Forests, the fast disappearing treasure troves of forest dwellers

Forests, the fast disappearing treasure troves of forest dwellers

Forests are disappearing at a fast rate in India. One of the major threats to forests in recent years have been the conversion of forest areas for non-forestry uses like mining, river valley projects, roads, highways etc. This rapid privatisation of forest areas and lack of recognition of the rights of forests dwellers has been a contentious issue over many years in India.

Forests not only provide a range of natural resources, but also support a large section of forest dwellers living on the fringes that depend on forests for non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that include products other than timber that are naturally produced in forests such as mahua seeds, tendu leaves, sal seeds, kaunch seeds, chironjee, wild honey, bael, jamun, karanj seeds etc to meet their food, fodder, fibre, medicine and other needs.

NTFPs - crucial livelihoods sources for forest dwellers

Studies show that forest dwellers, especially tribal populations collect Rs. two trillion (Rs. 200,000 crore) worth of non-timber forest products (NTFP) from the country’s forests. While the population of the tribal communities in India is 104.3 million (10.43 crore) as per official data, about 90 percent of them live in rural areas and are primarily dependent on NTFPs for their livelihoods, besides farm work.

NTFP provides critical subsistence to tribal populations, especially primitive tribal groups such as hunter gatherers and the landless during the lean seasons. Most of the NTFPs are collected and used or sold by women in the forest-fringe areas.

Threats to NTFPs

While NTFPs are gaining attention as a means to poverty alleviation, participatory conservation and food security, a number of global studies have found that local and indigenous knowledge and practices of tribal communities are disappearing at a rapid rate due to globalisation, modernisation, privatisation of forests and market integration.  

In India, more than 3000 plant species produce economically useful NTFPs. The Himalayan regions are extremely rich in biodiversity and harbour a wide range of NTFPs due to their wide-ranging geographical, physiological, topographical, and ecologic zones.  A large number of NTFPs are used for food, especially by the tribal communities in the Himalayas . However, they continue to be threatened due to factors such as land use changes, deforestation and over-grazing.

While documentation of NTFPs is crucial to devise strategies to protect forests and NTFPs in the Himalayan region, this information continues to be inadequate in Sikkim as compared to the other Himalayan states.

A study titled 'Role of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in sustaining forest-based livelihoods: a case study of Ribdi village of West Sikkim, India' published in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge aims at documenting the indigenous knowledge on the use of NTFPs by the local communities of Ribdi village, West Sikkim, India; gain information on the important and frequently cited species of plants for their protection and sustainable management and discusses means to improve the socio-economic conditions of the tribals.

Forest resources serve as a lifeline for the tribals

Ribdi village has a total population of 1034 persons with 229 households.The dominant community staying in the village includes the Sherpas followed by other communities such as Rai, Subba, Chettri, Pradhan, Tamang, Bishwakarma, Manger, etc. Most people practise farming on their agricultural lands. The study finds that the forest resources (NTFPs) that the locals in Ribdi village use include -plants as medicines, wild edibles, fodder, fuel wood, for construction and handicrafts and religious purposes. Medicinal plants account for the highest number of species, followed by wild edibles, fodder and fuel wood, and those used for religious reasons and for handicrafts.

  • Medicinal plants

The locals practise traditional methods of healing and widely depend on forest produce for their medicines. Sherpas are experts in the art of healing and the study identified twenty four plant species that were valued for their healing properties with majority identified as herbs (54 percent) followed by trees (21 percent), shrubs (17 percent), climbers (4 percent) and ferns (4 percent). Among the used parts, leaves were the most commonly used, followed by roots and rhizomes, fruits, whole plants, flowers, stems and shoots. Majority of the (25 percent) of the plant species were used to treat dysentery, diarrhoea and indigestion, while others were mainly used to treat fever, cough and cold, for application on cuts, bruises and wounds, treating vomiting and nausea, skin diseases and scabies while few plant species were also used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, toothaches and headaches.

  • Wild Edibles

A total of 22 species were collected and consumed by the tribals. Majority of them (41 percent) included trees followed by shrubs, ferns, herbs and climbers. Fruits (55 percent) were consumed the most followed by fronds and leaves and the fruits, vegetables, leaves and fronds were used in various preparations ranging from pickles and chutneys to tea and wine. 

  • Fodder

While majority of the residents in Robdi village had cattle and obtained some amount of fodder from their agricultural land, it was hardly enough to take care of the needs of the cattle. As a result many villagers collected fodder from the nearby forests for their livestock. Thirteen species of fodder plants were identified in the study that helped to make the fodder variable and nutritious for the cattle. These fodder plants were mostly trees (69 percent), followed by shrubs, herbs and climbers.

  • Fuel wood

Most of the households in the village had Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), yet wood was used as fuel for cooking. Trees planted on agricultural lands and those from the nearby forests were used to collect fuel wood. Eleven plant species were identified that provided fuelwood in mountainous areas as it was easily accessible and was available free of cost. Alnus nepalensis (Uttis) was the most common tree species used for the purpose of fuel wood in the area due to its easy and adequate availability.

  • Construction and Handicrafts

Eleven plant species were identified in the area that were used for making of handicrafts and used for construction by the tribals. These mostly included trees (73 percent) followed by herbs and shrubs. Trees and shrubs were mostly used for making furniture, handles for daggers, ropes, baskets, containers, serving spoons, boundary fences, mats and prayer wheels.

Religious Plants

Sherpas, the dominant community in this village, practised Buddhism. Eleven plants species, including some trees and herbs were used by the Sherpas to make incense used during their prayers.

Forests harbour rich biodiversity and support tribal livelihoods

The study found that as high as 61 plant species (belonging to 56 genera and 36 families) were used as NTFPs (medicinal plants, wild edibles, fodder, fuel wood, religious and construction and handicrafts). The dependence of the locals on NFTPs for their livelihoods and survival was very high and the locals had immense knowledge on the uses of a variety of plants found in the forests. However, they lacked mechanisms to sustainably manage the available resources.

While threats to forests and forests dwelling communities are many, current conflicts and discourses around forest governance have continued to raise their voices against attempts at privatisation of forests and vesting of control in the hands of forest departments while ignoring the rights of the forest dwellers to the forests and forest produce. 

The study calls for the need to acknowledge the traditional knowledge of the tribal communities and argues for the need to support tribal livelihoods through systematic documentation and evaluation of the existing knowledge and exploring the potential of NTFPs for commercial cultivation through sustainable management of the available resources. Proper marketing with balance in the demand and supply is also an area that needs to be explored for promoting economic growth of the tribals while at the same time helping in protection of the rich biodiversity of the region, states the paper.

The paper can be accessed here