Building Climate Resilience Through Indigenous Food Practices in the Nilgiris

by Team TNF

First published in Climate Action in India book by Egomonk as a part of the TedxBangalore conference 2023

Nestled in the southern part of the Western Ghats in  India, The Nilgiris Biosphere is a water source for around three million people living in the surrounding areas. The biosphere is also home to unparalleled ecological diversity, a diverse array of flora, fauna, and indigenous communities that add to its exceptional beauty.

It includes over 330 species of butterflies, 100 species of mammals, 350 species of birds, and 80 species of reptiles and amphibians, with the rare and endemic neelakurinji or Strobilanthes kuthiana blooming once every 12 years. More importantly, the region is significant for carbon sequestration and climate regulation.


Like many places on Earth, The Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve also faces the threat of climate change. The International Union for  Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted in a report that many endemic species from the Nilgiris are at risk of extinction. It is crucial to conserve its biodiversity, ecosystems, and the indigenous people.

For over 2000 years, over 25 indigenous groups, including the Todas, Kotas, Irulas, and Kurumbas have lived in the region and developed a deep connection with the land. The  nature around them has shaped their livelihoods, cultures, and food habits. They have accumulated knowledge over centuries of living in harmony with the environment despite depending on it for their livelihoods. For instance, the Todas usually live around forests. They reside in small settlements surrounded by montane Shola groves, which serve as crucial grazing lands for their buffaloes.

However, rapid urbanization has posed significant challenges for these communities. The biosphere – the ancestral home of the Nilgiris indigenous communities – faces immense pressure because their ecosystem has become fragile due to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion. But, there is hope.

The native and indigenous communities still know to work harmoniously with the unique ecology of The Reserve. And through this indigenous wisdom, we can learn valuable lessons to adapt to climate change, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations like The Keystone Foundation and The Nilgiris Foundation  have recognized the value of the indigenous people’s expertise and are actively working towards preserving it.

What can we learn from the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris to build climate resilience?


© Ramya Reddy

The native and indigenous communities of Nilgiris have extensive knowledge of their ecosystems, based on which they have learned how to grow and consume their food. This native expertise is perhaps often underrated in contemporary times. Besides, these communities relate to their food in ways more than consumption. They are connected with it spiritually, and culturally, and the nature that fosters it. The pest management of the Irulas is exemplary and sustainable. It is a crucial traditional agricultural technique in the community. The Irulas have gained extensive knowledge in pest management, with 16 different, completely biological, plant-based pesticides documented.

The Irulas prepare these indigenous pesticides from Indian plant extracts like neem, chili, tobacco, and babul. They also practice traditional seed and food storage methods. The high humidity in the region has led to the development of distinct storage techniques for crops, vegetables, and seeds. Paddy grains are stored with locally grown aromatic herbs’ leaves in a small mud-house, while millets are buried under the soil painted with cow dung, to store up to one year. This storage structure allows aeration and protection against insect and rodent infestation.

Agricultural practices like mixed cropping and traditional knowledge of cross-breeding are integral to Irula farming culture that enhance the genetic potential of crops and maintain indigenous lines of drought-resistant, pest-tolerant, disease-resistant sorghum, millet, and ragi.

The tribal communities of the Nilgiris also know about the edible wild plant. They know the fruits to consume raw and the leaves to use as cures for ailments, in addition to them bringing balance and diversity to our palates.



All these practices are affected by many challenges of globalization that threaten their loss and eventual disappearance. There’s a pressing need to conserve these practices, especially in the context of food security – that is, a state where all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food.

The challenge, however, is that often strategies meant to provide food security prioritize the production of cash crops over a diverse diet. This further leads to unhealthy food systems that precipitate climate change. The decreasing biodiversity in our food is an issue for human health and the environment. Monoculture crops  and industrial agriculture contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation. In contrast, agroforestry systems, which mimic the natural ecosystems of the indigenous communities in Nilgiris, can sequester carbon and improve soil health while providing a diverse range of Crops.

The way to tackle this impact is to work in partnership with the communities. Ranjani Prasad of Keystone Foundation notes a format of this engagement with the communities, “There is a high awareness of wild foods, and agricultural practices among the tribal communities of the Nilgiris, and [hence,] we work in partnership with them. We have embedded partners within different tribal communities of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and all activities – workshops or festivals, are community-led. For example, we facilitate workshops about food practices that the elders of the community teach the children of the community orally [as a way of continuing the exchange and archiving of these practices]. There are also nutrition festivals based on the indigenous wisdom.”

Preserving, promoting, and leading knowledge-based initiatives by partnering with the native communities is a remarkable step. But, we can’t ignore the impact of socio-economic factors like market demands, and government Policies. 

Prasad’s colleague P. Chandran, who is of the Kurumba community, believes that traditional agriculture in the Nilgiris is gradually decreasing as many people from the native communities are opting to be daily wage laborers, and this has led to a decrease in the cultivation of traditional crops. According to him, only 4 or 5 families from the Kurumba community practice agriculture in the Coonoor area, and the rest have opted to earn for their families daily Wages.

One of the reasons for this shift is the security that comes from a fixed salary as opposed to the unreliable yield from agriculture due to untimely rain caused by climate change among many other factors. Chandran laments, “Food sovereignty is important because [it is] this type of food [that] has kept us and our generations healthy. But, government bodies need to help us when there is damage to the crops. Generally, people who sow vegetables, coffee, and tea get subsidies and funds when there is damage to the crop. Likewise, it would be helpful if millet cultivation also gets some funds in case of crop damage.” 


© Ramya Reddy

Food security is access to sufficient quantity and quality of food that meets the dietary needs and preferences of individuals as well as communities without compromising their cultural, social, economic, and environmental values and practices. In the context of the indigenous people of the Nilgiris, one of the significant ways to achieve food security is to promote and perpetuate their traditional food practices that are in sync with the ecosystems they live in. The intertwining of cultures and ecosystems, hence, can’t be ignored.

If we aim for food security, we might become climate Resilient.

Chandran’s experience in his community underscores the fact that whether it is aiming for food security or building climate resilience, it will have to be an ongoing and collective effort from different members of the society with various capabilities. Perhaps, a shortage of food will not be an issue in a place like the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, but the communities’ relationship with the market will continue to exist.

The habits and lifestyles of the tribal communities are changing, so the daily wage serves as a security net in the uncertainty of this change. Many indigenous people are also trying to migrate when they can, owing to erratic seasons-led failed agriculture operations and hence, changes in food Habits.

At an individual household scale, the consumption of wild edible plants and local produce for self-sustenance works despite these disruptions. But to scale these, indigenous communities need subsidies, support, and skills to adapt to the changing market. They need long-term local, viable, sustainable solutions to keep on with their agricultural practices beyond spreading awareness. A way towards that can be a facilitation of skills to communities for them to become a business or provide fairways for them to integrate into market changes.

It is crucial to keep emphasizing that the food practices of indigenous communities are deeply rooted in their connection with nature, and are designed to safeguard It would not be appropriate to impose on them the expectation of cultivating and distributing their products solely for economic advancement without appreciation for their contexts and respect for their founding principles of sustainability and environmental conservation.

But first, there is a need to bring this awareness to the forefront by amplifying Nilgiris’ indigenous voices, history, agricultural practices, and knowledge leading the way.


The practice of wild and uncultivated foods is an age-old tradition, deeply rooted in human history. 

Judicious consumption of wild food can improve the nutrition and health of the indigenous communities, as well as humans in general, and have long-term positive implications for the planet. The knowledge of indigenous communities about wild food presents a compelling case for food security, which, in turn, can contribute to climate resilience for all. Understanding and including wild food resources in our diet will add more diversity to our palate and diets, and our digestive systems will be more resilient.

While it is acknowledged that wild foods alone cannot bridge the gap between supply and demand in our food system, researchers emphasize that this gap would be much bigger if wild foods were absent, for research also shows that staple crops often lack micronutrients.

There has been a decline in wild food consumption because of multiple cultural factors such as changing food habits, loss of traditional knowledge systems, the dominance of mainstream food culture, and easy access to store-bought food. It has led to losing dietary diversity and disruption of sustainable food systems. Recognizing that preserving wild foods and indigenous systems that serve to preserve their ecosystems help respond to climate change, it is important to shift our focus from a limited number of mainstream foods and food practices towards a more local and diverse One.

© Ramya Reddy

This is where indigenous communities’ rich knowledge of wild food and forest produce can contribute to the continuity and  sustainability of their cultural food traditions, protecting the environment and their communities from moving towards unsustainable lives and food habits.

Pratim Roy, with his decades of experience with the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris through Keystone Foundation and The Nilgiris Foundation emphasizes the valuable lessons we can learn from indigenous communities, particularly in adapting to climate change. Indigenous communities have an intimate understanding of what they eat and what they grow and that can be the guidepost for communities globally to learn from and pay heed to. 

Towards that end, The Nilgiris Foundation has very recently instituted  The Nilgiris Wild Food Festival to share the wisdom from the Nilgiris for holistic food, sustainable practices, and a vibrant eco-friendly lifestyle. The inaugural edition of the festival has been an example of an uplifting platform for understanding and embracing climate resilience, without getting daunted by the constant negative reportage of climate change.

The festival put together wild foods presented by different indigenous communities. For example, the Irulas of Banglapadugai village showcased their mastery in preparing some of the wild foods and locally produced millet varieties like samai, thinai, and ragi, as well as country chicken, jackfruit, local beans, bananas, locally grown spices, pepper, and kantari chilies.

© Ramya Reddy

We believe that food brings communities together. In a culture of mainstream profit-based food practices, bringing out these indigenous foods and food practices to people from around the world enabled the exchange of dialogue and learning on how through wild foods, we can be truly climate resilient.

Building awareness about wild food through the festival also means building awareness about their practices, and sharing and learning from their knowledge. Towards this end, proceeds from the festival were invested into building the Porivarai Workshop for the Irula tribe – a hub for preserving sustainable agricultural practices and a place to promote the musical culture of the Irulas.


Observing the impact of the festival, we have learned the power of learning, exchange, and habit changes through community tables. 

While pursuing such endeavors, it’s also necessary however, to remember that we cannot transfer the planet’s predicament to the Irulas, Todas, and Kurumbas of the Nilgiris or, for that matter, to any other indigenous people of the world. It has to be owned by all of us. As their traditional lifestyles continue to face rapid changes, we need to preserve their traditions in a progressive context, where small amounts could yield a higher value and, while doing so the ecology is protected and their lifestyles are secured. This can be done by approaching any efforts towards preservation and sustainability through the nuances of interlinked issues, and engaging with the communities and their contexts while maintaining their essence. 

Wild foods can generate more demand, and an indigenous community-led developed market to offer better prices, create healthy competition, and space for several enterprises in the market to coexist, as has been in the case of wild honey from the Nilgiris. The same should and can happen with wild foods with sustainability as a rider. This is where the challenge lies hand in hand with possibilities for innovation. The more we engage, the more chances we have to understand the nuances, what works, where and why, and how to go about it.  


One impact of mainstream food culture has been the narrowing of people’s worldview toward the food they consume. For example, we may not know or necessarily ask where our food comes from and where the food waste goes. In contrast, however, indigenous people know the entire food cycle – from the land and weather conditions to disposing of or reusing food waste. That’s the learning to adopt for every citizen as well as to truly embrace climate resilience as a society, supporting indigenous communities and their practices as well.

While The Nilgiris Wild Food Festival is one such attempt, citizens like us can practice eating local and seasonal. Food is not just about growing and eating. There are elements like packaging, supply chain, and taking care of the food waste involved in the entire cycle. Remembering the cycles of production – seasonal or market-led can enable a conscious and diverse palate along with a reduction in carbon footprint, building more resilience in our bodies and our localities. While it is crucial to accept the reality of climate change, we must also remember that wisdom to tackle it is alive among humans and communities right around us. It is only a matter of looking around and learning. 


The Nilgiris Foundation (TNF), is an international nonprofit organization established to create awareness, share knowledge, and build bridges between eco-development initiatives in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and the rest of the world. 

Samyukta Somvanshi is the Communications Lead for The Nilgiris Foundation. She transitioned from a successful sports journalism career to pursuing meaningful storytelling and responsible marketing.