The rich diversity of forest foods

Our living planet 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 to a culture of nurture.

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 sample survey 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.

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.

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.

More than 1500 food varieties – cultivated and uncultivated, raw and cooked – were on display. Over 900 were uncultivated forest foods!

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.

There are an estimated 80,000 edible plant species on earth, says the ‘Gaia Atlas of Planet Management’. 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 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’ megaconsumerism, are we really progressing or getting impoverished?

In February 2014, I was fortunate to attend a vibrant Tribal Food Festival at Bissam in Cuttack, situated 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.

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.

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.

Bharat Mansata
Earthcare Books, 10 Middleton Street, Kolkata 700 071

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