Conserving through culture: The relationship of the A•chiks with Memang Narang (endemic Citrus indica) from the Citrus belt of the world
By: Chenxiang Marak
Technical Editor: Lukas Pawera
Freshly harvested fruits of Memang Narang (photo by Chenxiang Marak)
As I grew up, the Memang Narang became the central figure of many stories told from generation to generation. It was the sacred fruit that protected, healed and fed the generations of my Garo tribe in North East India. This region is home to a remarkable diversity of wild and cultivated citruses and it ought to be called the “Citrus belt of the world”. My work with NESFAS (www.nesfas.in) and TIP (www.theindigenouspartnership.org) allowed me access to a team that fed on a similar curiosity to know more about the conservation and local knowledge on citruses. We developed a questionnaire to monitor the situation together with the local A•chik (indigenous name for the Garo) communities. The preliminary findings show that at least 13 species and varieties of citruses are found in home gardens and forests of Daribokgre village.
Previous studies state that as many as 23 citrus species are found in North-East India and 17 species originated from there. Daribokgre community is located in East Garo Hills, Meghalaya, just at the base of Nokrek biosphere reserve, a biodiversity hotspot just as Balpakram National Park in South Garo Hills. Daribokgre is the last community before the National Citrus Gene Sanctuary – a place in Biosphere Reserve established to conserve genetic resources of endemic Citrus indica, the oldest species of citrus that likely gave emergence to some of the globally cultivated citruses.
It was found that Memang Narang (Citrus indica), which translates into “orange of the spirits” has strong cultural significance and medicinal properties. Particularly, the wild citruses are those which are considered to be medicinal. They are being domesticated in home gardens, propagated either through seeds or saplings from the forest without harming the wild mother trees.
According to the communities, the current citrus diversity is still the same as in the past. But at the household level, the number of varieties has increased because of the domestication of wild species in homegardens. Citrus diversity in the forest appears to remain stable. The notion of planting wild citruses at the household level is to increase access to citruses that have medicinal value. It is believed that if there are epidemiological episodes like diarrhoea or any health issues in the community, the best remedy is to consume Memang Narang. Most importantly, Memang Narang is used for detoxifying a person if he/she is poisoned by something. This is used not only for people’s health but also for diseases and epidemics among domestic animals such as cattle, pigs, chicken or even pets.
These readings brought to mind the many practices I have learnt from my grandmother, who also shared the community’s belief that some of the citrus fruits are named after the ancient legend ‘Abong Noga’ who first came to Nokrek peak (part of Durama hills) with his clans and families to settle. Abong Noga is the person who introduced some citrus species at Nokrek peak. Nowadays, there are certain citruses, namely type ‘chambil’ but also called as ‘Abong Noga chambil’.
This one is typically found around Nokrek peak and some of citrus trees that have grown old are producing healthy fruits up until now. Some of the citrus species have its significance in the community because our forefathers have nurtured them to nourish health from the wild. Memang Narang has played a role for the A•chik peoples in many ways, though currently, many people might not be aware of its usefulness and cultural importance.
It is said that in the past, community people and Gods lived in harmony. One night, Abong Noga dreamed that Gods or spirits directed him to crush Memang Narang and feed his animals when there was an epidemic of diseases among the cattle of Abong Noga. He did as told by the spirits in his dreams and all the animals were cured.
Likewise, at present, Garos still use Memang Narang as a medicine when there is any epidemiological situation among cattle or even the human population. As quoted by Niti Marak, a knowledge holder and farmer from the community, during 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, “Many people from the urban areas came forward to Daribokgre area to get Memang Narang as an immunity booster for their health.”
The landscape of “citrus village” Daribokgre (photo by Chenxiang Marak)
As a community in a place where they are the custodians to safeguard the forest resources of Nokrek peak, the community decided to increase the citrus diversity by propagating and producing all citrus fruit varieties from the forest and surrounding landscape, especially Memang Narang. Climate change is one of the emerging threats as the community can see some changes like a decreased yield of Memang Narang and even of the common orange, which is an important source of income. But the wild forest citruses are more resilient and not affected. Also the taste of the fruits that are found in the forest is much better as they are sweeter and have more flavour.
Each household is now propagating saplings from seeds after harvesting from the forest (Nokrek peak), which is allowed for the own use. Interestingly, this may lead to crop domestication and the creation of new citrus varities. Also, Daribokgre community, after the introduction of the CSB (community seed bank) concept, established a CSB that will have citrus biodiversity block specially for youths to understand and educate them about the richness of diversity within the community.
Somewhere in the middle of busy life and ignorance, our mindset must have got influenced that we stopped realizing the importance of the resources that we have. But the pandemic has made us aware and awakened how food sovereignty and community governance are crucial to our life and food system. Memang Narang, other citruses and resources are part of us and our identity of Indigenous community residing at the base of Nokrek peak who are committed to safeguarding its biodiversity.
“We would like to produce and propagate more citrus saplings for other A•chik community so that it will be like a bank to recover losses in an emergency or after any natural calamities,” Lotsing M Sangma, local farmer, said.