In Nilgiris, Wild Foods Are Lost Forever
By Dr. Lakshmi Unnithan
NILGIRIS, (IANS) – Accessing individual and community forest resource rights is a significant milestone for traditional forest dwellers. Last November, 13 villages in Pillur region of the Nilgiris were granted community forest rights under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers. But will it bring back the disappearing traditional food into the Adivasi platter?
Only a slim chance exists as forests have made way for monoculture over the decades, with the communities dwelling there pushed out. Their lifestyles have changed, and so have their food habits.
Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas, Irulas, Paniyas and Kattunayakars are the main tribal groups found in the region.
The Nilgiris has witnessed a slow yet steady change over a period of 200 years, with exotic monoculture plantations of tea, silver oaks, and eucalyptus taking over the landscape.Only 10 percent of the original Shola grasslands is left. By 1988, 11,000 hectares came under cultivation. Large-scale plantations caused more invasive species to expand into previously unexplored regions, and now these species make up 70 percent of what were formerly native grasslands in the plateau.
Janaki, a community health nurse for over 30 years, still remembers how several families were thrown out of their forest homes when she was just five. “One fine day, the Tamil repatriates from Sri Lanka took over our lands, cleared the forests and started tea and pepper plantations.Even our present settlement was once a thick forest. It gradually became a town. In fact, no dense forest exists anywhere in the neighborhood now,” says the Betta Kurumba tribal.
Mullu Kurumba tribal KT Subramaniam says migration happened a generation before he was born. “Tribal communities had no idea of land ownership and title claims, and many among us failed to prove ownership.” This group did not get land titles as they mainly hunt and forage for forest produce and were not farmers traditionally. The same was true with Paniyas. With no land access, all of them had to shift out of forests.
Be it for medicine, health or ceremonies, tribal people had relied only on a wide variety of wild foods, native fungi, plants, millets, and wild honey for countless generations.
Mallika, a Irula leader, claims the increased prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure among the rural and tribal communities by the age of 40 shows how much their eating habits have changed. Less dependence on the forest has led to less intake of nutritious food. The production of jackfruit, mango, tamarind, mushrooms, and tubers in the wild has declined considerably in the Nilgiris.
One tribal reminisces how her grandparents used to cultivate ragi, samai, cholam, rice, wheat, sesame, and mustard in the forest farmlands. Instead of selling, the produce was shared in the community.
The recipe for malnourishment is quite evident. One tribal says, “We usually consume rice thrice a day with tomato chutney and kantari chilies. Vegetables and greens are mostly missing from our diet. With the intensity of monsoon rains increasing in the last few years, sourcing crab and fish has become difficult. Thala pazham, athi pazham, koppa pazham, wild bananas, mushrooms and tubers are not common in the forest these days due to climate change.”
At the same time, cultivation on forest fringes has increased human-animal conflict. Elephants devour their favorite millets, whereas a reduced herbivorous population in the wild makes predators turn to livestock.
Medicinal greens for treating fever, menstrual issues, skin diseases and wounds have also vanished.
The challenges in getting life on track are quite evident in the way Kattunayakar population in the district has come down. Income was affected when forests near Mudumalai National Park became protected and the small plantations and estates within the sanctuary where tribals found work were either sold off or relocated.
Keystone Foundation, which has been reviving traditional crops in the last three decades and helping tribal laborer’s return to their roots to revive their fallow lands, promotes the cultivation of ragi, thinai and samai, besides multi-cropping.
Asked if it is possible to return to their old habitats and traditional dietary practices, one person remarks, “It is impossible. The rich and abundant forests are gone. We need to educate our children. That is the only way forward.”