How indigenous cuisine of the Karbi People can help enable sustainable livelihoods and community based ecotourism around Kaziranga
Moina Tokbipi is from the Karbi community and has lived all her life in Natundanga village. Her village is particularly important from a conservation perspective as it lies in a crucial connectivity zone: the Amguri Wildlife Corridor that connects Kaziranga National Park with Bagser Reserve Forest, Nagaon, and the adjoining forested areas of Karbi Anglong. The conservation of Kaziranga's biodiversity and wildlife has been successful to a large extent because of the support of the Karbi community (and many others) that inhabit the fringes of the park, who continue to contribute to the cause of conservation despite the minimal resources at their disposal.
For Moina her identity as a Karbi, revolves (among other things), around the food she grew up eating and the landscape she grew up in. ‘’Food is extremely important to our community – and it depends a lot on the forests and hills around the village. We cook with naturally grown herbs and spices that are available around us. Lopong leaves, jirlang (a type of garlic), tihaso(a type of turmeric) and Menpo (sesame) seeds are all locally grown and form a big part of our food. We also cook with sections of bamboo. The forests around us are providers of this food and therefore, as important as the food itself,’’ she believes.
But the impetus of “economic development” has caused the requirement of disposable income for survival, causing a severe loss of these cultures and traditions around both food and conservation.As tribal societies like the Karbis struggle to cope up, they rapidly lose touch with the forests they once called home. This process has engendered a simultaneous decoupling with their centuries old customs and traditions, of which both food and conservation lie perhaps at the centre.
In order to enable people like Moina as strong stakeholders in the conversation around nature conservation in the area, WWF-India has been working extensively with communities on the fringes of Kaziranga under Eco Development Committees (EDC) These EDCs, formed by the Kaziranga National Park, are an attempt to generate community support for conservation. WWF-India actively works with the EDCs on various issues, including sustainable livelihoods. The aim is to augment sustainable alternative livelihoods for communities to maintain their financial well-being while at the same time securing their support for conservation.
Moina and others like her believed that possessed the skills and inclination for preparation and presentation of their Karbi ethnic cuisine commercially. To this effect, the WWF-India organised a first of its kind Ethnic Food and Hospitality Training Programme in Natundanga, in an initiative to promote sustainable livelihoods through culinary tourism in the area. The goal of this is being envisioned as a self-sustained Ethnic Culinary Tourism Enterprise in the village, run by their EDC.
Organised over two days, the Ethnic Food and Hospitality Training programme was designed by Guwahati based food blogger and Assamese Food Expert Mitali Gogoi Dutta for 18 members of the Natundanga EDC. The first day of the programme involved intensive training on preparation of commercially saleable Karbi food, with an emphasis on taste, presentation, hygiene and hospitality. On the second day, the EDC members themselves prepared the menu on the lines of the training received the previous day.
For Moina, ‘’Before the training, I didn’t know about preparing menus and wasn’t really confident about preparing Karbi food for tourists. However, now I feel very confident and proud of our food and am eager to prepare it for tourists who comes to Kaziranga.’’
The officials from the Kaziranga National Park and District Administration, Assam Tourism and members of the nearest EDCs were invited for the food tasting at the end, who were very impressed with the taste and quality of the food.
Moina believes that the Ethnic Culinary Tourism Enterprise in Natundanga has massive potential in helping her community develop self sufficient ways of securing both their culture and their support for conservation. WWF-India is now working with the Natundanga EDC on scaling up the programme and making the dream of the enterprise come true.