Life with the Forest : Inspiration from the Sikkim and Darjeeling Himalaya
An exhibition of photos by PhD student
DATE : 22 September – 5 October
LOCATION : UBC Forest Science Centre, Atrium
Photo Exhibit Information:
The forest is life for people in the Eastern Himalayas. Scholar and artist Saori Ogura lived in the region for one year, from 2011 to 2012, to better understand the indigenous Lepcha, or Rongkup, people’s ways of life and wisdom borne of living with the forest. During her stay and many subsequent visits, Saori captured portraits of the villagers’ warmth and strengths, as well as their livelihoods – especially the great diversity of traditional crops, which are on the cusp of disappearing. Despite rapid lifestyle changes wrought by external forces, the village life still gives us insights into the intricate relationships people have developed over many generations, enabling them to live in harmony with the forest.
How can we become beings who can continue living on this earth? My research aims to create processes for communities to become independent and survibable in the face of existential challenges. My past ten years of experiences living with Indigenous communities in the Himalaya, Africa, Asia, and North America inspired me that their Indigenous knowledges, currently under threat of obliteration, and their adaptive strategies can teach us how to solve critical global issues in our rapidly changing physical environment. Relying only on modern science limits our ability to discover ways to continue our survival. In order to solve this problem, it is crucial to also examine the cumulative Indigenous knowledge we have stored by having survived on Earth for the past thousands of years. As a scholar and an artist, I seek to inspire the ways humanity can cultivate sustainable relationships with the natural world and become stable in the coming era of change.
a local boy pointing out an Indigenous crop (Kutnyemin Lepcha language) in a shifting agricultural field
In order to see the world through different lenses and to experience lives in Indigenous villages, I stayed with the Lepcha Indigenous people in the Indian Sikkim Himalaya for a year, at the foot of the 8500m Mt. Kanchenjunga (2011-2012). There I found Indigenous knowledge was rapidly disappearing and the local economy was devastated by a plant disease that slashed cash crop cardamom production in the early 2000s.
I conducted interviews in local Nepali and Lepcha languages to study land use change in the villages over the past 100 years, which later became part of my Master’s thesis. Using GIS, I mapped and quantified land use change, and using ethnography, I analyzed the process of cash crop agricultural fields replacing the agricultural biodiversity, and using ethnobotany, I documented thirty-six threatened Indigenous food plants that are only persistent in most remote villages with hand-drawn illustrations.
I named this method Historical Ethno-ecology Approach. I became convinced that maintaining crop diversity is one of the key ways to mitigate both the risks of losses to plant disease and the fluctuations of global economic systems. Maintaining diversity became my life task.
Cultivating Solutions through Deeply Engaged Community Work
My work involves developing a pedagogical and community science method utilizing art to enhance the process of revitalizing Indigenous crops that are disaster-tolerant and can help adapt to changing climate. Rapid loss of Indigenous crops and dependence on monocultural agricultural systems have been increasing the vulnerability of local communities in different parts of the world. In order to revitalize diversity of indigenous crops, I use arts-based approach to understand Indigenous People’s worldviews that is critical for revitalization. Through my field research in Zimbabwe in 2016, I found that drawing enables us to better observe and capture the knowledge and wisdom of local people.
I spent much of my time in the villages of Mazvihwa drawing illustrations of the Indigenous crops and asking the villagers about the plants – how they plant, when they harvest, and how they book them.
Drawing the plants helped me to discern the non-linear, non-positivist relationships between the people and the plants by not observing them as objects, but seeing the life of plants as part of their dynamic human-environmental relationships.
My study uses a community engagement process that uniquely combines on-the-ground ethno-botanical fieldwork with art to develop strategies for climate change adaptation. My field sites are in the Sikkim Himalaya and Zimbabwe. My PhD research is focused on Mazvihwa, Zimbabwe, where Indigenous crops are seen by villagers as helping them to adapt to climate change and advance food sovereignty.
My vision has developed through travelling to remote places and seeking to understand the world through local people’s perspectives, therefore my work became solution-oriented and interdisciplinary in nature.
For more information about my research, visit
Please also see my article published in the Branchlines.
Saori Ogura. 2017. “Indigenous Agrobiodiversity and Climate Change.” Branchlines : Vol. 28: Nov. 1.