Next stop was an intensive plot, 50 ha of intensive vegetable production including a number of gourd species. We wandered along a railway track and scrambled down into the fields. Here they were growing spiny gourd which requires hand pollination due to lack of pollinators. It is done in the morning, the male flowers open only early and each male flower can pollinate 5 -6 female flowers. They are picked and touched to the females. If we can demonstrate that beekeeping and other interventions can eliminate the need for hand pollination we will have a strong case with which to approach govt.
An intensive plot
The last place we visited on that first day was a Jhum area, which is a term for shifting cultivation practised by tribal people. This year’s land had been very recently cleared (by burning) in preparation for planting. The family occupying the area certainly have their work cut out, perhaps 40 ha had been burnt and this will be planted up with a mixture of crops, sown together. Some of the slopes were very steep. Beyond the burnt area, the forest rises up, home to a group of Hoolock Gibbon – which I didn’t see (gutted). A small extended tribal family are living in the area. Ideally patches are cultivated on a 7 – 10 year rotation but because the area the tribal people have available is shrinking, the rotation has become shorter – about 3 – 5 years which isn’t so great for the land. Tribal people have newly established rights to the forest and the dept. of Agriculture is doing its best to support them. The small homestead was occupied by four huts, traditionally bamboo and thatch but a couple are corrugated steel. The farmer showed us around and is happy to be part of the project. Actually, I think he has been part of more than one international project!! It’s kind of a convenient place – surrounded by forest and certainly free from pesticides but it has a road going right past it so good access and less walking for the research fellows 🙂 . The farmer and his family are well used to being photographed (see below). The traditional greeting is to touch your hands to your chest which indicates ‘you are so dear to me’. There are strong family ties with the idea that you might be dear to someone taken for granted – it kind of made me sad for England.
The most surreal event was being taken to a house to see bees in a cupboard. Knowing that we were keen to talk to bee keepers, our partners in the area really outdid themselves by stopping at a village we were passing to introduce us to a man who had a hive of Apis cerana in his cupboard. Not by accident I hasten to add, the villagers had taken a swarm and put them in the cupboard, leaving the door slightly ajar to allow them access and had recently harvested a jar of raw honey. Perhaps the most surreal part for me was that, the things originally in the cupboard had not been taken out. Bees and books sharing space.
Next day we were up bright and early to drive 3 hours up into the tribal lands. It feels as remote as it is, now relatively peaceful but being up by the border and historically quite volatile it was an area that visitors might think twice about driving through at night (especially visitors who stick out like a sore thumb (me!). As we drove we caught the tail end of a cyclone and hurtling along winding roads, overtaking the lorries creeping painfully up steep hills, we ploughed through the rain, with the thud of large hailstones glancing off our roof. By the time we reached the research station we were visiting, the rain had begun to subside. And the place we ended up was like a small piece of heaven. A hill research station, newly invigorated by a scientific team of 5 young scientists and their experienced director. Met by smiling faces and umbrellas we were hurried into the office and sat behind a desk to meet the team, who arranged themselves in front of us and introduced themselves. We were treated to tea and traditional sweets and unable to wait for the rain to stop we went out to look at the experimental areas. 15 ha of land, some already down to experiments and managed by this amazingly enthusiastic team of scientists. Almost any experimental set-up can be managed here and the team are very keen to collaborate on the project. What a fantastic resource. After we had looked around we went to a small guest house across the road and here we were served a meal made by the team. A Bengali feast which was constructed completely from the produce from their gardens: pointed gourd, dal, fresh tomato chutney, even their own rice. And fruit: water melon, pomegranate, apple, grapes and banana all cut and arranged so beautifully. It must have taken an age – they are very isolated there and they have used their spare time to practice their culinary skills. Through the window was a view of a cultivated plain, dotted with huts and beyond, the forest and hills, their summits wreathed in mist.
As my camera battery ran out, I am waiting for others to send me their snaps.