Tuesday, August 18, 2020
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Forests offer far more benefits than a development project. Image: GoI Monitor

Forests provided food and money to the most vulnerable during lockdown

FOR JAGANNATH Manjhi, the lockdown began with emergence of red ants in the jungle.

A delicacy to be roasted or turned into a sauce for consumption along with rice, it is one of the around 1,000 forest foods famous among villagers of South Odisha in eastern India. 

UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that around 50 million families in India supplement their diet with food from forests and scrubland.  

It was a saviour during the lockdown when market supply chains were disrupted and even the posh localities in cities faced food shortage.

Indian forests also supply Rs 20,000 crore worth of minor products like flowers of Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) used in distilling country liquor and leaves of Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) used to roll bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes popular in India). 

These bounties put money in hands of India’s most vulnerable as millions lost their livelihoods due to spread of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown.

50 million families in India supplement their diet with food from forests and scrubland.  It was a saviour during the lockdown when market supply chains were disrupted

A woman showing dish made from forest food in Southern Odisha.Such forest-based societies can be the signposts for more equitable and sustainable economic models in the post-Covid world.

The link between deforestation and pandemics like Covid-19 has been firmly established and experts have called for more environment-friendly policies.

But India is going the other way by opening up coal mining in the biodiversity rich forests and planning dilution of environment protection laws to make up for economic loss due to the pandemic. 

The loss of forest ecosystems will, however, displace people and make them more dependent on the government and the market, both of which failed to live up to their promises during the lockdown.

In fact, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (check name) which is supposed to uphold environmental laws instead takes pride in clearing developmental projects.

The country’s 207 billion pounds stimulus package to revive its pandemic-hit economy has been termed the fifth worst performer on the ‘Green Stimulus Index’ due to its focus on carbon-intensive sectors such as manufacturing and the extraction of fossil fuels and their use for power generation.

India is also moving towards dilution of existing environmental laws with the draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2020.

The notification intends to lower monitoring and public consultation requirements and converts the concept of “polluter pays” to “pollute and pay” by making a provision for any polluting industry to get environmental clearance after paying compensation. 

Monitoring requirements have been halved from every six months to once a year and validity period for approvals in critical sectors like mining extended. 

While stressing on the slogan of ‘Self-Reliant India’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched commercial coal mining in 41 blocks on June 18. He said this will unlock the resource in India which has the world's fourth largest reserves of coal.

State governments have already objected to opening up of coal blocks cutting through forest areas with the government of Jharkhand also moving the Supreme Court of India against this decision.

“It has been proved that forests can feed people and we saw the reality during the lockdown when only those who stay near the forest were food secure. Rest everyone had to depend on government or social organisations for handouts,” says Alok Singh of Hasdeo Anand in Chhattisgarh, one of the coal blocks which was earlier proposed to go under the hammer. “When modern economy failed us, it was the nature that provided. It’s better we focus on this model of self-reliance than the one which makes rich richer.” 

Indian forests also supply Rs 20,000 crore worth of minor products like flowers of Mahua and leaves of Tendu These bounties put money in hands of India’s most vulnerable as millions lost their livelihoods due to spread of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown

A 2014 study by Living Farms, a group working on sustainable agriculture and ecological issues in Odisha, documents 121 uncultivated food harvested from the forest between July and December that supplements a normal tribal diet. This constitutes 30 mushrooms, 23 tubers, 26 green leafy vegetables, 14 wild fruits and 28 wild animal species.

“This is what is available in one season. If we look at the entire year, there are more than 1,000 varieties of food available round the year,” says Jagannath Manjhi, a resident of Dobara village in Odisha’s Rayagada district.

Tubers, mushrooms, leafy vegetables, wild fruits and insects, Tamarind and Mahua flowers were just some of the resources forests were booming with in summer.

Even though the punitive four phase national lockdown had impacted the market, villagers were still able to sell and barter forest products at local levels, earning the much required money before the next crop season that will require investment of seeds and fertilizers.

Most lucrative of these products are leaves of Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) used to roll bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes popular in India), fetching Rs 1,900 crore (link) in just four states in 2012.  

But the trade in Tendu leaf is nationalised, meaning villagers can’t sell the leaf directly to dealers. The sale is managed by government departments or agencies which float tenders and decide rates. This, however, often leads to delay in payments, diversion of money and cases of embezzlement, leaving pittance for the villagers. 

Still, several examples have cropped up where villages are earning higher profits through direct selling of Tendu leaves by asserting community control over the resource under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. FRA recognises traditional practices of people living in and around forests giving them rights to use and conserve the forest.

Such forest-based societies can be the signposts for more equitable and sustainable economic models in the post-Covid world. But India is going the other way by opening up coal mining in the biodiversity rich forests and planning dilution of environment protection laws

n Maharashtra state, village councils sell lucrative products like bamboo and Tendu leaves directly to the traders earning lakhs of rupees which is then distributed among the residents and used for local development work (link). They have appointed school teachers, built and renovated ponds, and conducted cleanliness drives using the money.

“This year, the gram sabhas have already received 30 percent of the bid amount in their bank accounts which they can use to deal with economic distress due to the lockdown,” said Dilip Gode of Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society (VNCS), a non-profit that guided the gram sabhas in attaining community forest rights and trade of tendu leaves in Gondia district of Maharashtra. “The best way to deal with shortcomings in trade of MFPs is to let people organise and take over.”

The progress on FRA has, however, been slow and many claims for land titles under the Act get rejected. Last year, state governments admitted in court that they rejected around 13 lakh FRA claims without following the due process.

One of the reasons government are reluctant on FRA is that it leads to devolution of power. The title holders under this law also get a bigger say in matters of approving developmental projects in the area which may involve deforestation.

That’s the lesson to remember when we try to re-imagine the post-Covid world. 

Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist. He is on Twitter at @manumoudgil

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