Mandu, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, is perhaps the only place in India where baobab trees are found in abundance, with an estimated 1,000 trees in the periphery of Mandu town. Now, the state government has plans to apply for a Geographical Indication tag for the khorasani imli or the fruit of the baobab, for the purpose of getting better recognition, economic benefit for the farmers and protection of the rare tree.

Aside from Mandu where it is most abundant, baobab trees have been recorded in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh, Wai in Maharashtra, and some places in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

Native to mainland Africa and the island country of Madagascar, the deciduous baobab Adansonia digitata can live up to 2,000 years and is a globally threatened species.

The attempt to get a Geographical Indication tag was triggered in June 2022, when the Madhya Pradesh forest department granted permission to translocate 11 baobab trees from villages in Dhar to a private botanical garden in Hyderabad, Telangana. The Green Kingdom Botanical Garden in Hyderabad had sought permission from the forest department because it was developing a 200-acre garden of rare and exotic species of plants. The decision to translocate baobabs created resentment among the local community. The local people, mostly from the Bhil tribe, staged a road blockade and stopped the truck carrying trees. Eventually, the police intervened. “These trees should be protected, but the government granted permission to cut and translocate them to Hyderabad. If that businessman was so interested in the conservation of baobab trees, he should have bought saplings from the nursery here,” said Gokul Girwal, a local resident who was part of the protest.

Six months after the translocation of the trees, the Dhar district’s horticulture department released an order, on November 17, announcing a committee for seeking a Geographical Indication tag for khorasani imli, the fruit of the baobab tree. The four-member committee has the task of identifying local farmers to form a society that would then apply for the Geographical Indication tag.

Baobab saplings at government horticulture garden in Mandu. Credit: Shahroz Afridi/Mongabay

A Geographical Indication tag acts as a trademark for a product in a specific geographical region possessing unique or valuable properties. The Geographical Indication tag can be given to agricultural, horticultural or forestry products such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, flowers and other products of trees. The tag can be applied for by the producers of the concerned goods or an entity representing them. The application undergoes examination and scrutiny after which, if accepted, it goes through the process of registration.

So far, Madhya Pradesh has at least 10 Geographical Indication tags for different products such as Kadaknath black chicken and chanderi sarees, which get legal protection against unauthorised use. The tag provides the product a unique identity which helps the local community to market it better and benefit more, added Mohan Singh Mujalda, deputy director of the district horticulture department.

“The government is serious about the conservation of baobab trees in this region. Obtaining a tag will help in this direction,” said the additional director of the horticulture department, Kamal Kirad.

When asked about whether one can obtain a Geographical Indication tag for a tree that has its origin in another country, Kirad replied that the Madhya Pradesh government has faced a similar challenge in obtaining the tag for Basmati rice produced here, because of its traditional production being in other states. “We are fighting for it, we will do the same for baobab as well,” he said, adding that the baobab’s presence in India dates back to more than 600 years.

Tribal livelihoods

Baobabs provide livelihoods to the people of Mandu. Shopkeepers sell fruit pods as a souvenir to tourists. “It fetches a good price according to its size, from Rs 50 to Rs 200 for one fruit,” said Sanjay Kar, who sells souvenirs opposite Jami Mosque at Mandu fort. Moreover, the pulp and seeds are sold separately for Rs 10 per packet for their medicinal qualities. The shopkeepers, largely members of the Bhil tribe, either collect them from the nearby jungle or buy them from people who grow baobabs. Tribal people have been instrumental in saving these trees till now. Tulsi Ram planted about a dozen plants and has been nurturing them for ten years.

“Baobab tree is synonymous with Mandu in India. The fruit is a rich source of Vitamin C and contains abundant antioxidants. It is used to treat stomach disorders. Even the bark is used to cure several diseases,” said Tulsi Ram, who practices traditional medicine.

Pushpa Patel, a professor of botany at Khargone Government College, explains that the name khorasani imli originates from the ancient land of Khorasan (Central Asia, including Iran).

“We are told that the baobab tree seeds were brought to Mandu by the Afghan rulers or Arab traders who came to Mandu around 1400 AD. It quenches thirst besides having other medicinal qualities,” said Patel. The baobab is bottle-shaped and has a wide trunk that narrows as it moves upwards, where it has some branches. It looks as if a tree is planted upside down. The unique structure of this genus allows the species to store large quantities of water.

Counting baobabs

“The government has hardly taken any steps for their protection. They do not know the number of trees in the area,” said the additional director of the horticulture department, Kamal Kirad.

Marie Winterbert, a French citizen, standing with trunk that she planted at her homestay. Credit: Shahroz Afridi/Mongabay

Former horticulture extension officer of Nalchha block, Sudhir Tiwari, said that the department conducted a survey in collaboration with the archaeology department about five years ago to count the numbers of baobab trees in and around Mandu. “The survey was abandoned midway. But till then, about 2,000 trees were recorded. Today, there are an estimated 1,000-1,200 big baobab trees in 10 km-15 km in the periphery of Mandu town,” said Tiwari. In this survey, officials counted those trees above five years of age.

Mujalda said he was unaware of the baobab counting five years ago as he was appointed only last year. But he added that counting is being done again.

“The baobab population has declined in recent times, but they were old. We (the people of the Bhil community) have protected these trees for years,” said Malti Jairam Gawar, Chairperson of the Mandav Nagar Parishad (the local municipal body of Mandu).

Suresh Nagar, the naib tehsildar (who takes on deputy duties) of Mandu, confirmed that there were no special provisions for the conservation of baobabs. “Permission is required to cut any green tree under existing laws. “It applies to the baobab tree,” said Nagar. However, the latest move by the state government to obtain a Geographical Indication tag for baobab products has brought some hope to the residents. They feel that getting more benefits from the baobab trees will help their conservation.

“We have initiated the process to obtain Geographical Indication tags for khorasani imli of Mandu under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. A four-member committee comprising officials from the horticulture department has been constituted and entrusted with the task of forming a society of local farmers that will apply for the Geographical Indication tag,” said Mujalda.

The Rural Horticulture Extension Officer of Mandu, Amar Singh Muwel said the team has started meeting locals to form a society. “The society will comprise farmers with baobab trees on their land and will be registered with the Cooperative Department in Dhar. The society will then apply for the Geographical Indication tag with the concerned office in a prescribed format. We also have to update the Horticulture Directorate Office in Bhopal.”

Tiwari said that the government nursery at Mandu had prepared saplings of the baobab, a first step towards securing their future. “We prepared saplings of baobab plants at the nursery about two years ago, but there were no takers. I had personally requested the senior officials to distribute them for free. Baobab plants do not require water and can survive in hostile climates. Therefore, the government should promote it during the annual plantation drive, especially in the arid areas.”

A baobab tree standing in a field in the Mandu district. Madhya Pradesh government has initiated a process of getting a Geographical Indication tag for it. Credit: Shahroz Afridi/Mongabay

Harming the trees

The baobab trees in Mandu have been protected for hundreds of years by the tribal people of this area. However, in recent times, some residents have started harming the trees on their lands as the baobabs have thick trunks and occupy considerable space.

“There have been incidents recently where locals had cut the tree from their lands to make more space for agriculture. However, in the absence of clear guidelines for the protection of baobab trees, it could not be stopped,” said Marie Winterbert, a French citizen who lives in Mandu. “I saw a tree fall nearby. The trunk remained there for days, after which I brought a part of it and planted it here on my land. My heart goes out when I see a baobab tree being axed. Besides a rich historical past and medicinal values, it is synonymous with Mandu. It is surprising as the baobab tree also provides them financial assistance. The number of baobab trees has decreased in the recent past. Now the government should take some steps for its conservation.”

“The population of baobabs has declined in recent times. If the government is serious about conserving them, then it should bring in some special provisions to ensure that no one cuts these trees,” said Gawar of the local municipal corporation.

Tulsi Ram said that the trees were in high demand during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people believed it would protect them from contracting the disease. He added that some people from Gujarat now come here to buy them in bulk. According to a study, the fruit pulp, seeds, and leaves of baobab tree are helpful in treating constipation, diarrhoea, intestinal inflammations, fever, cough, asthma, other respiratory problems, malaria, and more.

“The trees should be planted at sites inhabited by bats, like old buildings, monuments, or caves, as bats are vital in pollination,” said Pushpa Patel, a professor of botany at Khargone Government College.

“The good news is that the government has started obtaining Geographical Indication tag for the khorasani imli, but the bad news is that as other government works, the process is moving at a snail’s pace. No development has taken place so far after issuing the letter by the horticulture department,” added Gawar, Chairperson of the local municipal body.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.