Forests and nutrition

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Many tribal communities are dependent on forests not just for livelihood, but also for their nutrition. But in the commercial wave which swept across government policies, commercial plantations were given importance over natural forests, says Bharat Dogra. Can this trend be reversed?

DUE to the increasing commercial orientation of government policies and practices of forestry, the role of natural forests as an import- ant source of food and nutrition, as well as related livelihoods, has been increasingly neglected or ignored in recent times. As a result, important decisions were taken to replace natural forests with plantation of commercial species, or to consider only commercial monocultures 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.

The importance of uncultivated food
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 recent study titled Forests As Food Producing Habitats has made an important contribution. This study was taken up by an Odisha based voluntary organisation – ‘Living Farms’ – on the basis of the conditions prevailing in Rayagada and Sundargarh districts, with the help of three other organisations – DISHA, ASHA and SHAKTI.
This study recorded 121 different kinds of uncultivated foods being harvested between the last week of July 2013 and December 2013, 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 perception 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 organisations revealed that in times of stress, it is the uncultivated foods which form a critical source of food and nutrition. The special significance of these foods is also in terms of their nutritional composition. 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. 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 sustainably, it is also a source of income for the communities. This study says that while food safety is a major emerging concern when it comes to cultivated food, especially of fruits, vegetables and greens, here is a source of food where no chemicals or additives come in at the time of growing, or postproduction. This study further asserts that wild species are supposed to be more resilient in this age of climate change, compared to cultivated species. On the other hand, the periods of food stress of communities are also likely to increase due to climate change, if they are dependent only on cultivated foods.
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 seasonally, 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”, as per the study.
This important knowledge base should be protected. Several of these foods hold great cultural significance for the communities dependent on them.

The recommendations
This study has made several recom-mendations:

“The importance of uncultivated foods to the food basket of adivasi communities is clear from the study. It is recommended that the Government 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 highlights diversity of uncultivated foods with a wide range. The lowest in one village being 21 varieties to 69 in another, both in Sundargarh district. The Forest Department must take up a programme to understand the habitats producing uncultivated foods, and make efforts to increase availability of nutritious foods.
“The forest department in the past has prioritised commercial plantations to benefit the department. This has destroyed/jeopardised access to uncultivated foods to the local communities. This trend needs to be reversed. Any future plantations must be taken up only in consultation with the community. The existing knowledge within the community of availability of uncultivated foods and their habitats must be taken into consideration while developing the forests. Implementation of the Forest Rights Act gives communities and the forest department a new opportunity to develop the commons in the service of the community, and to meet an important development goal of ensuring nutritional security to the most marginalised. Considering the extensive diversity and availability of uncultivated foods which can act as a buffer against hunger and malnutrition, it is recommended that the Department of Agriculture in Odisha as well as other states ensure 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.”
Civil society organisations and people’s movements have recognised the importance of uncultivated foods, but this has usually been in broad terms. Adequate efforts have not been made to understand in-depth, the contribution forest foods make to the nutrition and health of adivasi people, and to protect them from starvation in times of drought. It is recommended that NGOs and people’s organisations make special efforts to understand the current situation through detailed studies, and strategise to conserve and develop available foods.


Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, who writes on social concerns.

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