The past can be a guide for the future. Located in remote Odisha, the story of Tribal Kondh could be a model for replication of sustainable development elsewhere. One of the tribal communities, residing on the slope of the Niyamagiri range, in Rayagada District of Odisha, they offer hope. The community connects agriculture, climate change and food security—by revisiting the past practices.
The area is naturally endowed with dense forests amidst the hills, deep gorges and cascading streams. Deploying old practices, the community has recharged their traditional agro-forestry by reclaiming their rights to land. It has helped them to re-grow variety of traditional plants of nutritious value and thereby, ensure food security for the community and contribute their bit in combating climate change.
The rich and diverse variety of native millets and foraged jungle foods were a part of their lives. The misery reached their doorstep when the state forest department planned to clear forest lands for growing cash crops like teak, eucalyptus, soy and cotton.
The area was slowly acquired for plantations and its consequence—the indigenous green wealth disappeared. The community used to have variety of millets on their plates including jungle tubers, saag [greens], mushrooms and there were so many mahua trees.
The aborigines cultivate on hills’ fertile slopes and worship the mountain God Niyam Raja and the hills, including the 4,000 meter Mountain of the Law, Niyam Dongar. The mahua, which could be seen everywhere, is central to their lives. The waxy flowers spread their heady fragrance. Its leaves are used for making of cups and plates. The oil from mahua is used for variety of purposes such as in traditional medicine, hair oil, to massage newborn babies, making soap, in cooking and for lighting lamps.
The seeds, fruits and flowers are cooked, as they are believed to be healthy. The bark is utilized as a remedy for itching, healing wounds and cure from snake bites. With the arrival of commercial plantations, all these benefits vanished—affecting adversely the lives of the local folks.
The food security faces threat not just from climate change, but also from increasing scarcity of water and land, soil erosion and deteriorating natural resource base. The focus on forests—and enhancing their cover could help in overcoming these hurdles.
The forests are abode to over 80 percent of the biodiversity, representing an irreplaceable genetic resource for the future development of agricultural crops. Besides, it holds about three-quarters as much carbon as the earth’s entire atmosphere, helping mitigate climate change.
The forests offer millions of people food, energy/fuel wood and shelter. The wild edibles give nutritious diets all year round, including in periods of hardship. On top of it, agro-forestry—trees combined with agriculture, raises the productivity of agricultural lands while diversifying diets.
It is evident that forests provide nourishment to agriculture through retention of water/moisture in the soil, providing habitats for pollinators, and offering protection against extreme climate condition. However, the threat to biodiversity persists and is likely to continue—despite significant conservation efforts. The forest management plans have proliferated, but implementing them effectively is still a challenge.
United Nations’ SDG 15 calls on to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation process and halt biodiversity loss”.
The tribal community of Niyamagiri range in the past grew varieties of crops through mixed-cropping practices. It helped in retaining soil fertility. Seeds were kept after each harvest and exchanged. It ensured the local adaptability and availability of seeds to produce several varieties of foods.
The ecological balance that existed before was disrupted when manmade “forests” were initiated for fulfilling industrial requirements. Planting of cash crops damaged the diverse base of natural species. As a consequence, it eroded soil fertility.
Large clusters of surrounding forests had been indiscriminately decimated by the forest department to make way for cash plantations that affected their traditional food practices.
The truth is that this kind of “replacement” could never compensate for the loss of their traditional forest— a critical pillar for tribal communities providing them with food, medicine, fodder and fuel wood. As a result, it affected badly, their food habit and their children were devoid of adequate nutrition.
Anshuman Das, Programme Manager, Welthungerhilfe, says, “The region is in high risk situation due to variety of reasons. Food producing Area is being reduced.”
Living Farms, an NGO working in the region on the issue of Food and Nutrition Security wanted to change this. Series of meetings was organised with officials and villagers to discuss how to halt the destruction of their food habits.
Teams were formed to keep a vigil in the forest 24X7. This helped stop illegal cutting of trees and encroachment.
Anshuman says, “The tribal Kondh community knows how to protect the forests. We need to empower them”
Diversity on their Plates
Trees of dates, mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, jaamkoli were planted. They had to work hard and it took time to bring back some of the older diversity as the traditional trees take five years to grow, at least. The soil, which has been damaged by plantations, takes time to replenish.
About 6,000 families from Muniguda to Bissam Cuttack have got involved in that joint effort and each family planted 10 to 15 trees. The results could be seen. It improved the diversity of food on their plates.
Anshuman says, “Government schemes like ICDS have grossly ignored the fact that the food quality not food quantity matters.
Living Farms assesses dietary diversity at every six months’ interval. They found the number of families with low scores was 58 per cent in 2014. But today it has reduced to 18 per cent.
The NGO has compiled a list of forest foods and their nutritional values. With the help of trained nutritionists, they have identified some 66 uncultivated foods that are rich in containing variety of nutrients, including folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamins C, B and A, and beta carotene.
People we spoke to could name over 60 varieties of fruit (mango, wild cashew, blackberry, jackfruit, kendu, date palm and mahua, among others), 40 kinds of leafy vegetables (baradasaag, gandirisaag, chakundasaag, curry leaves, colocasia leaves and drumstick leaves, to name a few), 10 kinds of oil seeds, 30 variety of mushrooms, roots and tubers, and 20 varieties of fish, crab, insects and birds that they could collect and consume directly from the forest.
The NGO has introduced a series of classes on indigenous foods like how to grow them, what are their uses — in some government schools with the hope that it will help in regaining loss of knowledge on traditional foods among tribal youth.
“Dietary diversity has been missing in the plate of the community. Forests have the abundance to bring it back”, says Dr. Jagatbandhu Mohapatra, from Living Farm.