Making alternative Indigenous food markets mainstream

By Aeden Keffelew

Indigenous women from southern India remove wax from honeycomb frames. Photo: Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

“There’s lots and lots of wisdom, lots of ways of owning small things but thinking very big,” says Pratim Roy. “We are taught this is your land, this is your apartment, that’s your car. For them, this entire area is theirs. How do they have that kind of thing? There’s lots to learn from them. That’s their mainstream, what we call alternative.”

Roy is the founder of Keystone Foundation, and “them”, that’s the members of Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited, an Indigenous-owned producer collective located in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) in the Western Ghats of southern India. As climate-induced challenges with food production become a growing concern across the globe, this producer collective of Indigenous groups has proven that locally-led management of productive ecosystems can offer long-lasting and profitable solutions.

Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited was incubated by Keystone Foundation in 2013. Keystone works with 147 Indigenous communities in the 5,500 square kilometre Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve to find environmental and economic solutions based on traditional Indigenous practices.

Farmers work in the Aadhimalai fields within the Niligri Biosphere Reserve. Photo: Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

Aadhimalai, which began as a micro-social enterprise and has since grown into a tribal producer company that uses organic production and sustainable harvests of local crops, has been awarded the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize 2021 along with nine other Indigenous peoples and local communities. The Equator Prize recognizes effective and scalable nature-based solutions to our world’s most pressing environmental, food and economic dilemmas.

As an Indigenous-owned production collective, Aadhimalai uses traditional collection methods of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as honey, amla, shikakai, soap nuts and berries, from the protected forests to sustain the livelihoods and food production of communities in and around the reserve, while also protecting the forest and native species.

“Aadhimalai is a company for the tribal people here,” says Vanaja, a producer at Bangalapadi Aadhimalai Centre. “We’re all joint owners. Aadhimalai is ours.”

The Aadhimalai Producer Company serves as the decentralized production company for these products in different parts of the reserve. It guarantees its members a fair market price for their products. The company combats previously widespread, unfair practices such as low market prices, incorrect weighing of products, and monopolies from trading retailers outside of the reserve area.

These market issues, which negatively affected Indigenous peoples’ food and economic security, were exacerbated in the past due to a lack of clear protection zones in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

Producers deseed the amla fruit (left), while another packages refined honey in jars (right). Photos: Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, where the Indigenous peoples of the Aadhimalai collective have always lived, was established in 1986 by the Government of India and UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB). The reserve is a haven of biodiversity with rainforests, wetlands and other ecosystems, home to various species of fauna, such as the Asian elephant and Bengal tiger.

Under the MAB programme, each reserve is split into three zones: core areas for strictly protected biospheres, buffer zones for ecologically sound monitoring, research and training, and transition areas where communities can conduct sustainable economic activities.

The Nilgiri Biosphere lacks delineated transition areas for Indigenous groups to develop systems for economic and environmentally sound growth. As a result, buffer zones have been used by various developers for hydroelectric power projects, agriculture, horticulture and tourism activities. This has led to a negative impact on the reserve’s ecology.

Aadhimalai has addressed this issue by making use of the manipulation zones within the buffer zones to create sustainable livelihoods for over 1,600 Indigenous members of the collective through the production and selling of NTFPs harvested from the forest.

Farmers harvest millet within one of the ‘manipulation zones’. Photo: Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

Aadhimalai sells coffee, pepper, silk cotton, millets, pulses, cereals, spices and fruits to both Indigenous families and neighbouring communities, ensuring sustainable livelihoods for its members. The company pays them prices that are 30 percent higher than the market rate.

A team of local people trained as “barefoot ecologists” regularly record and monitor harvesting and agricultural practices. The ecologists maintain sustainable harvesting of these crops with a holistic economic model. They also ensure that honey collection never exceeds 40 percent of the resource, which keeps bee colonies stable. They replant the forest by incorporating local nurseries to grow native species and trees.

Various production centres throughout the collective produce different goods from non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that are then sold to Indigenous groups within the region. Many of these production centres are women-led.

“Only women work in our production centres,” says Sumithra. “However, both men and women do the NTFP collection.”

Sumithra (left) works at one of the production centres, along with several other women (right) who make up an almost entirely female organization. Photos: Shrishti Institute of Art and Design and Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

Of Aadhimalai’s 50 employees, 42 are women and of the 7 directors of the company, 3 are women. Women manage the production units, travel to other organizations to give training and represent their community in local and national forums.

Setting the price of products helps the Indigenous communities of the region keep economic and agricultural independence. Their traditional practices also help tribal communities weather the volatility of climate change in agricultural industries.

Aadhimalai has created a sustainable agro-economy for many Indigenous groups within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. They have trained more than 25 organizations across the tribal areas of India in organic agriculture, sustainable honey harvest, wild fruit collection and hygienic handling of produce.

A farmer works in the fields of the Niligri Biosphere Reserve. Photo: Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company Limited

“Our organization is the community itself,” says Jestin Pauls, CEO of Aadhimalai. “Enterprising is necessary.” He thinks that government support can help scale up their successful model of Indigenous entrepreneurship.

As nations and communities strategize ways to rehabilitate and sustainably use land, Aadhimalai offers an economically and environmentally sound solution. These practices help communities facing food insecurity as climate change begins to create extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.

Aadhimalai offers a sustainable economic model that supports local communities while incorporating and upholding Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous-led training empowers both teachers and learners, and demonstrates the value of locally-led action through replication in different locations.

With this work, Aadhimalai and similar groups around the world are working towards bringing this “alternative” approach into the mainstream. 2021 Equator Prize winners, Tropical Forest — Rural Development of Cameroon and BIO-KG Federation of Organic Development of Kyrgyzstan have also scaled up sustainable and traditional farming models, some of which have been used to shape local government food policies.

Members of the Aadhimalai collective say that “gaining rights over resources is our larger goal”. Land sovereignty offers them continual rights to protect and sustain the forest for generations to come.

“Winning the Equator Prize will go a long way in promoting the cause of environmentally friendly social enterprises,” Aadhimalai representatives said in their acceptance remarks. “This award motivates us and gives a voice to the voiceless.”

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