2 April 2016

Micro stories 2

The following was written during my stay in the Bomdo village in Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015. While writing loosely-connected short anecdotes, I drift a lot between stories but try and return each time. You may notice the influence of Brian Doyle's book Mink river here. Given that there was no electricity, phone network or internet, I wrote quite a bit! So I post it in parts. The first part was here and here follows the second part.

23rd May 2015

Solung, mana and the pig


Two days later, we had the Solung festival yesterday and today and tomorrow are Mana (holidays) days. The Mana days need a special mention. For a third or more field work days in Bomdo village, there has been Mana, which basically means that no one is allowed to work; compulsory holidays, what a lovely practical concept! These are the days reserved for merry, rest and spirited conversations. There have been many occasions when Roy and I have loads of field work but it can't be done because of Mana. In the Adi language, it is called Gena. Coupled with unpredictable rain spattered across nine of the twelve months of a year, Mana has been a crucial factor dictating how much work can be done in a field season (usually from October to May).

Solung festival. Three Mithuns (Bos frontalis) and several pigs were sacrificed during the festival. A couple of years back, I had spent time in a few households during the festival and by the end of it, I had had enough millet beer to have donated my slippers to someone and only later realised I walked around the village barefeet all day! this year, I decided to spend my time with my friend Takkar, he was cutting a pig himself, not bothered much with what else was going on in the village, he was celebrating personal Solung, he said.

A male pig from the Egin, the toilet. Takkar had already killed the pig by strangling it with two bamboo boles buried into the ground and tied up together tight about a meter above the ground with the pigs neck in between. The pig stays alive a while, refusing to give up; few minutes in between when it tries to take a world of air but manages a little and slowly dies of asphyxiation. The pig was reared for this day, this moment...four years of living in a dingy toilet for a day to see the sun and die. The world is an unfair place, but perceptions concord with only a fraction of the larger scheme of things, I let the thought fade.

I help Takkar burn off the skin hair on a small dried-palm-leaf fire. We turn the pig around and round and scrape the burnt hair off  with a palm tree branch till its ready for the 'operation' as Takkar calls it. Takkar turns the pig around over its back and cuts open a portion around the belly. The small reverse-curved knife, the chigdo cuts it as smooth as a knife would a pastry and belly fat floats up. When you look at it, it seems improbable that an animal stores that much fat, but that was the reason it was kept in a 3 x 3 m enclosure; so it does not expend energy moving around. So the fat stored can be transferred up the trophic state to another being to sustain the energy required to be an Adi; to farm, to hunt, to walk miles and miles in the mountains and valleys around the village, not just a culinary detail.

Beyond the belly fat, the Yakdin, considered medicinal and stored for long periods, lie the visceral organs. Takkar pulls them out one by one, the intestines first, next the lungs, then the kidneys, then the heart and some other organs that Takkar throws away before explaining what they are to dogs eagerly waiting by the house. All this pulled out, the blood lies in a small pool, Takkar collects the blood for a dish called Mumney, blood, belly fat and rice boiled together into a paste. Mumney is a thing of legend among the Adi, but I don't much prefer it.

Its not often that Mumney is cooked in the village. Whenever it does, its often during the festivals in the Naamghar and the entire village comes to eat. The old men sit by the fire and the person incharge of the Mumney stirs it round and round, once in a while checking to ensure that its cooking well. I am not too fond of this Mumney, but sometimes when I'm hungry enough can take a bowl full but not a morsel more. the Adi love it and find it irresistible, some even it to the point till it causes indigestion!

While cooking a meal following the 'operation', Takkar asked me which was my favorite part of the pig, to which I replied that I do like the ribs. And for having helped him burn the skin hair and for helping him the little I could with the 'operation', he offered me the choicest portion of the ribs, which I cooked a day later to perfection. Will leave you with that thought. More to follow!


Thursday, 31 March 2016

Palming off the forests: implications of introducing oil palm plantations in North-east India

An oil palm plantation landscape (photograph by Arati Kumar-Rao)
Oil palm plantations are lucrative and are being actively encouraged by the Government across north-eastern India. After the first cut of forests in the region for oil palm in Mizoram, spread across over 20,000 hectares, Arunachal Pradesh State is on track to becoming a major oil palm producer in the coming years with over 100,000 hectares considered suitable for oil palm cultivation. In August last year, the State Government signed contracts with three companies to open up oil palm plantations over 20,000 hectares in the next five years. The rationale seems simple according to a report by the State Government of Mizoram; farmers currently undertaking shifting cultivation, which is perceived as wasteful and destructive, can grow oil palm and improve their own economy as well as reduce the country's dependence on imported oil palm. But several examples from South-east Asia provide evidence to suggest that oil palm plantation development is riddled with complexity. Lets first look at the ecological impacts.


Effects on landscapes


The forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that produce most of the world's oil palm, have borne the brunt of oil palm expansion over the last three decades: by the year 2005, oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia affected over 30 million ha of forests. Besides directly causing deforestation leading to biodiversity loss and increased carbon emissions, oil palm plantations have collateral impacts such as soil erosion as well as air and water pollution due to mill effluents and plantation run-off.

Water quality in streams is affected by plantations: studies have shown that water from plantations was nearly 4°C warmer, sediment concentration over 500 times higher and the stream health in terms of stream metabolism was lower than forest streams. While oil palm plantations support lower biodiversity relative to other land use types such as rubber, cocoa and coffee plantations, diversity is also lower than in secondary forests formed following shifting cultivation, which involves small-scale forest clearing followed by natural regeneration.

Palm plantations also accentuate the risk of fire in landscapes; while many oil palm plantations in Indonesia are on drained peat forest rather than uplands, low tree density and lack of ground cover can contribute to a hot, dry, fire-prone environment. Industrial manipulation of the landscape for oil palm development was considered a significant factor responsible for more than half the fires that raged across Indonesia last year and affected over a million hectares of forests. George Monbiot, the environmental writer, called this “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century so far”.


The stark contrast between a forest and an oil palm plantation (photograph by Arati Kumar-Rao)

Impacts on people


Such ecological impacts will affect the forests in the Indian North-east, which besides supporting several endangered flora and fauna are largely managed by indigenous communities. Shifting cultivation or swidden, a mountain farming system practised by about half a million families across a roughly equal area in hectares, annually, is the mainstay of the region. While on the one hand, the practice provides food security in remote mountainous areas, on the other, farming communities also draw strong links between the practice and their own cultural identity. As oil palm plantations spread and replace cultivable area under swidden, they can be expected to affect livelihoods of farming communities that subsist on the practice. For instance, palm plantations have affected the Dayak community in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia; following the establishment of plantations, communities had to travel farther to collect forest produce, to hunt and to prepare their swiddens.

Besides such direct impacts, other indirect social impacts have been documented from South-east Asia such as lack of transparency regarding the smallholder-plantation arrangement, bonded labour, use of non-local employees, amenities promised by companies not being made available, unsafe use of fertilizers, high rates of injury among plantation workers, corruption between officials and plantations and breakdown of traditional social structures. Further, the perceptions of economic benefits of oil palm vary across different stakeholders–local communities, corporations and governments–and this has led to conflicts between them. Several sites with oil palm plantations in South-east Asia have reported economic gains but some argue that these gains often accrue to migrant labourers rather than indigenous people.

In most parts of North-east India, settled cultivation or wet rice cultivation provides an important alternative and often supplements the activity of shifting cultivation. Irrigation comes at a premium due to the undulating terrain in the region. Diverting this scantily available resource to water-intensive oil palm plantations could affect food security and livelihoods of farming communities. The remoteness of the area further complicates the prospects for oil palm. Several parts of North-east India are not well connected with markets and processing units. Where access is poor, product quality may suffer, since fresh oil palm bunches need to be processed within 24 hours of harvest to ensure good quality oil and to avoid build-up of free fatty acids.


Sustainable palm oil?


Recognizing the problems associated with oil palm plantations, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to ensure environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices and to certify companies that adhere to its principles. Certification should provide some protection for North-east India, however implementation of RSPO principles has been fraught with issues. Firstly, RSPO membership itself is problematic: 65 % of the RSPO are members that trade crude palm oil while only 20 % are oil palm growers. The majority, then, have no direct responsibility for practices on the ground. Secondly, the social, ecological and environmental expertise for effective implementation of the principles of RSPO is lacking in the countries where oil palm is grown. Further, in the year 2012, only a third of palm oil production by RSPO members was certified as sustainable.


Are there alternatives?


Given that oil palm plantations have affected both forests and communities in South-east Asia, and that the expansion of plantations in North-east India is still at its nascent stage, the time is ripe to look for alternatives. However, alternatives are not easy to come by since palm oil is widely used in edible and cosmetic products and oil palm is a highly productive crop in comparison with other oil crops such as soybean, sunflower and rapeseed.

Short-term measures involve improving productivity of existing plantations and avoiding further deforestation for future plantations. Some conservation biologists claim that boycotting oil palm is not the solution since producing oil from a different crop can affect even larger areas. Instead, making existing plantations more efficient and productive and utilizing a portion of the revenue generated from plantations to safeguard other forests has been suggested. Even the focus of the international environmental organization, Greenpeace, is to 'break the link between palm oil and deforestation rather than forpalm oil to be excluded'.

Long-term alternatives are being researched with some success. In February last year, researchers at the University of Bath, England developed a way to produce the oily yeast Metschnikowia pulcherrima that has the lipid profile of palm oil. While they believe that it can likely grow on most organic feedstock and that its commercial production could be undertaken in 10 to 100 times less area than oil palm, the economically viable production of this yeast may take a few more years of research.


Concluding remarks


The forests in North-east India are already vulnerable to proposed dams, timber extraction, non-traditional shifting cultivation, mining for coal and limestone and previously introduced monoculture plantations such as tea, rubber and cashew, among others. Similarly, the livelihoods of farming communities are affected by policies that discourage shifting cultivation, a practice that provides subsistence to remote mountain farming communities. Introducing another forest conversion scheme at a large scale of several thousands of hectares poses risks to the land and the people.

Learning from experiences in a similar cultural and ecological landscape in neighbouring countries in South-east Asia, it may be more practical and ecologically sound to initially undertake small-scale oil palm plantations in previously cleared sites in North-east India and expand slowly in sites with other land use types without causing further deforestation. The expansion should also be based on learning from successes and failures at initially established sites. In terms of management of oil palm plantations, companies designated to establish oil palm plantations must strictly adhere to RSPO principles, and local farmers should be involved throughout the decision making process including the actual management of the plantation to prevent negative social repercussions. Otherwise, instead of improving the economic conditions of communities in North-east India which is ostensibly an important reason for oil palm expansion, plantations may further marginalize farmers that subsist on shifting cultivation and cause extensive and irreversible ecological damage.


Articles cited:

  1. Fitzherbert, E. B., Struebig, M. J., Morel, A., Danielsen, F., Brühl, C. A., Donald, P. F., & Phalan, B. (2008) How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?Trends in ecology & evolution, 23(10), 538-545.
  2. Gillespie, P. (2011) How Does Legislation Affect Oil Palm Smallholders in the Sanggau District of Kalimantan, Indonesia?. Australasian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy, 14(1), 1-37.
  3. Koh, L. P., & Wilcove, D. S. (2007) Cashing in palm oil for conservation. Nature, 448(7157), 993-994.
  4. Obidzinski, K., Andriani, R., Komanidin, H., & Andrianto, A. (2012) Environmental and social impacts of oil palm plantations and their implications for biofuel production in Indonesia. Ecology and Society, 17(1), 25.
  5. Raman, T. R. S. (2014) Perils of Oil Palm, 20 August 2014, Newslink (Aizawl).
  6. Srinivasan, U. (2014) Oil palm expansion: ecological threat to to north-east India. Economic and Political Weekly, XLIX, Sep. 06, 2014.

The article was written for the Current Conservation magazine with Dr. Deborah Lawrence.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Micro stories 1

The following was written during my stay in the Bomdo village in Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015. While writing loosely-connected short anecdotes, I drift a lot between stories but try and return each time. You may notice the influence of Brian Doyle's book Mink river here. Given that there was no electricity, phone network or internet, I wrote quite a bit! So I post it in parts. The first part is here.

21st May 2015
1130 hours

Of a big meal and curry leaves, pressure cooker and a Bose speaker!


The story could start anywhere because the story is made of smaller stories, all linked, linked by the fabric of continuity and relevance. Like, for instance, after a few days of having small meals of Ragi huri hittu, I decided to prepare a big meal this noon. The people here call it 'Baara baaji khana', the 12 O clock meal, perhaps the most important one of the day for them, since they work hard in the fields. I will not drift into other stories right away but it is difficult to stick to a narrative since everything is linked, and everything is interesting, to me. Anyway, the big meal.

The inspection 'bungalow' I stayed in, in Bomdo village, Upper Siang.

I make a fire, that's the start of every meal here. I cut strips of the discarded cartons someone left here, thin strips. I scrape few strips of bamboo, and over these I will later put thin pieces of wood and lastly big ones. Over the years of staying here, I've learnt to light a fire as well as I light a candle, and nine out of ten times, I make a fire with one matchstick. I light one. The matchstick flame lights the carton strips light the bamboo strips which in a few seconds transfer the fire to the small sticks, which in a whiile light the big ones.

I decided to cook dal (lentils), I wash the dal, cut onions tomatoes, chillies and then remembered the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) at my friend Kubbo's home. I had brought the seedling all the way from Bangalore. A small bag of mud, three small seedlings with only two leaves each. The seedlings were on a train first, then a bus, then a Sumo (four-wheeler), then a bike ride followed by a short walk, it was a long journey; seven days! When I sipped water from the bottle, I also watered them during the journey, but only one survived. Now, four years later it is a small tree, already flowering. I took the short walk to Kubbo's place and brought back a few leaves for my dal. After the dal is boiled in the pressure cooker, I will season it with onions and curry leaves. I've asked Padi (Uncle in Adi) who is presently working in the field adjoining my camp to join me in the meal, for the 'Baara baaji khana'. He has been weeding his field for a couple hours but now its raining, pouring even. So he sits by the fire drying himself.

Padi, uncle, weeding his field.

The pressure cooker just whistled, it used to be a new sound for the village even few years back. When Kubbo bought a pressure cooker and it whistled with pressure, his mom almost fell back and broke some wind too and we all laughed. Now, most homes have pressure cookers and it is a familiar sound, of the cooker whistle.

Roy and I had two 2.5 litre cookers; one for rice and the other for dal/meat. By now, we know the characters of these two cookers. Usha was an old style one, faithful and loyal and after about 15 minutes would usually whistle. Hawkins had a lot of attitude, it was of a newer generation, she just sits there on the fire with no reaction, giving no indication of an upcoming meal while we stare hungry. Then, suddenly it would spew out steam. Sometimes the Hawkins had so much attitude that it wouldn't whistle over a small fire. But we soon figured the trick; adding bamboo strips after fifteen minutes. Bamboo fire is short but has much more heat and then the Hawkins would be satisfied and whistle. Several days when we don't have bamboo, cooking with the Hawkins was a pain.


Papad roasted on charcoal tastes better!

Just now we finished eating our 12 O clock meal; dal, rice, fire-roasted papad and Gongura pickle my mom sent from Bangalore. Mom always packs intelligently, things that last, pickles and powders. I always carry mom-made Sambar powder and Roy and Agar bhai would say 'Dalo dalo Maa ka pyar' (put some motherly love). Once after a peg or two of rum, Agar bhai said 'Dalo maa ka doodh' by mistake and we all roared into a laughter. That joke will live forever!

Which brings me to another joke. Agar bhai and I were doing field work one day and in my field bag I was carrying a lux meter, to be used for measuring light intensity. It almost looks like a phone contraption, complete with a light sensor connected with coiled up wire like a phone receiver. I started the joke. I pretended that I was speaking to my mom using the digital device reaching far out with the light sensor for better signal connectivity. After about two minutes of pretending to speak I gave the lux meter to him to speak. Agar bhai was suddenly all shy and the word he said first was 'Maaaa', a bit stretched version of 'Ma' (mother). This is funny because of two things; the village has never had any phone network and perhaps will never even have and Agar bhai is ten years older than me and my prank had transformed him into a child calling out 'Maa'. Unable to control myself any longer, I broke into a loud laughter and he joined me soon!
Padi and I finished all this dal with rice in one meal!

The other day another friend Tabu bhaiyya was about to cut my expensive Bose audio speaker into two with his knife, very brave. This is why. I had bought a wireless bluetooth Bose speaker to field to listen to music. I can play music or sound from my phone even 10 m away. The IB, inspection bungalow, I stay in has four rooms. Two rooms are mostly dark and seem haunted almost! The Adi never go alone near the IB in the night since it is built over a graveyard. But I need not worry they said, they are Adi ghosts that haunt Adi people, besides there is the language issue, fair enough, I said. And after a year of getting used to sleeping alone here, they reaffirmed to me that anyways only kids who passed on were buried here, not adults, and I really had nothing to fear!

From the game called 'Angry Birds', I had downloaded sounds of pigs grunting and laughing. The sound is quite scary in a place like the IB and the Adi are anyway trigger-scary of ghosts. I could play the sound from my phone in the pocket and pretend I had nothing to do with it. I set it up. In the night over spirited conversations, I told Tabu bhaiyya about the sound from the dark room and that it scares me. Then, I played the sound. While initially we was surprised, he soon ran towards the sound with a Dao (machete), I then had to shine my torch and declare to him that it was just a harmless speaker. We burst out laughing!

Another day when I played this even in the daytime, a teenager kid Kebo, who was talking to me casually, having heard the sound suddenly started sprinting away from the IB. Feeling guilty, I ran behind him with the speaker to tell him that the Bose speaker was responsible for the sound, he ran harder away. When he came back I explained it all to him and he was still shivering in fear! He said nearby the dogs were running too and he was convinced they had seen or heard something scary too.

More micro-stories to follow.