The rediscovery of wild food plants

While India is slowly rediscovering such plants, the forests must be co-managed by tribal communities in order to preserve them for posterity

By Harisha R P
Published: Friday 26 April 2019
Bommamma, a Soliga tribal and her son collecting bamboo shoots in the forest. Photo: Harisha R P/ATREE

The use of plants in the human diet is of great antiquity. Wild food plants (WFPs), which are neither cultivated nor domesticated, constitute a special category. They grow wild in forests as well as in farmlands and are harvested by local people as sources of food.

The tradition of eating WFPs, to augment staple food crops, continues in the present day. For forest- dwelling communities, forests remain the main source of food, nutrition, and livelihoods even today. Puttamma, a 70-year-old woman, belonging to the Soliga tribe in the Western Ghats, believes that she and her community will never experience hunger as long as the forest exists. “I was born in the forest; I grew up with the forest. The forest is our life and soul”, she says. “We are never short of food because the forest has plenty to offer us,” says 40-year-old Madevi.

Indigenous knowledge and the uses of plants, however, are in danger of being lost. In many places, environmental and cultural transformations have led to changes in eating habits and practices.

Documentation of WFPs

Traditional knowledge on WFPs’ seasonal availability, source, and dietary values has been a neglected area of scholarship. During the British Raj from 1858 to 1947, the usage, life history, and ethnographic information of local wild plants had been recorded in many volumes. But post-independence, all this was largely ignored.

In recent years, there has been tremendous global interest in reviving the documentation of ethnobotanical information on wild, edible food sources. In addition to their role in balancing food baskets of the poor, WFPs also play an important role in maintaining the nutritional and livelihood security for many people in forest communities during periods of drought or scarcity.

In this context, ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) documented 124 species of WFPs being used by the Soliga people in the Male Mahadeshwara (MM) Hills forest in southern Karnataka including wild greens, fruits, tubers, and flowers.

The Soligas are one of few remaining forest-dwelling tribes in and around the forests of Biligiri Ranganath (BR) Hills, MM Hills, and Bandipur in Karnataka and the Sathyamangalam forests in Tamil Nadu. The study revealed that the diversity of WFPs consumed by the Soligas evolved over generations as a survival strategy. They relate the usage of WFPs to seasonal plant availability and the status of resources and can even predict the availability of WEPs with respect to micro-climatic changes, indicating a long-term intimate knowledge of their surroundings.

According to Bommamma of Anehola village, they get a variety of mushrooms, tender bamboo shoots, and fruits like Jamune, Karanada, wood apple, custard apple and several varieties of leaves during the rainy season. Honey and tubers like Dioscorea, makal and many ceropegia are harvested throughout the year. In the hot dry summers, the Soligas use leaves and fruits like mango, jackfruit, amla, bel and tamarind. Except rice, another staple food of Soligas which they grow, the forests give them everything else. As 35-year-old Ideyamma of Kimbudukki village puts it, “Three-fourth of our food comes from the forests.”

A key source of nutrition

It is said the secret of the Soliga people's health lies in their traditional use of WFPs. Soliga tribal women cannot imagine life without the forest that ensures their food and nutritional security. The average daily intake of uncultivated forest food ranges between 20 per cent and 34.4 per cent of the total cooked foods consumed. These WFPs collected from the forest and farm lands also provide a crucial source of nutrition in the diets of the Soliga tribes of Chamarajanagara district. Study households consuming about 20 per cent of their food or more from the forest showed no signs of malnutrition.

For example, edible leaves such as Kaddisoppu and Javanesoppu available in the forest have a very high content of pro-vitamin A (Beta Carotene), anti-oxidants and soluble protein. It is found that the leaves are rich in digestible iron, zinc, and manganese as well. Tubers and fruits from the forest that are rich in vitamins and anti-oxidant, are in high demand in local markets. Some of the tubers and mushrooms also have high iron, zinc, vitamins and anti-oxidant content that is vital for nutritional security.

Threats to WFPs

Despite their role in food security, forests are mostly left out of policy decisions related to food security and nutrition. But because of this, these WFPs are also under threat. Forest foods are in high demand, both in tribal community markets and nearby rural markets. Demand for forest produce such as honey and amla is growing in cities. Though this may appear an opportunity for economic empowerment of tribal communities, if not managed, over-harvesting could lead to degradation of the forests and ultimately, disappearance of these very species.

Although Chamarajanagara district has the highest forest cover and protected areas in Karnataka, it also suffers from a high rate of degradation due to stone quarry and development activities. The other threat is from commercial monoculture plantations on forestland under afforestation and social forestry programmes, which are crowding out these wild species.

Way forward

For WFPs to be preserved for posterity, the forests must be co-managed by tribal communities. For the tribal communities, the forest is not just a source of food, but is also a part of their identity. Their way of life is respectful of nature and recognises diversity in its different manifestations.

The tribal community’s relationship with the forest is one of belonging rather than ownership. Community forest management is good for the health of the forests. The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, advocated for common rights over land and forest, arguing that when local users have long-term rights to harvest from the forests, they are more likely to monitor and sanction those who break the rules, resulting in better forest conditions.

Implementation of India’s landmark 2006 Forest Rights Act that offers provisions to involve communities in safeguarding forest resources and developing co-management plans is needed.

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