ATREE has been working in the region, we refer to as the Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayas, for the last 20 years. Over the past 20 years, ATREE has witnessed a dramatic change in the food systems here; from one closely connected to the local ecology to one that is completely dependent on an external market. The Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalaya region historically has a rich cultural and traditional farming system; the population comprises of many ethnic groups including Nepali, Tibetans and Lepcha, besides communities from the plains of India.
However, in recent decades new technologies and policies that do not support the local food culture, have resulted in the gradual erosion of the regions rich and diverse food culture. As a result of the current development pathway, people’s aspirations have changed. On one hand, there have been mass migrations from the landscape in the hopes of more cash income. On the other hand, mass tourism has created an economy completely dependent on imported produce and an alien, less nutritious, food culture.
Moreover, a narrow focus on increased yield and caloric intake created unintended consequences of malnutrition, food insecurity and environmental unsustainability. People’s engagement with the land to produce food in ways that protected the forests and waterways is rapidly declining.
The agriculture and tourism sectors have been extensively impacted by the pandemic. Restrictions on travel, social distancing and health norms have brought the tourism sector to a halt impacting thousands of livelihoods. Agriculture has mainly been affected by the availability of seeds, and supply chain disruptions linking to both local and distant markets. Household income of all the farmers of the region have been impacted. As of 24th May, 2020, total unemployment rate in Sikkim was 2.3% and West Bengal was 17.4% (Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts specific figures are not available) .
Despite these challenges, there are opportunities for a food future that can reconcile traditional systems with modern aspirations. It is not too late to reverse the trajectory of Sikkim and Darjeeling food systems to avoid the pitfalls other places have faced. People in the remote rural areas remain connected to the land and technology is changing what is possible. Given the COVID 19 pandemic, we now have the opportunity to create more resilient food systems- emphasising locally grown food for both tourism and local demand, as well as training farmers to secure multiple sources of income to make livelihoods more resilient to shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic. Read our entire vision for the future of food in the Sikkim Darjeeling Himalaya region here.
This project is one of the semi-finalists for the Rockefeller Food Vision prize 2020 competition.