“The forest officials would come and beat us up when we tried to cultivate in our lands. My father died in 1986. They had beaten him and locked him up. He died because of that,” says Bhagwati, who belongs to the Baiga community from Dindori of Madhya Pradesh. Such injustices were not uncommon but are now a thing of the past.
The Baigas are indigenous people from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Their ancient farming method, called ‘bewar’, is a unique agro-ecological practice. The land is not tilled. In this natural farming method, up to 12 crops are grown together. The Baigas cultivated traditional millets, grains and beans, and supplemented this with foraged fruit, tubers and other forest produce. But with time and the push towards high-yield crop varieties, these traditional methods were left behind and the traditional knowledge was neglected. This led to large-scale impoverishment and malnourishment.
Naresh Biswas, a community activist, has been working tirelessly with the Baigas of Baigachak for over two decades and has persuaded 700 families to return to their traditional farming and food cultures. Son of a Bangladeshi refugee, Biswas came to these parts as a child, as part of a government resettlement programme. He was moved by the stories of injustices like that of Bhagwati’s family and set about reviving traditional knowledge and agriculture. He formed the Baiga Maha Panchayat to advocate for the rights of the Baiga people. His fight for the land rights and food security for the tribe has brought a huge change in their living conditions.
Bhagwati testifies, “Earlier I used to fall ill quite regularly. But since Biswas has given us traditional seeds, and now that I am eating these traditional foods, I am much better”. This is not surprising. Biswas’s extensive research has revealed the value of traditional knowledge. For instance, nursing Baiga mothers are given flatbreads made out of finger millet which is much richer in calcium than milk. He has even published a series of three books called Biodiversity Awareness which lists the foraged food and their nutritive values.
“Today NGOs and governments are planting trees in the name of reforestation that have no nutritious or medicinal values”, Biswas says. He hopes his compilation will make the administrators more aware of the benefits of traditional knowledge and help in enacting policies that benefit the people as well as the environment.
Further, despite the enactment of the Forest Rights Act (2006), the Baigas were being cheated of their land titles by unscrupulous officials. Baigas told Biswas that the Act was actually even more detrimental to their interests because they lost in the battle of paperwork. Thanks to his single-minded efforts, today Baigas in seven villages have titles to their lands under the habitat rights guaranteed by the law.
Biswas receives no external funding or support. Lack of funding has meant that he is not able to visit the villages as frequently. But he is happy to report that the Baigas have embraced the change and continue with bewar farming practices. In fact, the news of their success has spread far and wide, and more and more indigenous people, like the Pahari Korba tribe, are replicating these methods. The government should recognise the contribution of activists like Biswas and ensure wide scale replication of this model.
Article by Madhura Chakrobarty with inputs from Aparna Gopan and video by Saroj Paraste. Visit the Video Volunteers website here.