Saraswatibai Tekam is one of 1,200 residents of Waghdara, a hamlet in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. The settlement is at the fringe of a dense, dry deciduous forest in a region known for its increasing population of tigers. Avni, a tiger, made national news some years ago for killing 13 people in this area of Yavatmal before she was shot in 2018.

Waghdhara’s residents, like most forest-dwelling communities in India, rely substantially on the forest for an income. Depending on the time of year, residents harvest non-timber forest products, or NTFP, such as mahua, gum, honey, and wild vegetables, which they either sell at nearby market towns or consume themselves. The village has been granted “community forest rights” under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which recognises its rights to access these resources.

On a cool July evening last year, Tekam and other members of a self-help group in Waghdara gathered at her house to talk about changes they had been observing in the forest. The only man present, a husband of one of the members, sat out in the verandah, clearly apart, but keenly interested in the discussion.

The women presented a long list of changes that alarmed them. Every alternate year, mahua flowers and seeds, from which edible oil and country liquor are made, now appeared in far smaller quantities than they did earlier. Charoli, or chironji, fruit thrived for some time, but were then typically destroyed by unseasonal summer rain. Their trees lived only four or five years before succumbing to disease. The price of gum, called dinka in Marathi, had decreased because the trees that people tapped yielded poor quality black gum, not clear gum.

Waghdara isn’t alone in experiencing these changes, and its residents aren’t the only ones who are worried.

Saraswatibai Tekam lives in Waghdara, in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district. Its residents, who rely substantially on the forest for an income, have seen a steady decline in forest products. Photos: Mridula Chari

Between July and August 2021, I travelled across six villages in eastern Maharashtra – in all of them, people reported significant changes in how and when vital trees flower and fruit. This uncertainty in the annual patterns of these forest crops impacts locals’ ability to plan for their crucial summer income, when other work is unviable.

“There are more than 500 mahua trees around our village,” said Nailabai Tekam, 52, president of a self-help group in Awalgaon, a village 40 kilometres away from Waghdara. “Every year, some would yield more flowers and others less. But in my entire life, I have never seen the numbers fall so low.”

Amit Kulkarni, founder of the Navi Ummed, an organisation in Yavatmal’s Pandharkavda town that works with local communities to strengthen their access to community forest rights, echoed this observation.

“Over time, we have seen fewer new trees and the old ones do not yield as much,” he said.

These changes have occurred as the region, part of Central India, has witnessed massive shifts in climate patterns. A 2017 study by Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, published in Nature, found that there had been an increase of between 10% and 30% in extreme rainfall events in Central India between 1950 and 2015. (Both insufficient and excessive rain can damage forest products.)

Maharashtra also saw significant hailstorms, which are damaging to crops and forest products. A 2017 study in the Indian Meteorological Department’s journal Mausam found that from 1981 to 2015, the largest frequency of hailstorms in one season happened in Maharashtra in 2014, which saw 11 such storms between February and April.

There has been very little research into how the quality and yield of forest products in Central India has changed against this backdrop of a shifting climate.

This is despite the fact that the problem affects a vast population across Central India. According to a recent study by Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, the residents of around 60,000 villages in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra, an estimated population of 6.26 crore, are eligible to claim community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which includes the right to collect forest products. (The law grants rights over “minor forest produce”, which refers to products of plant origin, as well as other products, including some of animal origin – the term “non-timber forest products”, or NTFP, refers to the broader category.)

In one significant study, the scientist Seema Yadav surveyed the impact of climate change on non-timber forest products in two forested areas in Hoshangabad and Madla districts in Madhya Pradesh.

As part of her research, conducted between 2013 and 2018, Yadav interviewed 10% of the collectors of such products in eight villages. Around 79% of them said that rainfall had become irregular, though some felt it had decreased and others that it had increased.

The respondents were more uniform in their perception of declines in tree populations.

Yadav found that “91% of the household heads were of the opinion that number of tree species had declined over the years”, while 86% felt that the number of healthy fruit-producing trees of important forest product species had reduced.

From her own measurements, Yadav found that the heights and girths of several species of trees were declining. Some trees in Sohagpur, such as mahua and satinwood, did not have girths of more than 140 cm when measured at a standard height of around four-and-a-half feet – this girth was only in the mid-range for the species. Almost half of all flame of the forest plants appeared in the seedling stage, and only 4.34% were in the highest ranges of growth. Yadav explained to that such observations indicated that there were fewer older trees, or that the ones that survived were unable to grow to their previous size.

For the millions of people, typically from Adivasi communities, who depend on forest products, these changes can hurt an essential part of their annual earnings.

It also has a broader effect: when funnelled through middlemen, the products feed an estimated Rs 2 lakh crore economy that is spread throughout India. They serve as raw material for medicines, cosmetics, food, oils, and other essential items.

Chironji seeds are among the common forest products collected in Central India. Residents of Waghdara said that now the fruits thrived for some time, but were then typically destroyed by unseasonal summer rain.

This year, as an unprecedented heatwave swept India, with March being the hottest since the Indian Meteorological Department started recording weather data in 1901, many forest crops wilted.

“This year, we bought a little more than half of the gum that we usually get,” explained Julfikar Jiwani, a gum and honey trader in Kinvat town in Nanded district. He is one of only four traders in Kinvat who deal with non-timber forest products.

He sells gum to traders from Adilabad in Telangana, which is 53 kilometres away. Those traders bottle the gum and sell it ahead to companies that use it in medicines or food products.

Jiwani explained that he usually buys around 15 quintals of dinka in the two months that it is harvested. This year, he was able to buy only eight quintals.

The rate he pays for it also changed. From Rs 250 per kilogram last year, he bought gum at the rate of Rs 300 per kilogram this year because the yield had reduced.

The poor attention paid to the root causes behind these changes is unsurprising, given that those who gather the raw materials on the ground are largely Adivasi women, and that the work of collecting forest products is often written off as “women’s work”.

“Men?” Saraswatibai Tekam scoffed. “They don’t come with us – they say, ‘it’s too hot.’” The group burst into loud laughter. Laughing herself, Tekam leapt to her feet to mimic morning conversations. “In the mornings, when they’re snoring loudly, four or five women say to each other, ‘let’s go to the jungle, ladies’, and we go. What do the men say? That this is women’s work.”

Wheeling around to point at the suddenly alarmed husband of one of the attendees, she declared, amid more raucous laughter, “You ask him if he ever does anything in the forest. Though he is so young, he still sends his wife instead.”

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While the effects of climate change on forest products are itself worrying, what is also alarming is the scant attention that is being paid to the problem.

Research into the problem of climate change in forests often relies on computer-based models to predict the impacts of the change. Such studies use statistical information drawn from satellites, such as data on tree cover, leaf type or atmospheric carbon, to predict how climate change will affect large areas of land over long periods of time. These models are useful for planners, who need to draw up strategies to create buffers against high-impact changes.

However, these studies often do not collect field data, such as the number of species of trees on a given piece of land, or the shifts in seasons for flowering and fruiting of plants. Few researchers “are interested to work physically in forest areas,” said Yadav.

Because substantial field research has not been carried out in preceding decades, vast amounts of data, including on the kinds of changes Tekam and her friends and relatives observe every year, has been lost. This has serious implications for future research.

Yadav cited the example of Sterculia urens, a tree that grows in isolated areas or in hilly terrain in Central India. The tree produces valuable gum that is commonly used in food and beauty products. Yadav explained that the number of Sterculia trees seemed to be declining, but that there was no base level data of how many individuals there were in the first place. This made it impossible to quantify their loss, or determine how numbers might fluctuate in increasingly erratic weather.

Thus, when the phenology, or life cycle, of a species shifts dramatically, states often cannot draw up backup plans to shield citizens from the economic impact of this change.

“We can say that an absence of data about the changes is contributing to an alarming phenomenon where the composition of forests is changing, and we do not have adequate information about it,” said R Venkat Ramanujam, a researcher with ATREE, who has studied the formal and informal markets for tendu in eastern Madhya Pradesh.

Residents of the six villages this reporter visited were keenly aware of changes in weather patterns and forest produce yields in at least the last decade. They said, for instance, that the monsoon itself had changed: instead of steady rain through the months of June to September, they had begun to witness long dry spells punctuated by intense rainfall. They reported that unseasonal rains affected forest products in the period between February and May, just before the monsoon, with mahua flowers getting sodden in some years, or gum yield declining in other years.

Roxy Mathew Koll, too, noted that heavy rainfall days were increasing, even as there was an overall decline in the monsoon. A study by Koll found that between 1950 and 2015, there have been 268 reported floods in India, which affected around 825 million people, left 17 million homeless and killed 69,000 people. The report observed that this destruction is concentrated in parts of Central India.

“The rise in extreme rainfall events are over a region where the total monsoon rainfall is decreasing,” the paper noted. Further, it added, “The fact that this intensification is against the background of a declining monsoon rainfall makes it catastrophic, as it puts several millions of lives, property and agriculture at risk.”

The overall decline in rainfall is leading to a long-term trend of “browning” of national parks, referring to vegetation turning brown due to a lack of rain. “This is happening even in forest areas where other factors such as encroachment don’t arise,” Koll said.

This observation is key: many, including forest dwellers themselves, assume that their own unsustainable harvesting practices are the reason behind the decline in forest products, Yadav said. This includes practices such as cutting too many branches, tapping too deep for gum or collecting all the fruit crop and leaving no seeds behind from which the forest can rejuvenate.

Yadav pointed out that forest dwellers often have very few choices of livelihood, and that to blame them is to make the mistake of overlooking the economic pressures that these communities face, and the effects of far more sweeping factors, such as climate change and the growth of extractive industries.

Nailabai Tekam said there are around 500 mahua trees around her village of Awalgaon. "Every year, some would yield more flowers and others less. But in my entire life, I have never seen the numbers fall so low.”

People who depend on forest-based livelihoods generally have small or no tracts of agricultural land for other sources of income. This means that they depend on a limited number of forest species for an income through most of the year.

Even forest dwellers who are attuned to the life cycle of trees are obliged to begin collections early, and end them late, because of demand by traders. Those who are unwilling to harvest before or after it is viable to do so, simply do not earn as much in these largely informal markets, Yadav said. Forest dwellers have little bargaining power because they have no access to storage facilities, and so are forced to accept the rates traders offer for products on the days that they travel to local market towns to sell them. The Central government attempted to bring some structure to this market by announcing a minimum support price for certain minor forest produce in 2011. Over 2020 and 2021, the Centre added 37 new forest products to the existing list that would be covered by a minimum price. But without the infrastructure of formalised markets, people have not yet seen the benefits of this proposal.

Even as forest dwellers struggle to eke out a living, large infrastructure projects are expanding deeper into forests.

In 2019, a study in Resources Policy that looked at 314 Indian districts found that on average, those that produced minerals such as coal, iron, bauxite, dolomite, limestone and manganese, lost 350 square kilometres more of forest cover than districts that did not have these minerals. The correlation was even higher in coal, iron and limestone-producing districts, which on average lost 450 square kilometres more of forest cover than districts without them. A 2022 study in the Journal of Environmental Management looked specifically at Odisha, and found that in the two decades between 2000 and 2019, some districts in the state lost more than 20% of forest cover to mining.

Mapping out these changes precisely is a challenge, because the Forest Survey of India, which tracks tree cover and the state of forests annually, uses a definition for “forest cover” that scientists consider to be inaccurate. Any area that has more than 10% tree cover in a one-hectare area is considered to have forest cover. In practice, this means that, in many places, land with coconut and tea plantations, parks in urban areas, and wastelands are classified as having forest cover. So when Forest Surveys claim that the country has seen an increase in forest cover, they paper over the fact that India’s forests are in fact, deteriorating.

In the slow-burning heat of March, Nailabai Tekam wakes up each day before dawn, cooks for her family and then, with a small group of women, heads into the forest adjoining Awalgaon to search for the distinctive cream flowers that mahua trees shed in these months. Like Waghdara, Awalgaon has also been granted community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act.

For years, she was able to collect 90 quintals of flowers each season, between February and April, she said. But the number of flowers has reduced in the last decade or so, down to around just 18 quintals in 2021. She and other women must also walk farther to collect the same amount.

She explained that it frequently rains just after the mahua tree “sheds its flowers, which means we cannot collect them”, because the rain destroys the delicate flowers. Though she and others who sell mahua flowers now get Rs 50 per kg in the local market, up from Rs 10 five years ago, the quantities of flowers they collect are so low that few are able to earn as much as before.

Awalgaon, like Waghdara, is a Kolam village. Kolams are classified in Maharashtra as a particularly vulnerable tribal group. Around 10% of the 750-odd groups listed as Scheduled Tribes across India are classified as particularly vulnerable. These groups have historically had more limited access to resources than other Scheduled Tribe communities, largely because of their isolation. Along the Maharashtra and Telangana border, where most Kolams stay, their hamlets are set apart from main panchayat villages, and often have poor road access. Inhabitants usually have limited sources of income.

One Kolam village, Kajipod in Nanded district’s Kinvat block, did not have a road until around five or six years ago, when the then governor of Maharashtra “adopted” it and had it built, along with a water tank. Before that, residents had to make a ten-kilometre trek across rough country roads to reach the nearest market to sell their products.

In Kajipod, Pooja Tekode, 28, spoke of how mahua, tendu, and chironji nut yields had reduced, while root crops had all but disappeared. She has also noticed the decline in gum yields.

“If there is not enough heat, the gum turns black and its quantity reduces,” Tekode said.

“This year, even though a trader from Hyderabad wanted to buy white gum, we were unable to supply this to them until the end of April,” explained Amit Kulkarni, whose organisation works with residents of Kajipod and several other villages in the region. Normally, gum begins to flow in February through April, or even into May. In 2022, unseasonal rains in February and March lowered temperatures, which reduced the amount of gum that trees yielded and also lowered their quality. “When traders want products, they are not available, and sometimes, even though they will buy at high prices, people are unable to collect enough to supply to them,” Kulkarni said.

A hillock in Kajipod from which residents regularly gather forest products. One resident spoke of how mahua, tendu, and chironji nut yields had reduced, while root crops had all but disappeared.

The economic impact on residents of Kajipod has been severe. Men in the hamlet have traditionally not migrated for work – the closest big towns are hundreds of kilometres away and residents fear that if they migrate that far and don’t find enough work, they might lose their savings. “We don’t want to break our savings, but we still have to eat,” said Saraswatibai Tekam, a resident of Kajipod. (She shares a name with Saraswatibai of Waghdara.) Now however, in the face of increased uncertainty, men have begun to travel long distances for construction work, while women work longer hours as temporary agricultural labourers on fields owned by others.

The problems caused by climate change also serve to exacerbate the forest dwellers’ existing struggles with the government and society at large.

Shakuntala Atram, 35, lives right next to Yavatmal’s Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in the hamlet of Bhad Umri. Since the region was declared a protected sanctuary in 1997, residents of the hamlet have been denied access to the forest. The Forest Department became stringent about this around a decade later, when the population of tigers began to increase in the sanctuary. Locals said that if authorities catch them inside the forest, they fine them and even threaten legal action.

Atram, like others in the hamlet did not know about the Forest Rights Act, which empowers people to claim rights to forest resources. As people living adjacent to a forest area, they could have continued to visit the forest without legal risk, had their rights been recognised by the Forest Department.

Not knowing about and securing their rights has left them dependent on the government. Their main concern, when this reporter visited, was to gain access to a Central government scheme for cooking gas, since they were barred from collecting firewood from the forest now. Local officials at the nearest town had ignored all their requests to be registered for the cooking gas scheme.

There are other losses, beyond firewood: some residents spoke of losses of knowledge and experience, and their attempts to come to terms with them.

“These days, I buy my children chikoo and tell them that it is tendu because they taste alike,” said Atram, with a rueful smile. “They will never know any better.”

Residents of one village spoke of a decline in their health after it was relocated by the forest department, following the creation of the Tipeshwar sanctuary. Savitribai Soyam, 55, an otherwise cheerful woman, recalled her younger days in the original settlement, Maregaon.

“When I could go to the forest, I could eat whatever I wanted,” she said. “Some days we would catch fish, other days I would make rotis from mahua flowers, and because the air and water were good, we never fell sick.” Now, she and her family struggle to get by in the new village, where the closest forest area is a mixed forest plantation of 80 acres created by the Forest Department, which has limited tree species. Soyam and her family largely rely on subsidised government rations to survive. “We are getting sick eating this ration food,” she said. “There is no variety, no goodness in it.”

Her mother-in-law, Parvatabai Soyam, 85, cannot hear well anymore. When their village was being shifted from Tipeshwar, she refused to leave at first – it was only after the family coaxed her that she agreed. As is typical in state rehabilitation efforts, they have been thrust into impossible transitions to a new way of life, now centred around agriculture instead of forestry. “We kept extra seeds when we shifted here,” Soyam said. “But they don’t grow at all here.”

The soil in the new village is hard and rocky, unlike the dense jungle area residents are used to. The settlement, which is by an arterial road, frequently floods and gets waterlogged, leading to an increase in illnesses.

“We used to be able to collect this much charoli,” another name for chironji, Soyam said, spreading her arms wide to indicate the size of a bundle that she said would weigh around ten kilograms. “Such species are barely there in this forest. Nothing else tastes like a poli made of charoli or mahua. We were able to make what we wanted when we wanted. ”

Now, she explained, they are more prone to health risks because their surroundings are more polluted. “We can’t do anything without needing injections” from the local public health centre,” she said.

Not everyone can access, or chooses to access, allopathic medicines. Many rely on vaidus, or traditional physicians, like 70-year-old Tukaram Tekam, who collects and prescribes herbal medicines. At the end of an almost two-hour conversation about his vast expertise, the many decades that he has been practicing medicine, and the plants that he used to be able to use from the forest, but can no longer find, he turned the conversation back to the question I had asked him first, about the weather. “You are right that the weather is changing, that the rains are coming when they should not and that it is too hot or too dry through the year,” he said.

And then he asked a simple question with great weight: “Why is this happening?”

There is no simple answer. But there are some efforts underway to try and ensure that the problem is understood, so that it can be tackled.

In April 2022, Pooja Tekode, the resident of Kajipod, received a fellowship from the Navi Ummed to collect information about forest products, the implementation of the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, and the losses people have faced due to unpredictable weather.

Pooja Tekode (left) has a fellowship to collect information about forest products, the implementation of the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, and losses people have faced due to unpredictable weather.

Tekode, like others in the region, has experienced these changes first-hand. As recently as 2017, she alone was able to collect up to 25 kilograms of mahua flowers in just two weeks, she said. Since 2020, however, entire households consider themselves lucky to gather just between ten and 12 kilograms over a month. As for gum, in previous years, people were able to tap trees for it daily – but this year has been so dry that her neighbours do not even check the trees for gum more than once every few days. And though some parts of Yavatmal had a glut of chironji, Tekode’s village had an almost negligible yield.

The information that Tekode collects will be a first step towards raising awareness about the problem among locals. “We have a lot of knowledge among ourselves, but Adivasi people do not get to hear of each other’s knowledge,” she said. “I am doing this for my community, so that they become more aware of climate change and so that we know what is happening to us.”

The reporting for this article was made possible by a grant from the Keystone Foundation.