The Rich Diversity of Forest Foods

By Bharat MansataonJul. 08, 2014in Perspectives

Our lonely living planet – sole of its kind known – is on the cusp of a critical transition. An era of relentless exploitation of non-renewable fossil resources, must soon yield to an age of regenerating our living biological wealth; and a culture of nurture.

There are an estimated 80,000 edible plant species on earth, says the ‘Gaia Atlas of Planet Management’ (Ed. Norman Myers, Pan Books, 1985), not counting the many edible varieties of each species. Most of these are uncultivated foods – free, nourishing gifts of Nature, growing wild, requiring no human labour, except in harvesting or gathering.

Less than 150 plant species have been historically cultivated on a large scale as food crops. But with the spread of extensive industrial monocultures – grown with toxic chemicals for distant urban markets – barely 20 plant species now provide 90% of the entire human diet; and just 8 crops (of a very few varieties) provide three quarters of all human food! That is a miniscule 0.01% (or one in ten thousand) of the edible species gifted by Nature. So under all the glitter and packaging of ‘multi-brand’ mega-consumerism, are we really progressing or getting impoverished?

Pulses and oilseeds collected by forest dwellers
Pulses and oilseeds collected by forest dwellers

In February 2014, I was fortunate to attend a vibrant Tribal Food Festival at Bissam Cuttack in the Niyamgiri foothills of Odisha. Over 600 adivasis, about 80% women, gathered from over 200 tribal villages of different states in eastern and central India – to celebrate the rich diversity of their traditional foods. More than 1500 food varieties – cultivated and uncultivated, raw and cooked – were on display; over 900 were uncultivated forest foods! Included too were 400 ready-to-eat recipes for sampling.

Almost two decades earlier, about two dozen of us pooled resources to buy undulating land, now known as Vanvadi, in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats; our primary aim – ecological regeneration and local self-reliance. Over the years, the land regenerated into a magnificent forest: tall, dense, and rich in biodiversity. A survey (incomplete) of the botanical wealth of Vanvadi, based on local tribal knowledge, surprised us with 52 plant species of uncultivated forest foods that provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root), usually at a certain time of the year. The peak availability in our region is in early monsoon, when the agricultural produce of the past year has been largely consumed; and the farming population needs nourishment for the hard work of the new planting season.

Edible Wild plants collected at Vanvadi
Edible Wild plants collected at Vanvadi

Of the edible species listed at Vanvadi, we identified the botanical names of about 30 plants, and verified their use as food from ‘The Wealth of India’ and ‘Food from Forests’. The former – a multi-volume encyclopaedia of India’s biological wealth, published by the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources, CSIR – is a treasure-trove of information on the myriad useful plant species of India. The latter – published by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), 590 pages – provides an account of almost 600 uncultivated food yielding species from various forested regions of India; and there are many more.

Yet another very valuable resource is, ‘A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India’, by Sir George Watt, first published by Oxford University in 1889-90 (10 volumes), and digitized in 2006. For more condensed data – drawn from ‘The Wealth of India’ – ‘The Useful Plants of India’ (918 pages), published by the ‘Publications and Information Directorate’ of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), provides summary information on over 5,000 useful plant species, including their local names in various vernacular languages for easy cross-identification.

It is a tragedy that our GDP-driven economic civilization pays scant attention to the rich diversity of organic, nutritious foods, that our natural forests provide free in a most ecologically efficient manner — without any external input whatsoever of energy, water or fertility! Indeed, the forests are by far the most efficient agents of harvesting solar energy, sequestering carbon, ameliorating climate change, conserving and regenerating our soils and their fertility, fostering biodiversity, and recharging groundwater, besides providing a huge variety of useful produce.

Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms – that helped organize the Tribal Food Festival in Odisha – states: “Uncultivated foods provide a critical supplement to the diets of the local native communities. Often, in bio-diverse natural forests, there is year-long supply of several hundred varieties of foods, ensuring diversity and nutritional balance in the local diets. While the gathering and consumption of uncultivated foods varies across regions, communities, seasons, a recent study by Living Farms revealed that there was not a single household in its sample study (of the adivasis of Niyamgiri hills and forests) which reported that it does not collect or consume uncultivated foods like wild tubers, greens, mushrooms, fruits, etc. A wealth of living knowledge yet exists in our indigenous communities regarding their forest bio-resources.”

An adivasi of the Pahari Korba tribe declared, “We Pahari Korba have always enjoyed a long and healthy life for generations, without any major ailments or diseases. For every minor disease, symptom or discomfort we depended on forest herbs, plants, vegetables, to get well, and we never visited a drug store, hospital, or took any injections.”

Other adivasi tribals at the Festival related how their uncultivated forest foods have been dependable sources of nutrition even in the most critical times of drought and agricultural failure, caused by increasingly erratic or scant rainfall.

But in many places, communities are now reporting a decline in the availability and consumption of uncultivated foods, due to a variety of external factors. Deforestation, displacement, urbanization, big dams, industrial mining, mega-plants, the spread of cash-crops and monocultures – all constitute a relentless assault on the biological and socio-cultural habitats of our enormously rich diversity of uncultivated foods, evolved over millennia.

Variety of oilseeds collected from the forest
Variety of oilseeds collected from the forest

Ragunathan Chakravarthy, who shot a 45 minute documentary film – supplemented by a textual report – on the Tribal Food Festival, informs that over 150 million adivasis live in the central India forests and the Eastern Ghats, many parts of which are now gravely threatened by ‘modern economic development’. The Niyamgiri hills and forests alone are home to numerous tribal communities like the Kondh, Koya, Didai, Santhal, Juanga, Baiga, Bhil, Pahari Korba, Paudi Bhuiyan and Birhor.

Ragunathan narrates the poignant lament of a tribal woman participating in the Festival. “Now we see our own children, educated the modern way, getting culturally alienated from us. This younger generation knows little about our rich heritage and traditional, season based food practices. It is a massive crisis; a crisis that is not of our making. I fear our whole life, livelihood and culture may be lost forever if we do not start educating our children and future generations to conserve nature, live harmoniously with the seasons, and revive our traditional bio-diverse nutritional security.”

Devinder Sharma, a food and agricultural policy analyst states, “Modern living has snapped the symbiotic relationship that existed with nature. Not many know that India is a mega-diversity region with over 51,000 plant species existing, but with hardly a handful being cultivated.”

At Vanvadi, a primary listing yielded over 120 forest species known to have various traditional uses. Apart from food yielding species, we discovered we had more than 45 plant species of known medicinal use; and at least 20 timber species, including four rated as ‘first grade timbers’. And then there are plants that yield natural dyes, soaps, edible oils, bio-fuels, gums and resins, botanical pesticides, leaf plates, etc., apart from fodder, fuel, fibre, manure, hedge protection, craft material, etc.

Roots and fruits consumed by adivasis
Roots and fruits consumed by adivasis

Many species have multiple uses. For example, the leaves of the mahua tree provide fodder. The flowers are used to make jaggery, liquor or porridge. The fruits can be cooked and consumed as a vegetable. The seed is crushed to yield a cooking oil, far more wholesome than any brand available in the market; and the residual cake after extracting the oil is a valuable manure for farm crops. When the Mahua tree dies, its wood is used for making carriages, furniture, sports goods, musical instruments, agricultural implements, and for house and ship building.

The rich natural inheritance of our forested regions sustained our adivasi communities for generations beyond count. Today, if there are any people left on this earth who can teach our floundering ‘millennium generation’ the fine art and science of co-existing in harmony with the forest, it is these tribals. Or rather, just those among them now, who still retain the knowledge, the skills, and the native cultural perspective.

Photo credits: Vanvadi photos by Neesha Noronha,
others (all taken at Bissam Cuttack) by Ragunathan Chakravarthy and Living Farms

Contact the author: Bharat Mansata

Read another, similar article Forest food ensures nutritional security of Odisha’s tribes

Story Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: