NTFPS-EP is a network working with adivasis on ecosystem conservation, advocacy and livelihoods
When we shift the focus from the timber a forest is usually valued for to the non-timber products it offers, a very different world opens up. Wild fruit, honey, gums and resin, fish and crab, fibre and flowers, birds’ eggs and bush meat, and medicinal barks are only some of the products that a forest may offer and which have been harvested and used for centuries by people who valued forests more than the timber-centric managers of our wild spaces.
The shift in perception, initiated by some researchers and alternative development groups about three to four decades ago, brought many elements into the frame of sustainable forest management. Importantly, it believed that forests can be used and managed well, without it being cordoned off into “Protected Areas” and cleansed of all human habitation. By doing so, it placed the many indigenous communities that live in and around forested habitats in the limelight. Such peoples often have a deep knowledge about their environment and use them wisely, with customary protocols for the harvest of natural resources, first fruit ceremonies for plant and animal species that they use, and the protection of sacred spaces.
Within what seemed a narrow field, of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and their harvest, focused almost entirely on the market, NTFPs are known to impact several important issues. These include land tenures and legal rights over forest produce; village level negotiations over resources; and the adivasi peoples’ role in conservation and their livelihoods. About 10 per cent of our population are forest dwellers and a larger proportion depends directly and indirectly on forest resources. Markets and industry influence the rate and manner in which many NTFPs are extracted—oblivious to the fact that many species are getting scarcer by the day—hastening the need to ensure that protocols for harvests are in place.
The Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme-Asia (NTFP-EP) is a network with presence in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and India. Its shared goal is to empower forest-based communities to make use of and manage forest resources judiciously, simultaneously respecting the integrity of their cultural traditions. The organisations within the NTFP-EP work with communities in developing and implementing initiatives that meet their needs, helping them market the surplus. (www.ntfp.org).
In India the programme’s activities are, at present, confined to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Much of the work undertaken is with adivasi communities, broadly in the three fields of ecosystem conservation, advocacy and livelihoods. The activities range from establishing nurseries to planting of native and NTFP-EP plant species, protecting sacred groves and community forests; from making the Panchayat Extension for Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act work for the people in the villages, and planning the proper restoration and management of claimed lands; from using sustainable harvest protocols to procure NTFPs to value-adding and marketing them. These areas of work go hand in hand. The secretariat for the India-network is in the Keystone Foundation, Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu. (http://keystone-foundation.org/ and http://ntfp.org.in).
NTFPs pervade our homes and lives in more ways than we realise. The tejpatta that gives food a pleasant aroma, the frankincense in the agarbattis we light in our shrines, the tendu-leaf bidis that men puff, the bamboo winnows and baskets in any kitchen, the gums in our laddus, the lacquer bangles that adorn women’s wrists, even paints and varnishes, the fashionable shawl woven of tassar silk, are some examples. The adivasi who collect these products take much risk to procure some of them, as when they climb tall trees for cocoons or for the resin. The exchange programme strives for their well-being as well as for the prudent harvest of these products, both crucial for a development and conservation agenda. In the columns that follow, we hope to bring in stories that link the forest and forest-dependent communities to our daily life.
Madhu Ramnath is an ethno-botanist
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