Foraging through impending loss
A story of land-rights and militarisation in Nagaland. Words by Dolly Kikon and Joel Rodrigues. Photographs by Rendo Shitiri. Illustration by Neivikhotso Chaya.
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Welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. Our third writers for the season are Dolly Kikon and Joel Rodrigues. In this newsletter, Dolly and Joel write about how foraging in Nagaland is threatened by new land-laws, and militarisation. Read on for a journey through Northeast India’s forests, and a story of how national encroachment snatches sustenance, custodianship and joy from indigenous people in South-Asia, and across the world.
Foraging through impending loss: land-rights and militarisation in Nagaland
Words by Dolly Kikon and Joel Rodrigues. Photographs by Rendo Shitiri. Illustration by Neivikhotso Chaya.
On a hot day in May this year, on the outskirts of Nagaland’s Khumtsü forest, the master forager Zareno digs her fingers into the wet soil to make steps on the forest’s slope, ascending to the field of mhalivo where she picks the dark-green oval leaves. Around us, we can hear birds, crickets, and beetles. The forest is a prism of green, of moss, fern and tree canopy; it rained this morning and the ground smells fresh. Mhalivo – or the gnetum gnemon plant, as it’s sometimes called – is often used in Naga dishes. When it is cooked and eaten with rice, it tastes woody with hints of mint, and often flavours yam stews, dry fish chutneys, and meat and fish curries like machihaan, mani rüchak, oso and ongo ohan. The plant can also be cooked on its own, and the leftover water from boiling it down consumed as a broth.
Khumtsü is one of many forests in the Wokha district, which is located in the west of Nagaland, India’s hill-clad North-Eastern state. Wokha is also the homeland of Lotha Nagas – like Zareno, who lives in the nearby town and earns a living by collecting and selling edible wild vegetables from the forest. The Lotha community is one of several indigenous Naga groups, who live predominantly in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India, but also across other regions in South and South-East Asia. Like many of the communities across the Eastern Himalayas, the Lothas practise jhum cultivation, or slash-and-burn agriculture. This is done by clearing and burning a patch of forest land, after which a former jhum field is allowed to regenerate into forest. The relationship between forager and forest is intimate; Zareno even has a small bamboo hut in the forest, where she sometimes sleeps if she has spent the night foraging for plants.
Across Naga communities, jhum – and foraging– have co-existed for centuries: edible plants from the wilderness make their way to the fields, and vegetables like gourds, pumpkins and yam cross over from the cultivated patches to the region’s tropforests, where they can be picked. Foraged foods like hantsan (fiddlehead fern), furothezu (pennywort), mani (taro) and bamboo shoot are an integral part of Naga people’s diets. Bamboo shoots are fermented and preserved as pulp or juice, while hantsan is used for steaming fish and meat in bamboo hollows, plus a variety of dishes containing potato and yam. Every season an array of exciting edible plants turns up at the kitchen table in Naga homes, as a reminder of the mood and flavour of the forest. Foraged foods are the essence of both Naga life and its cuisines.
But foraging, like many ways of indigenous life connected to the forest, is slowly declining in Nagaland. Upheavals in land laws, and the decades of militarisation imposed on the area, have steadily affected the environmental sanctuaries of the region, and the food-systems of the Naga people who depend on it. In the past few decades, the forest in Nagaland has dwindled as a pillar of life and nourishment, as national authorities seek to govern and utilise it for economic gain.
Nagaland is one of India’s eight North-Eastern states, located in the Indo-Burmese biodiversity hotspot that is home to many of India’s ethnic-minority indigenous tribes. When the state of Nagaland was formed in 1963 to be part of the post-colonial Indian nation-state, the constitutional amendment of Article 371(A) enabled Nagas to govern their land resources and practise jhum cultivation, recognising the Naga people as custodians of their forests and land. This also guaranteed the Naga land-management system, in which farms and forests are maintained as per the customary laws of each tribe. Like select others, the state of Nagaland was given special provisions under the new Indian nation-state, free from the interference and ultimate authority of the central government in New Delhi. This was not merely charitable, but rather a culmination of Naga articulations of self-determination and sovereignty which can be traced back to 1929.
Even though centralised impositions and pressures on Naga autonomy have always existed, in the past two decades, things have been drastically changing in the region. Crucially, the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act (FCA), was passed in August 2023 by the Narendra Modi-led Indian parliament in New Delhi. To be implemented in December 2023, the FCA overruled the constitutional guarantees of community ownership, and safety-nets for self-governance provided to Naga people at the formation of the Indian nation-state. It took ownership of land ‘that has previously been declared or notified as a forest’, and stated that the central government could now usurp and utlise community-owned land anywhere within 100 kilometres of India’s border for ‘strategic linear project of national importance and (those) concerning national security’. Since Nagaland shares an international border with Myanmar, this means that forest land through the region can be marked for infrastructural changes at the government’s whim. Apart from this, the FCA makes way for dams, and military projects under the umbrella term of ‘national interest’.
Simultaneously, governments at both the state and national level have introduced proposals for new plantations of tea, coffee, rubber, oil palm and cardamom in community-owned forests through Nagaland. These encourage an economic aspiration among people, motivating them to make commercial (even if destructive and unsustainable) use of their lands. Legislations like the FCA, like the previously enacted Nagaland Forests Act (1968) bring the forest under extractive development models and monetary calculations. But even more crucially, policies and laws like these deny the forests as rights of Naga people. They disregard indigenous methods of food and survival, disrupting Naga people’s agency to roam, cultivate and forage in the forests for their own nutrition, at their own will.
These developments directly endanger the livelihood of foragers like Zareno. To her, the forest gives sustenance, and Zareno, by foraging in it, keeps it robust and alive. When she forages, Zareno is careful not to pluck the seeds of plants. ‘Mhalivo seeds can be roasted and eaten, but regeneration of plants is integral’, she told us. She further explained that the plants are like clans – groups defined by their gene types and their relationship to one another in the forest. These abundant plants feed people, but they also have agency of their own, ‘when they do not want to be found and wish to stay away from sight, no forager can find them,’ Zareno said. To her, foraging is an act of balance, a knowledge that is carried by winds, humans, birds, animals, and streams. And the forest is a communal space – it houses the river, mountains, plants, and human beings like herself.
The week we met Zareno, we also visited Wokha town, only 10 kilometres from Khumtsü forest (and Dolly’s ancestral home). With a population of approximately 35,000 people, Wokha is the administrative, economic, and educational centre for the district, first established as a British headquarters of the Naga Hills in 1876. Even though it is a small town, several food entrepreneurs and vendors work in Wokha. One of them is Fuchumbeni, a 27-year-old baker and cook who owns a restaurant called Hotel Siroy Lily in the town. In her restaurant, which overlooks the street, she sells Indo-Chinese dishes like chowmein, plus other Indian snacks like rotis with pickles. Her stock of flour, butter and sugar comes from Dimapur, the largest city in Nagaland. ‘Around 60 people – from the Rengma, Sumi, and Lotha villages – come to eat here every day,’ Fuchumbeni said, but she told us that nothing is sourced from Wokha and its adjoining forests. This decline of indigenous food systems and foraging can be traced back to almost three decades of militarisation and counter-insurgency operations which have been imposed on the area.
Like the rest of the Naga homeland, Wokha witnessed counter-insurgency operations after India’s independence in 1947; these were a consequence of the Naga people’s demand for the right to self-determination. In 1958, the extra-constitutional Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was imposed throughout Naga lands; this empowered the Indian armed forces to detain and even kill a person on mere suspicion. Throughout this long-drawn conflict, human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and even more detained, tortured, and arrested. Similar to what has happened in militarised regions such as the Kashmir valley and Manipur, the AFSPA was (and remains today) the most curtailing and violent imposition on the life and mobility of Naga people since the 1950s.
Food-production and foraging have been affected by this surveillance. Between 1956 and 1963, when granaries were burnt down and there was widespread starvation, villagers were prohibited from cultivating their fields during curfews. Also, from the 1950s to the 1970s – at the height of the Naga movement for self-determination – the Indian state displaced villages and regrouped them into larger residential areas for surveillance. These were far from the forests that those communities knew and frequented; as they could no longer farm and forage effectively, people became dependent on state aid for food grains. During this time, Indian security forces also perceived the forest and adjoining fields as places of ‘danger’ where insurgents sought shelter and refuge. And so, foragers who entered the forests were suspected to be armed rebels, or sympathisers of the Naga freedom movement, detained on the suspicion of ‘unrest’.
In the decades following militarisation, Nagaland, which had been self-sufficient, became a food-deficit state with significant imports, as its people were distanced from the forests and indigenous methods that sustained them, unable to feed themselves. Among young Nagas, the histories of state surveillance have led to concern and uncertainty about about the future of their lands. Today in Wokha, security barracks encroach lands, taking over forests and village commons, preventing community activities like foraging from taking place in these spaces. The creation of legible and ‘legitimate’ urban centres has resulted in ‘urban aesthetic’ like that in Wokha, encouraging Naga people to live, work and eat outside the forest. The cultures of militarisation has diminished the forest’s existence as a site of sustenance and work. Fuchumbeni observed how these shifts in landscape have led to a change in the palate. ‘They [the people of Wokha’s communities] do not have time to forage and cook’, she said.
Fuchumbeni’s observation speaks to the fact that for many people like her customers food is now tied to industrialised produce; it points to the emergence of a diet that comes from the mitigation of traditional Naga food systems. But even though her restaurant is devoid of foraged ingredients from the forests, Fuchumbeni sometimes cooks traditional Lotha food with mhalivo: occasionally, when she gets home from work, she seasons smoked pork and fish with sun-dried perilla seed paste; she cooks her yam stew with fermented bamboo shoots. Similarly, across Naga households, processed food like instant noodles and canned fish are improvised with foraged herbs like pennywort and fish mint roots. New foods have become common and integral across Naga diets, but it is impossible to erase the traces of foraged foods: ‘They [foraged foods] will never go away’, Fuchumbeni said.
In India today, indigenous communities are regularly disenfranchised of their land and food rights. For instance, in 2019, the Supreme Court of India directed twenty-one state governments across India to evict almost one million indigenous people from their lands, meaning they were also dispossessed of shelter and food. Owing to the constitutional provisions provided by Article 371(A), Nagaland was not impacted by this eviction order, but the rapid unplanned urbanisation and infrastructure development in the state is leading to loss of forest land and biodiversity almost every day. Consider that under the NMEO-OP (or ‘National Mission for Edible Oils-Oil Palm’), launched under the BJP government in 2021, state and central governments provide potential oil palm farmers with financial assistance to buy everything from seedlings to machinery, along with support in the gestation period. And that in 2015, Nagaland had less than 150 hectares for oil palm, but this has now, in 2023, increased to over 5000 hectares.
Even though Nagaland is witnessing apparent economic ‘progress’, the future looks concrete and surrounded by plantations. As bulldozers flatten the mountains and forests to build roads and extract resources, tastebuds, tongues, and tummies feel the weight of impending loss.
Around the world, conversations about foraging practices by indigenous people remain irrelevant to governments, merchants, and consumers – until they become a global trend, adopted by so-called ‘sustainable’ lifestyles. But this knowledge of the nutritional benefits of edible plants, and the essential nature of the forest from which it stems, is rarely protected or spoken about. When we think of policies for forest-filled regions in South and South-East Asia, how can indigenous knowledge, care, and foraging enter the lexicon of the law and marketplace? Is there a way for foragers like Zareno to be part of the world that assigns value to plants and understands care rather than economic calculations? Is there a way for Fuchumbeni to cook her native food for customers? Can she run a restaurant with produce sourced from closer to where she lives?
As we left the forest with Zareno, a farmer offered us jakronthi fruits boiled with sugar and dried on top of a fireplace. The fruits grow across the Wokha district and are green and oval-shaped with a big seed. When they are fresh, they taste sweet and sour. When they are boiled with salt and dried, they are smoky and chewy. Jakronthi is used as post-meal digestive, and as a medicine to cure stomach ailments. Today, in Naga villages, jakronthi is gifted to family and friends more often than it is sold in markets. To snack on this fruit, you need to be in the forest, and with someone who knows and understands it. We relished the sweet, sour and smoked flavour as we stood below its tree, imagining hornbills above us eating the same fruit. We thought of the birds dispersing the seeds after they ate. This – the moment in which the tree, the birds, and forest-dwellers were bathed in common sunlight – was the impending loss. This thought was impossible to swallow, unlike the delicious fruit.
However, Zareno, with her machete in hand and a cloth bag across her shoulder, remains a caretaker of Khumtsü and knows all its residents. She continues to roam the forest, calling each flower, creeper and plant by name. One day, the jakronthi, like the pennywort and fiddlehead ferns, may become strangers to these forests, lost as distant memories. But until then, because of foragers like Zareno, they will continue to perch on Naga tastebuds and find their way to the Naga plate.
Dr. Dolly Kikon is an anthropologist. Her work focuses on the political economy of extractive resources, militarization, migration, development initiatives, gender relations, food cultures, and human rights in India. Her current writing projects include an ongoing book manuscript on fermenting cultures, and a report on the impact of the 2020 Baghjan oil spill in Assam. She also directed and produced an ethnographic film titled, "Seasons of Life: Foraging and Fermenting Bambooshoot during Ceasefire". More information about work is on her website.
Joel Rodrigues was born in Mumbai and has lived in Northeast India for almost a decade. He is the co-author of the open-access book, Seeds and Food Sovereignty: Eastern Himalayan Experiences published by North Eastern Social Research Centre. He has co-edited the book, Food Journeys: Stories from the Heart with Dolly Kikon, published by Zubaan. He is currently a doctoral student in social anthropology at Stockholm University.
Neivikhotso Chaya is a geologist, and doctoral student in the Department of Geological Sciences at Guwahati University.
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.