Forest Food — Important Source of Nutrition, Income and Joy for the Poor

Adivasi Cuisine                                                                            

“ They had never in their short lives had nice things to eat . They were young and their palates were untrained, that is why they were eager to sample everything they could , particularly things that tasted sweet. They had never been able to afford to satisfy their craving for delicacies with cream and sugared curds. They were the children of a poor home, and like poor children everywhere they were driven to find their sweets on the jungle bushes; yet coarse and  astringent though the simple fruits might be in a world which lives on luscious food , the kindly Goddesses of the forests had contrived to fill them with a honeyed nectar all their own.”

—Bibhuti Bhushan Banerji in Pather Pancheli

 In these memorable words a great writer has captured  very well the great importance of forest food for the poorest households in a village of Bengal , a description which is true for many other  parts of country as well. In fact this great novel, on which the equally great and now even more famous film of Satyajit Ray is based, has many episodes in which the two children Apu and Durga, the two main characters of the story,  derive much nutrition , taste and joy from the berries , other fruits and  food they find on the trees and bushes, in the ponds and roots of forests. This novel also depicts the familiarity of these children, who are frequently underfed at home, with what is available as food in the  forest near their home in  various seasons.

When I was reporting  on chipko movement and other related movements in Uttarakhand, I often heard from my new friends in hills regarding the many seasonal delicacies based on raw material brought from forests in the form of vegetables, leaves etc, not to mention delicious, high nutrition fruits like kaafal and various berries which needed no cooking. I realized that in these Himalayan villages forests foods were not consumed just by the weaker sections;  well-to-do households also looked forward to eating delicacies based on them. Senior activist of Chipko Movement Sunderlal Bahuguna often emphasized the very important role natural  forests have to provide food directly to people. In fact he saw a greater role for natural forests that for planted fruit orchards.

While covering a story based on a project to replace natural forests with plantations in Chattisgarh , I came across official reports which described in some detail the numerous foods which the tribal communities in particular were obtaining free from forests and which had helped to maintain nutrition and health despite several adverse factors.

In Bundelkhand I realized that apart from obtaining numerous nutritious foods from forests for their own consumptions, kol tribals also sold a part of some of these higher value foods like karaunji to traders to earn some income, although they did not generally get a fair price for this. An effort to get a higher price was much appreciated by people. Similar was the situation among Bhils and other tribal communities in Rajasthan.

Before visiting Kalahandi region of Odisha I had read several reports which necessarily linked consumption of forest food with great distress. However after visiting some villages here I realized that this was not necessarily so and several communities found forest food to be a valuable source of  nutritious whose usefulness increased further in lean times and drought years.

However due to increasing commercial orientation of official thinking and practices relating to forestry, the role of natural forests as an important source of food and nutrition as well as related livelihoods has been increasingly neglected or ignored in recent times by the authorities. As a result important decisions were taken to replace natural forests with plantation of commercial species, or to concentrate more on a few  commercially useful species at the time of afforestation which very adversely affected the contribution that natural forests have traditionally made to food and nutrition, particularly to food and nutrition systems of tribal communities.

To prevent this costly damage from accelerating further, it is important to establish a better and wider understanding of the important role of natural forests in protecting food and nutrition system of vulnerable communities. In this context a  study titled ‘Forests As Food Producing Habitats’ has made an important contribution. This study was taken up by an Odisha based voluntary organization Living Farms on the basis of the conditions prevailing in Rayagada and Sundargarh districts with the help of three other organizations DISHA, ASHA and SHAKTI.

This study recorded 121 different kinds of uncultivated foods being harvested between the last week of July and December  by the sample households. On an average, 4.56 kg of such foods were harvested per household, during each collection foray.

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) exercises taken up with the communities studied showed the criticality of uncultivated foods in the perceptions of the adivasi communities. The cultural linkages with forests and forest foods are clear and alive to this day. However, a variety of factors could potentially be playing a role in a general decline on dependence on forest foods, as reported by the adivasi communities.

In terms of a nutritional analysis, it was found that the forest foods could be playing a vital role in terms of micro-nutrients. This study, as well as other surveys and inquiries undertaken by these organizations revealed that  in times of stress it is the uncultivated foods which form a critical source of food and nutrition.   If the natural forest is maintained well in all its diversity and if access is good, there is a year-long supply of such uncultivated foods . In the overall context of low incomes and inequalities, this is a food source that is not just affordable but completely free and  accessible on basis of equality. If the resource is managed sustainability, it is also a source of income for the communities. The importance of forest food is likely to increase further in times of climate change, compared to cultivated species.  Uncultivated foods provide an important fallback mechanism as these foods, which “do not require a household to incur costs, borrow money, depend on a government dole-out scheme or even seek the permission of others before accessing, lend communities as well as individual households a sense of self-dependence, and therefore, dignity and pride, which are quite dear to Adivasi  communities. In our interactions, the lack of reliability of state schemes was repeatedly brought up.”

Another aspect to which this study draws attention is that there is an enormous wealth of biological knowledge associated with these foods with members of the community, including children. “Whether it is about where a particular species grows seasonality, characteristics, identification and appearance, or its nutritive and medicinal properties, properties related to processing or storing, cooking methods and quality, veterinary and livestock uses etc. are all valuable knowledge that community members possess.” This important knowledge base should be protected. The protection of this food is closely connected with this knowledge base as selecting what to eat, knowing  value and characteristics of selected food and also knowing what to avoid is extremely important.

This study has recommended that the Government should provide funds to research institutions to document the availability of uncultivated foods and their nutritional components so that conservation measures are taken up to ensure sustainable availability and collection processes in forest regions. Most uncultivated foods are highly nutritious, but some are not. It is recommended that the nutritional properties of these foods be fully documented and shared with the communities to help them, make better choices. The study has highlighted diverse conditions of availability of uncultivated foods , the lowest in one studied village being 21 varieties to a high of  69 in another village, both in Sundargarh district. The study has recommended that the conditions in which diversity of forest food continues to be available should be maintained by  the Forest Department.

Further this study asserts that the implementation of the Forest Rights Act gives communities and the forest department a new opportunity to develop the commons in the service of community and to meet an important development goal of ensuring nutritional security to the most marginalized. Considering the extensive diversity and availability of uncultivated foods which can act as a buffer against hunger and malnutrition, it is recommended that  organic agriculture is promoted in and around forest regions. Particularly, pesticide use must be banned to prevent negative impact on forest environment and pollution of water bodies or collapse of bee colonies or other harm to the flora and fauna.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Planet in Peril.

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