Women farmers have found a common purpose in the Meghalaya State of the Indian Himalayas. Every day, they gather in the paddy fields and jhum (a piece of land that has been cleared and is used to grow crops until its fertility is depleted) to cultivate the valuable pink and purplesticky rice of their ancestors. Their many hands become one as they gently sew the rice in collective harmony.
These women come from five villages, and 60 to 70 families in each village farm the pink and purple rice. The women producers cultivate the heirloom rice varieties at between 1200 to 1800 metres above sea level using only the ancient techniques of Meghalaya farmers, which have been passed down over many generations. They do not use fertilizer – neither natural nor chemical; it is simply the soil, the seed and the magic of Mother Nature that allows the rice to grow two metres tall. When the crop is nearly ready for harvest, the rice fields sway in the gentle breeze and the atmosphere is thick with the fragrance of centuries-old memories.
These women come from tribal families, such as the Bhoi, Garo, Jaintia and Khasi; the two varieties of heirloom rice are integral to the local culture of these tribes, who use the rice for traditional celebrations and ceremonies. For example, the Bhoi wrap pink rice in banana leaves when a newly wedded bride visits her groom’s family for
the first time as a symbol of building a new family relationship.
The producers are protective of their precious grain, and diligently ensure that the rice is only grown in their villages. The patient women wait one year to produce the rice, which is the necessary amount of time needed for their exceptional product. Once they harvest the rice grains, they leave the entire plant in the field for 12 months.
After that, it is turned into the soil and rice seedlings are transplanted by hand during the monsoon season. They believe that the pink and purple rice is worth the time, energy and patience.
Pink rice, rich in both cultural and nutritional value, is believed to be the ancestor of white rice varieties. It is eaten as a snack throughout the day, wrapped in fresh green leaves. It keeps people feeling full when they have to travel far from home, thus it is available in roadside teashops all over Meghalaya. Easy to cook, tasty and
colourful, pink rice is also used to make pudoh (rice cake with meat), pukhleiñ (fried rice cake) and sweet puddings, as it gets creamy when overcooked and combines well with dairy and coconut milk.
Purple rice is also well-known as the premier rice variety to use in ceremonial treats. Characterized by its unique purple colour, this super food contains antioxidants and high levels of vitamins, minerals and fibres. Like pink rice, it is easy to cook, has a beautiful color and tastes superb in sweet puddings. Traditionally called “Forbidden
Rice”, legend says that this ancient grain was once eaten exclusively by the Emperors of China. Today, local
communities in Meghalaya believe that planting purple rice around the house will protect their households. Unfortunately, purple rice has a lower production yield than other rice varieties, threatening this variety’s survival. Farmers tend to cultivate purple rice in very small fields compared to more prosperous varieties, such as traditional white rice.
To effectively farm and sell these indigenous crops, the women have formed the Mahila Umang Producers Company: a federation of 3000 women organized into 200 self-help women’s groups that promotes sustainable livelihoods for women (the Hindi word “mahila” means “woman”). Producers run the enterprises following fair trade, ecologic, economic and equitable principles. Mahila Umang came about through the parent organization Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation, which sets up these local microenterprises for women and helps them register as enterprises.
In 2017, the women of the Mahila Umang Producers Company joined hands with the Mountain Partnership Products (MPP) initiative to boost their marketing and production of pink and purple heirloom rice. After three seasons of marketing the rice, the women report that the MPP label has given their rice products more credibility and helped them reach more customers. Today, the women sell the rice in bulk for 275 Indian rupees (about USD 3.65) per kilogram. They also offer the rice in gift box packaging at a rate of 500 Indian rupees (USD 6.6) per kilogram.
The women rice farmers play an important role in preserving these ancient grains – both for their nutritional value and their significant cultural value. They are happy to continue cultivating pink and purple rice, as there is a market of customers who are pleased to have easy access to some of the most satisfying varieties of handpounded
Source: Mountain Partnership