Often overlooked in food security policies, indigenous uncultivated wild food and traditional crops is a major source of dietary diversity for tribal communities since millennia. However, these food resources and their indigenous knowledge of use are in danger of being lost.
In an early morning, Budhbari Ho, 42, with her 11 years daughter, is meticulously collecting Kuler sago (Bahunia purpurea), a kind of edible wild leaves found abundantly in Odisha’s Similipal Biosphere Reserve (SBR) area. “In cities, people buy food from the market. But we collect most of our food from forests,” explains Budhbari while showing her bamboo basket loaded with wild fruits, berries, and tubers such as kendu (Diospyros melanoxylo), chara (Buchanania lanza) and junglee aloo (Curcuma species).
Kendu can prevent malnutrition in tribal areas due its rich content of carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorous and carotene. Traditional tribal healers in Mayurbhanj district use dried powder of kendu to treat urinary, skin and blood diseases. Similarly, kendu seeds are prescribed for curing palpitation of heart and nervous breakdown. Ripe chara a kind of wild berry is edible and seed kernels are used as confectionery and sold in the local market. Wild tuber such as Junglee aloo is boiled and cook as vegetable.
The Similipal area in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is home to several scheduled tribes like Mahali, Santal, Bhumij, Bathundi, Munda, Gond and Ho including three particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) such as the Mankidia, Lodha and Hill Kharia.
For years, tribal communities have been collecting a wide array of tubers, roots, leaves, mushrooms, seeds, beverages, honey and herbs from Similipal forest zones. There is considerable overlap in ripening among different species, resulting in year-round availability wild fruits. These wild uncultivated plants and products make a significant contribution to the community’s food and nutrition security and animal food web.
“Native food is at the center of Adivasi culture,” said Machua Ho who has been documenting the indigenous food system in Similipal Biosphere Reserve area for a decade. “Native food connects us with our ancestors. These foods help us remember who we are.” The Ho Adivasi belong to Austroasiatic Munda ethnic group.
“Many of our traditional food acts as a saviour during the period of acute food scarcity,” said Laxmidhar Singh, tribal rights activist hailing from Mahurbhanj’s Thakurmunda block. In tribal areas, Singh explains, traditional knowledge of wild food plants is generally transmitted through social and cultural events. The younger generation learns to identify the plants and their parts by accompanying their parent to forests.
Erosion of indigenous food knowledge
Over the years, youth in the Similipal Biosphere Reserve area have become reluctant to consume indigenous food items. They are gradually abandoning their rich heritage of native species and foraged foods. This is happening because there has been a gap in knowledge exchange between the community’s elders and youth on the indigenous food diversity.
With the introduction of urban food culture and monocropping, the indigenous food diversity among youth is becoming extinct. This trend has resulted in decreased diversity of indigenous diets and poor intake of nutrition.
“Increased promotion of hybrid crop varieties and chemical inputs has led to changes in traditional farming practices of Adivasi communities,” said Srinibas Das, Block Project Manager, Odisha Livelihood Mission, Khunta, Mayurbhanj.
In many tribal areas, Das added, “Cash crops are replacing traditional crops which are climate-resilient, rich in nutrition, less labour intensive and need fewer agro-inputs. Loss of cereals like millets has led to poor nutrition outcomes among tribal communities.”
Commenting on this, Manohar Chawhan, a development professional working with Adivasi communities in Odisha and Chhattisgarh said, “It is high time to reinforce traditional crops, agroecological knowledge and food literacy of tribal communities to fight against rising malnutrition.”
“Amidst the changing climate, this will substantially contribute to the sustainable food culture and strengthen food and nutritional security among Adivasi communities,” believes Ashwin Kumar Das, District Project Coordinator, Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), Baripada, Mayurbhanj.
In the last few decades, the millet cultivation area had gradually declined in the tribal areas. There had been a generational gap in the knowledge and traditional recipes of millets. The Odisha Millets Mission (OMM), a flagship programme launched by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment, Government of Odisha in 2017 strived to revive millets in farms and on the plate.
Farmers are supported to adopt improved agronomic practices under millets cultivation such as the system of millet intensification, line transplanting and line sowing and using organic farming methodologies. Various cropping patterns such as border, poly, navadanya and inter-cropping have been promoted among the farmers. Recently, the programme has been scaled up to 142 blocks in 19 districts and is reaching out to over 1.50 lakh farmers and covering 81000 ha under millet cultivation.
In certain tribal areas of Mayurbhanj, farmers had stopped cultivating millets for over 20 years. “Odisha Millets Mission is a comprehensive model to bring back the glory of millets in tribal areas,” said Bijaylal Mohanta, Director, CREFTDA, a partner NGO under Odisha Millets Mission working in Jashipur block of Mayurbhanj. Many farmers lost millet seeds and to re-introduce millet in the farm, Mohanta suggests, “It has to be grown, consumed, use in traditional ceremonies and remunerative for farmers.”
“This is what we call promoting millet from farm to plate,’’ said Nila Madhab Das, OMM-Scheme Officer, Mayurbhanj, adding that only production is not enough, each stage of the value chain needs to be developed with a top priority to ensure farmer’s active participation in the entire process.
“Millet was once central to tribal culture,” said Niranjan Mahanta, Joint Director, Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment (DA&FE), Government of Odisha. Today, millet is considered as a perfect adaptation to ensure nutritional security against the changing climate. Odisha Millets Mission is therefore recognizing and asserting the value of millets in tribal areas, he emphasized.
Preserving landraces under Odisha Millets Mission
In collaboration with farmers, participatory varietal trials (PVTs) were conducted at block level to identify preferred varieties. Majority of the farmers preferred local varieties over the improved ones. Farmers producer organisations played a lead role in seed multiplication of preferred varieties through facilitating seed multiplication programmes at the community level.
Multilocation trials were also conducted bringing selected suitable finger millet varieties for mainstreaming in the public domain. participatory varietal trials is an effective method for identifying appropriate cultivars for resource-poor farmers. Odisha Millets Mission has been instrumental in assessing the performance of recommended cultivars to local germplasm.
As an ex-situ conservation strategy, a selected sample of 63 varieties of ragi landraces has been preserved in the cryogenic system in the state seed testing laboratory of Odisha. These varieties have been also grown and characterized in the Agroecological Centre at Malkangiri’s Chitrakonda block. Farmers get access to these landraces through community-managed seed centres established under Odisha Millets Mission.
“Only storing crops in genebanks is not enough. For crops to continue to evolve with pests and diseases and climate change, crop diversity needs to be cultivated,’’ said Colin Khouri, researcher at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
“It is important to analyze gaps in genebank collections starting with crop wild relatives and moving onto landraces,” said Luigi Guarino, Director of Science at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. He added, “Biology and genetics of the plants often interact with the environment. For landraces, we should understand the actions of generations of farmers. Because landraces are important to the traditional farming systems, food culture and identity of communities.”
Conserving biodiversity in our food system has two major prerequisites. First, preserving the genetic material contained in the seeds which have survived centuries of agroecological knowledge. Second, nurturing relationships with the seeds as living beings.
“Indigenous seeds adapt well in the landscape-based farming model which harbours biodiversity,” said Pulak Ranjan Nayak, seed researcher at WASSAN, Bhubaneswar. The relationship between the seeds, farmers and culture is an integral part of safeguarding biodiversity in our food system. Cultivating ancient crops like millets will mitigate climate crisis and empower millions of small-scale farmers, he underlined.
Abhijit Mohanty is a development professional and a freelance journalist covering issues of tribal and rural communities in South Asian and Central African countries.