As climate change alters agriculture, forest food could be the answer. India’s indigenous Kondhs prove it

India’s indigenous Kondh community has relied on forest food for millennia. As climate change reduces agricultural yields, this source of nutrition could be crucial for food security.

As agriculture and climate change are victims and causes of each other, with effects such as drought affecting land productivity, reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which include achieving global food security and ending hunger by 2030 has become even more challenging. In view of this, forests can play a crucial role as the basis of a sustainable food system – as has been the norm in the Kondh community, an indigenous group spread across the forests and hilly regions of the south of India’s Odisha state, for millennia.

Read more: India, how indigenous farmers are developing climate resilient agriculture

Fruits and mushrooms harvested in the forests
On display: fruits and mushrooms harvested in the forests of Odisha © Basudev Mahapatra

The forest in the Kondh community

The forest is central to the life, culture and food system of the Kondhs. “It’s our god, our mother who takes care of us and fulfils all our needs. Had there been no forest we wouldn’t have existed,” Nanda Mambalaka, a Kondh woman from Tada village in Rayagada district explains.

“For these people trees, food in the wild, flora and fauna make the forest an eco-socio-cultural universe that sustains life and meaning,” says Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit engaged with tribal communities to promote ecological agriculture as the foundation of food security and sovereignty.

Read more: India, tribal women are leading the conversion to organic agriculture

Forest food exhibition
Women food harvesters explain forest food to visitors at an exhibition © Basudev Mahapatra

Perennial food source

“Except for the staple crops like millets and rice, the rest of our food comes from the forest throughout the year,” Lachhna Paleka of Leling Padar village in Rayagada points out. In such forest dependent communities, “between 12 and 24 per cent of cooked food is comprised of food harvested in the wild. This doesn’t include fruits and berries that are eaten raw”: these are the findings of a study conducted by Living Farms in collaboration with a team of scientists from the Basudha Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation.

“It’s an uninterrupted food supply because wild food species are more resilient to climatic vagaries than any cultivated crop,” says ecologist and lead scientist of the study, Doctor Debal Deb. “During my 50-year lifetime, we’ve never experienced a situation of acute food scarcity. When a crop is damaged, the forest is there to feed us,” Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village explains.

Read more: India, conserving rainwater in subsurface soil to fight water scarcity

Source of nutrition, forest products

So in the face of climate change, forests provide nutritional security to the Kondh people. Honey is a rich source of amino acids, minerals and enzymes, and some of the leaves, mushrooms and tubers harvested in the forest have high amounts of beta-Carotene, minerals like iron, manganese and zinc, soluble proteins and antioxidants, the study finds.

During the year long investigation, “we found that households consuming at least 20 per cent of their cooked food from the forest on average show no signs of malnutrition, prima facie, at all,” says Doctor Deb while urging for further quantification of data on this. “The households that consume a smaller amount of forest food, and are more dependent on the market and cultivated foods show more signs of malnutrition,” he adds.

Read more: Malnutrition in India, why it continues to be a threat 70 years after independence

Minerals in forest food
Nutritional analysis shows high mineral content in forest food consumed by the Kondhs of Odisha © Basudev Mahapatra

Filling the nutritional deficit

Worldwide, malnutrition is on the rise with 815 million people going hungry every day, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Projections show that agricultural yields are set to drop up 20 per cent in some areas as a result of climate change and the world population is to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050.

Read more: From Bt cotton to GM mustard, two decades of corporate corruption and scientific fraud

In a scenario such as this one, forest food is another crucial element to fill the nutritional deficit caused by the impact of climate change on agriculture. The relationship between the Kondh community and the forest testifies it.

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