Can mahua seeds provide Adivasis a reliable livelihood? 

Mahua seed harvesting practices of the tribals are non-invasive & can promote conservation 

By Abhijit Dey
Published: Tuesday 06 December 2022

The Munda people's association with the mahua tree begins even before they are born. Would-be mothers are fed a simple chutney made of mahua flowers that is believed to be healthy. 

Mahua is also a part of wedding rituals and mahua liquor is served at the ceremony. From birth, through marriage, till funeral — mahua is intertwined with their cultural life. 

In their daily life too, mahua is omnipresent from food to fodder, dawaa (medicine) to daaru (alcohol). In their own words, ‘Mahua is not a tree, it’s our way of life’. 

So, a mahua (Madhuca indica) seed doesn’t only spread its roots in the soil, but also blooms within the Adivasi. And the Adivasi also thrives within mahua.

The story is the same for almost all Adivasi communities who depend on mahua like Munda, Gond, Oraon, Baiga, Ho and Santhal. These people live by the tropical deciduous forests of India, spreading from the drier parts of Gujarat in the west to the Chotanagpur Plateau in the east through the central Indian highlands.

But for the world outside, though there is some enthusiasm or information about mahua flower or the country liquor it is made of, the story of mahua seeds is largely unknown. 

Like mahua flowers, mahua seeds are also non-timber forest products. A major portion of the seeds collected by the tribals is sold in the one or two oil presses of nearby towns. The rest of the collection is for household consumption.

The oil from seed is used to light lamps or in cooking. It is also used for treating skin disease, rheumatism, bilious fever, constipation, among other things. Seeds (and also flowers) are galactagogue (food believed to be boosting production of breast milk) and is good for new mothers. 

After oil extraction, the leftover seed-cake is utilised as insecticide, cattle feed or manure. Most of these uses are verified through peer-reviewed research works. These studies also established that other parts of the plant are also valuable. 

Backed by science

The seeds yield 34-37 per cent of oil. Though the dark yellowish raw oil makes the food a bit bitter, Adivasis traditionally used it for cooking. 

Locals also use the oil as an adulterant of ‘ghee’ after some rudimentary processing. Regulatory authorities like the World Health Organization, however, don’t consider this as edible in its raw form, because it contains aflatoxin, a toxic component. 

The processing of the oil can get rid of the aflatoxin and makes it edible as per safety standards, research suggests.

But more than the oil, the cocoa butter extender prepared from mahua seed oil is a prized product. “It can be used to make chocolate or other confectionaries,” said Jeyarani of Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. 

These products offer a wonderful scope that can alter the socio-economic conditions of the tribal communities.

This oil is also a potent biodiesel. The researchers have developed and tested the mahua oil diodiesel (MOB) and the results are promising. 

The fuel properties adhere to international quality standards. Kapilan and Reddy of the National Institute of Technology in Surathkal are confident that ‘MOB or blends of MOB with diesel is a good competitor for diesel, with reliable performance and lower emissions’.

The flour prepared with the leftovers is suitable for making bakery products. Due to the presence of foaming agents, it is used for preparing laundry soaps. A few studies have identified the chemical components of the seeds and developed bio-insecticides and bio-pesticides, among others.

Opportunity or crisis?

It appears that India has a huge opportunity to materialise the potential of mahua seeds, but there remain some serious caveats.

It isn’t clear from the studies as to how cost-effective these processes are.

The authors of a 2017 research paper, for instance, estimated that “the price of MOB and its blends could vary between Rs 48-60 per litre, whereas the price of conventional diesel was around Rs 65 per litre in 2017.”

But it’s unclear what price for mahua seeds was considered and how that could have impacted the calculation. Five years later,  when diesel price is now hovering around Rs 100 per litre and India is mulling over alternatives, the importance of mahua biodiesel becomes more relevant.

For mahua oil or butter, research hasn’t shown us any direction, but the existing market for them has. There exists a non-tribal market for mahua oil and butter. 

Anyone can buy it from leading e-commerce sites, where mahua oil price varies from Rs 65-1700 per litre, presumably depending on its usefulness and quality, and mahua butter is available at Rs 125 per 100 grams.

So, if this non-tribal market base can be expanded and popularised, then it can provide better economic opportunities to the Adivasis. Considering they will receive a fair share of the profit, it can strengthen and sustain their traditional livelihoods.

How much is too much?

This socioeconomic opportunity, however, points to an ecological worry. How much seed harvest mahua population can withstand before its population collapses? Mahua is a slow-growing tree. And a few academic works noted that mahua population is declining in multiple pockets throughout its range. 

It’s been speculated that seed harvesting practices by Adivasi communities may be the reason for this decline.

But what I found during my ecological probe is contrary to this perception. The ripe mahua fruits fall from the trees and tribals collect these seeds from the ground below the canopy, where the chances of seed germination and seedling survival are negligible. 

Due to high concentration of seeds here, these are susceptible to fungal attack, grazing and other threats, and face high mortality. This phenomenon is known as the seed shadow effect. 

So, if not collected, the seeds are going to rot anyway, not adding to the population. And since the oil content of mature seeds is higher, they don’t pluck the fruits. 

Effectively, the seed harvesting practice is very much non-invasive for the trees and highly sustainable. Though it is yet unknown what is leading to the decrease in the number of mahua trees.

Way forward

The composite picture, thus, is bright and not gloomy. We can conclude that at least seed harvest is not detrimental to the mahua population. 

Many seeds are still left untouched or not even grazed. So, there lies an opportunity to encash the non-tribal market for mahua seed-derived products, without exerting any impact on the trees. More seeds can be collected to meet the demand. 

Though there is one major issue with the procurement: Tribals sell their collection at a nominal price, which doesn’t always meet the minimum selling price (Rs 25 per kilogram) of the seeds or at times they even barter the seeds. 

Eliminating this exploitation and realising the outside market presents a win-win opportunity for the tribals as well as for the trees will go a long way. If mahua becomes more valuable, they will take more care of it.

Mahua is an immensely important tree species for the functioning of the dry forest ecosystem and for the Adivasis. Since mahua trees are maintained as an agroforestry practice, it helps maintain the local biodiversity. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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