Every morning, Baisa, a forest-dwelling Karbi woman, gets up at 4 am to forage fresh wild edible plants and insects from the forest. At the market in Diphu, Baisa is able to sell some of the surplus wild vegetables for about Rs 100.

There is an increasing demand for wild foods like Alpinia nigra (locally known as tara) in Diphu, where the stem pith of tara sells for Rs 15 to Rs 20 for a bundle. It is profitable to sell tara, because women can make extra money for a day, but women like Baisa walk back and forth from the market, to save the money that traveling 10 km in an auto rickshaw to Diphu would cost them.

Foraging in the forest, eating what grows in the wild and not food that is planted, might sound strange to many – but it is something the Karbis, indigenous peoples of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council in Assam, have done for generations. About 104 million or 8.6% of India’s population are the indigenous peoples also known as the Scheduled Tribes, adivasis or tribal peoples. Each of these 300-plus indigenous communities are heterogeneous, with regard to their unique history, language, attire, and the diverse landscapes where they belong.

They are also homogenous in the ways in which they are connected to customary forest food practices. Indigenous tribes derive protein and micronutrients from rich forest foods like insects, spiders, common (not endangered) small birds, animals, fishes, ant eggs, fruits, herbs, bamboo shoots, mushroom and green leafy vegetables.

The sudden popularity of these forest foods, once known as a poor man’s food, has been skyrocketing, thanks to the much-written about trend of consuming “super foods”, or foods that are high in antioxidants, rich in minerals and vitamins, or those that are high in soluble fibres. But, what does this sudden demand mean for the forest-dwelling, indigenous communities?

Indigenous Karbi women foraging for wild edible forest resources. Image: Aakash Doshi (Assam, 2016)

Mizoram, which has the highest proportion of indigenous peoples in the country, is home to the Lai people, who belong to the Lai Autonomous Development Council of Mizoram. The Lai live in and around forests in the mountainous areas. Like the Karbis, they have been dependent on wild foods for many generations. Traditional knowledge about these food sources is passed orally from one generation to another.

This is how they know which season to harvest wild spiders in, how to predict seasonal climatic variation, or when to leave bamboo shoots for regeneration. They have found ways to distinguish edible from poisonous mushrooms, eat food that is seasonal, maintain a customary nutritious diet, and use natural preservation techniques to conserve the flora and fauna of the forest for the future. They are the true pioneers of sustainable living.

“The mainstream people think our adivasi food system is unhealthy,” said Ganpat Mangal, a Thakkar adivasi from Thane district in Maharashtra. “There is a myth that we use mahua flowers only for brewing alcohol. For us, mahua trees are a source of food security.”

Mahua flower lattas (a recipe that uses mashed flowers) and rotis (Indian breads) often substitute rice, and are critical food during droughts in Maharashtra. In recent years, mahua laddos, pickles and oil have become highly popular even in the global market, due to the rich fiber content of mahua flowers.

Since wild foods like tara and mahua are collected from forest for free, indigenous peoples are unsure how to price their food for profit. Instead, they lose time and expend labour collecting food, while also risking the loss of a vital food source in the future.

Drying the leaves of moringa (drumstick). Traditionally adivasis use dried leaves powder in their cooking. Moringa powder is now internationally sold as a superfood. Image: Purabi Bose (Odisha, 2016)

‘Superfoods’ of the future

Many of the superfoods traditionally consumed by forest-dwellers across the world are pushed into the elite market by health and wellness food industries. At urban centres, health and diet conscious consumers are promoting new commercial opportunities for these superfoods.

For instance, hardy crops like quinoa and kanawa are the nutritious food of the highland Quechua indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Peru. Today, quinoa is available at every metropolitan supermarket in India.

The downside of turning quinoa, teff, acai berries of Amazon forests, or even moringa (drumstick) into new superfoods is that urban consumers compete with indigenous peoples for food resources. Through our demand for superfoods, we push indigenous populations to eat cheaper, less nutritious, less flavourful, imported staple diets like maize, rice and wheat.

For instance, in Central India, the Baigas, among the most marginal indigenous communities, use traditional harvesting practices like hunting, fishing and gathering to feed themselves. Pihiri, Phallus rubicundus, or a wild edible mushroom, collected from the forest, is used by the Baigas both as food and as medicine to cure various ailments.

A Baiga indigenous man holding fresh harvest of pihiri mushrooms in Chhattisgarh. Image: Purabi Bose (Chhattisgarh, 2016)

Today, pihiri and wild forest foods like it have become fashionable among the urban population. Pihiri sells in cities for Rs 25 per bundle, and as a result, some Baigas have begun to collect the mushrooms and sell them to local traders at throwaway prices, or barter them for soaps and oil.

Thus, poverty, combined with the rapidly growing urban market for forest foods, induces indigenous people to giving up a rich source of micronutrients, for government-subsidised polished white rice, bought from public distribution ration shops.

The lack of security for traditional and nutritious forest foods creates high health risks for vulnerable adivasis like the Baigas.

Likewise, the rugda, a wild edible mushroom, is much sought after among other forest foods in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. The Munda and the Oraon adivasi women and men forage underneath dry deciduous broadleaf forests, mainly Sal trees, during monsoon to find them.

“Our traditional way to collect rugda and khukhri is sustainable, unlike the outsiders [mainly non-adivasi traders] who destroy the roots of our forest trees,” said Suman Munda, an adivasi woman.

Threats to forest foods

Traditionally, indigenous people have been the protectors of nature, co-existing with it rather than against it. Today, they live in fear of losing their food to outsiders invading the forests.

India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act recognises the rights of forest-dwellers over their traditional lands and resources. Despite this attempt to counter the historical injustice that impoverished and disempowered adivasi groups have faced, 70 years after India’s Independence, the majority of indigenous peoples still lack legal recognition of their traditional forest rights. Deforestation, displacement and denial of access to forest resources threaten their food security.

The introduction of oil palm, coffee, tea and rubber plantations in many regions has rapidly replaced the biodiversity of India’s forests. This shift in policy to monoculture plantation-oriented land use fails to recognise the consequences of monoculture on those who are dependent on the forest for their diets and quality of life.

Displacement for development, mining or conservation projects is another threat to sustainable living. To illustrate, the Baigas of Chhattisgarh, who have traditionally lived in the Achanakmar forest area fear displacement due to a tiger reserve project. Relocating them from their ancestral land will uproot their traditional lifestyle, forcing them to live in a non-forest landscape, and deny them access to forest foods.

Indigenous peoples have collectively managed forests – the lack of legal recognition of their land tenure, and access to collect non-timber forest produce, places restrictions upon them while foraging the forest for food. This shift puts them at a high risk for malnutrition and hunger, overall diminishing their customary food security and nutrition heritage.

A Bhil adivasi child enjoying the timru fruits in dry deciduous forests of Banswara tribal district, Rajasthan. Image: Purabi Bose (Rajasthan, 2015)

The preliminary findings of a recent study by this writer, in collaboration with professor Bernd van der Meulen at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, indicates that forest-dwelling communities in tribal India derive about 80% of nutrition (antioxidants, high fibre, rich minerals and protein) for themselves and for their livestock, from the forests.

Indigenous peoples do not see food foraged from the forest as a commodity, or in terms of its economic market value. The data collected from 22 marginal indigenous communities, inhabiting diverse landscapes all over India, showed that they value this food highly, for its health benefits, flavours as well as its deep-rooted connection with indigenous identity and life.

The unique diversity of customary forest foods, and the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples may hold the key to the nutrition security, and climate of our country. Rather than rampant consumption, our forests need protection.

Purabi Bose is producing an independent documentary film about tribal India’s forest rights, whilst researching land tenure and agro-food in South America and South Asia. She is a consultant within the Indigenous Peoples team at the U.N. FAO.