Palari Kadraka’s dietary habits are changing. On many evenings she cooks soya chunks with potatoes and arhar dal to go with rice. In the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, where she resides, women collect saag (leafy greens) from the forest. Palari is especially fond of the Gandhari saag and another locally known as ‘Jaba Kucho’.

The woman belonging to the Dongria Kondh tribe also brings other wild foods like mushrooms, bamboo shoots and five kinds of tubers. “Many of us collect insects from the forest. When we consume wild foods sourced from the jungle our health does not suffer. We don’t feel weak or fall ill that easily,” said Palari.

In Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, Baiga tribal women gather mushrooms and fruits from the forest.

But these foods on which the community has depended on for years may soon be a thing of the past. Palari’s husband Sumburu Kadraka sounds the alarm bells when he says that wild foods are vanishing. Many tribal families who used to collect different kinds of leafy greens from the forest now find it hard to get them.

In India’s tribal areas where the malnutrition rate is high, forest foods can reduce hunger and provide nutrition. But the sad news is that such foods are diminishing due to climate change, deforestation, expansion of monoculture plantations and the dependency of people on markets for food.

This woman goes daily to the forest to get wild foods.

Susanta Dalai, who has been working on uncultivated forest foods in the Niyamgiri hills for many years, said that the commercial plantation of a few varieties of crops based on market demand is behind the destruction of forest in the area. “The ecosystem of a particular region in such cases is badly damaged. Focusing on ginger, pineapple and turmeric in Niyamgiri is a mistake.”

As Niyamgiri has been witnessing the cultivation of commercial crops on a large-scale, a padayatra will be organised soon. On this occasion, the bejuni or the female priest will preside over the community to discuss matters.

A Baiga woman outside her home in Dindori.

This year’s Forest Day theme as celebrated on March 21 and set by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was ‘forests and health’. Around the world, nearly one billion people depend on wild foods for nutritious diets, the FAO says. Many species found in the forest also have medicinal values.

A woman sits with a basket full of green fruits gathered from the forest.

Naresh Biswas has been working for many years on forest foods in the Baiga area of Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori district. “Women in this region bring a variety of foods from the forest. But it has reduced to a great extent these days. Easy access to markets is attracting tribal communities these days towards a few readily available types of foods,” he said.

Biswas felt that access to forest foods is compromised where communities are banned from entering forests or in places where land titles under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been denied to them. To ensure continuation of the practice of forest foods in dietary habits, forest development is vital. “Popular forest foods need to be brought into areas where the community has received ownership over forests,” added Biswas.

Many different kinds of mushrooms are collected from the forest during monsoon.

The man, who has been spreading awareness in Baiga-dominated Dindori, is doing all he can to preserve the culture of forest foods among the Baigas. In a few instances, fruit trees available in the forest are being planted in places where people can get easy access to them. Some forest foods are also being grown in farmlands or in nutrition gardens like tubers.

In Niyamgiri, many varieties of forest foods have declined in the past 10-12 years. Dalai, who regularly posts about the benefits of forest foods on his social media handles, said tribals should be able to consume forest foods throughout the year. Only then malnourishment can be tackled.

“Pregnant women go inside jungles as they know which foods will help them in their delicate condition. But now they find it difficult to find such foods. So, they buy things from the market,” Dalai added.

Forest foods are important for tribals. A FAO report, Forests for human health and well-being published in 2020, says that in 22 countries in Asia and Africa, 120 wild foods are used. In India, 50 million households supplement their food with such foods.

Fruits and mushrooms on display.

Kavita Marandi is a member of Lahanti, a Santhali youth club, based in Jamui district of Bihar. The members of the club have documented wild foods through videos. “We inform community members what to eat when and at which time seasonal wild foods can be found inside forests. About 30 forest foods have been documented so far,” said Marandi.

At a time when forest foods are vanishing, documentation may help in remembering them. Another member, Kusum Hansda, said most Santhals in her village Gobindpur have turned to the market under the influence of education.

But the Lahanti club’s initiative is on even though making documentaries has stopped for the time being. “I give tips to pregnant women on what to eat for good health. Bathua saag is available around the month of January. It should be consumed with rice. Then there are many kinds of ber (jujubes) which can be collected from the forest,” Kusum said.

Meanwhile, Dalai has plans for Niyamgiri where the objective is how to increase the consumption of wild foods and traditional millets as 2023 is the International Year of Millets. At present, many tribal families depend on public distribution system rice and even for that they have to cover a long distance. There is a plan to plant traditional species of trees like jackfruit and jamun in the monsoon.