November 6, 2014
Villagers packing Sitaphal (sweet apple) in Udaipur district, Rajasthan.

Forests have been serving as food basket of several communities across India. Why can’t we think of it as an ally against hunger?

IN ANDHARILIM village of Rayagada district, Odisha, very few people are able to recall a famine around 30-35 years ago. During that time, the villagers survived on honey (with some mud), green leaves and tubers, bamboo shoots etc. Raw siali seeds and mahua also came in handy. 

In Ghettijharan village of distant Sundargarh district, uncultivated forest food also saw the community through a time of scarcity 50 years ago. 

In Palamau of Chota Nagpur region, most of the people obtained a good supply of flowers, fruits, barks, roots and tubers which provided immunity to the district from famine.

These facts hold true for other parts of the country where people have been traditionally sourcing some part of their diet from forests. The cultivated lands, on the other hand, face starvation deaths in times of drought or flood as there’s no natural resource to fall back upon. But we rarely recognise forest as an able ally in the fight against hunger and food insecurity. 

In fact, the mainstream media looks at consumption of uncultivated foods mostly as a sign of backwardness and poverty. Year after year, stories of deaths of tribals after consuming mango kernel soup are reported. Governments are also seen actively dissuading them from consuming such foods. On the other hand, forest department has always focused on plantation revenues ignoring the real value of unmarketed forest foods.

A study by 'Living Farms', Odisha, points out how uncultivated foods are not only safe, but also diverse and nutritious. Focussed on select villages of Rayagada and Sundargarh districts, the study also dwells on socio-economic changes that are making it difficult to access the forest produce due to shrinking tree cover. 

Dependence on forests

In the villages studied, the dependence of communities on uncultivated foods range from 20 to 50 per cent. They consume around 12-16 varieties of greens, various mushrooms, kendu, tubers and roots, mahua etc. Tubers are the most important of such foods, given that even in the most difficult times, these are available for people to survive on.

In a day, average collection of uncultivated forest foods was 4.56 kg. Assuming that one day's collection lasts for 2-3 days, this is more than what the government supplies in its food security schemes. The importance of forest food is such that certain norms have persisted over the changing scenario. There is social regulation against cutting fruit-bearing trees like gooseberry, sago, harida, mango, bahada, mahua, masaani challi, nimbo and jambo kali. Despite the bad media coverage and government push, there’s no sense of inferiority among villagers about consumption of various uncultivated foods. They asserted that the forest is essential for their survival, since the government is somewhat unreliable and they are unsure how long various services might continue. 

Good food, safe food

The nutritional diversity that the uncultivated foods offer is a very important and neglected answer to micro-nutrient deficiency among tribals. Of the energy-giving foods consumed by the locals, 25 per cent come from the forests (tubers mostly). Around 50 per cent of the foods good for growth and development, and are protein-rich is from forests. Even a good portion of the foods rich in vitamins, and immunity boosters like several greens and wild fruits were sourced from forests. 

The communities also know about toxicity of various forest foods and hence either avoid or process them accordingly. For instance, a tuber Bagho kandaa is first boiled, cut into fine pieces, put into a bamboo basket and immersed in running water in a spring for at least 24 hours before it is consumed. 

As the consumption declines

Despite all the benefits, consumption of uncultivated foods is on decline due to various socio-economic reasons. At Baskona village, more than 100 kinds of uncultivated foods would be consumed even 20 years ago. This has now come down to 25 to 30 kinds now. One of the reasons is shrinking forest cover due to wild fires and mono-plantations. A study (Samal 2002) highlighted that the distance travelled for food gathering between 1995 and 2000 increased by 81.38 per cent. In terms of gathering time, it increased by 72.3 per cent.

The forest department has also been pushing for commercial plantation instead of food-bearing ones. In Laxmipur village, teak, pongamia, eucalyptus, chakunda, bamboo and “some flower trees” have been planted by the department. Implementation of Forest Rights Act was found to be very poor in all the studied villages. Little implementation that one could see was in the case of a handful of individuals. Community rights have not been actualised anywhere in the study villages. 

Dependence on PDS ration supply is another contributing factor for the decline in consumption of forest foods. There is a clear need for re-integration of cuisine, culture, agriculture and forests. But popularising such foods without conserving the habitats that provide such foods will be meaningless. These have to go hand in hand. When communities re-connect with these resources through food, there will be an all-round win-win situation for the forests, for the forest department, for the communities and for the government. 


Importance of Cultivated Food

  • Whether it is bad cultivation year, hunger months, or lean weeks when the PDS ration dries up and employment not available, it is the uncultivated foods which keep communities alive 

  • If the forest is maintained well in all its diversity and if access is good, there is a year-long supply of such uncultivated foods. This is especially so with tubers, greens and various fruits

  • Most such foods are highly nutritious and safe with no chemicals or additives 

  • At a time when income inequities are showing up starkly, this is a food source that is not just affordable but also free 

  • Wild species are supposed to be more resilient in this age of climate change, compared to cultivated species 

  • Enormous wealth of biological knowledge associated with these foods with members of the community, including children

  • Several of these foods hold great cultural significance for the communities dependent on them. 

  • Unequal access, ownership and decision-making roles for men and women is fortunately missing in case of wild food 


Liked this story? GoI Monitor is a non-profit, and we depend on readers like you to Suppor Our Efforts