Kale, Chipotle, broccoli, artichoke, and other exotic global food have become familiar to us urban dwellers now. Food bloggers and Instagrammers have a field day posting vibrant pictures of different types of food. However, let me ask you one thing- how often have you come across wild plants of Indian forests in urban restaurants? Do words like Kaddisoppu (Jasminum trichotomum) or Javane soppu even ring a bell? Mostly, they don’t because the voices that could’ve made these Indian wild plants popular have been subdued historically. An indigenous tribe called the Soliga, from Karnataka’s Male Madeshwara Hills, has an incredible database of edible forest plants. Soliga in Kannada means “children of bamboo”. Soligas are natural botanists. It is a collective shame that our society neither makes use of their knowledge nor values it. Edible leaves such as Kaddisoppu and Javanesoppu that are available in the forest have a very high content of pro-vitamin A (Beta Carotene), antioxidants, and soluble protein. These leaves are rich in digestible iron, zinc, and manganese. Unfortunately, the supply chain of these leaves, tubers, and fruits starts and ends in locals areas around forests.
Thanks to Dr. C Made Gowda, a first-generation Soliga, who has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences and his published research , we now have a first-hand account of his tribe’s traditional knowledge and conservation. His village in the Biligiri Ranganath (BR) Hills was suddenly declared as a tiger reserve overnight in 2010, without any consultation with the resident Soligas. In 2006, the Karnataka Forest Department had banned collection of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) such as honey, lichen, gooseberry and amla, in the sanctuary. In 2011, Gowda completed the documentation of over 400 locations in the forests including sacred groves, which are of cultural significance to his people.
After a long fight, finally in 2015, 25 Gram Sabhas of the Soligas got community forest rights (CFR) recognition under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which means they could now collect, own and dispose of MFP from the reserve. Dr. C Made Gowda now works with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). He works towards participatory resource monitoring of sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest produce by the Soliga tribal people, who live in and around the forests of BRT.
For the tribal communities, the forest is not just a source of food but is also a part of their identity. Wild Edible Plants (WEPs) play an important role during droughts and food shortages for rural agricultural households. Such plants are innately resistant and adaptive to micro-climatic change such as low rainfall, high temperature, etc., especially in comparison to introduced or exotic plant species. The Soligas can even predict the availability of WEPs with respect to micro-climatic changes, indicating a long-term intimate knowledge of their surroundings. This is a lesson on how forests must be co-managed by tribal communities if we wish to have a future for Earth’s biodiversity.
About the author: Aditi Patil is currently employed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a young professional. With a Masters in Development Studies, she has previously worked on community-conservation research projects with WWF-India, Columbia University, and the Gujarat Forest Department.