October 2015 By Raina Gadgil Raina Gadgil interviews environmental journalist, Aparna Pallavi, whose mission is to bring together the urban palate and the wild uncultivated forest food of tribal culture, free of all carbon footprints and eminently sustainable When we look down at our plates today, a question comes to mind. Would our forefathers even recognize the things we eat as food? With fast, processed and ‘imported’ foods dominating our kitchens, we have forgotten about uncultivated and native plants and food items (that serve as a dietary backbone for many tribes in India). We also seem to disregard the crucial and symbiotic human-forest relationship. Often we don’t even think about the true cost of food that ends up in our kitchens. Here we talk to Nagpur-based environmental journalist Aparna Pallavi who has been been researching tribal food practices, particularly of Central India, for a decade and a half. Aparna has been working passionately to bring about an awareness to the urban world, so people can work together to create a new food system for manifold environmental and nutritional benefits. Tell us a bit about uncultivated forest foods and indigenous food traditions. Agriculture has a 3,000-year history, but for ages before that humans were hunter-gatherers and have exclusively lived on uncultivated foods originally provided by nature. Even today indigenous communities consume these foods in large quantities. Among the Madia who live in the Bhamragadh hills of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, foraging for wild food like greens, fruits, mushrooms, roots, tubers, fish, crab, insects, and honey, is a daily activity and makes up a substantial part of their diet. Wild foods are highly season specific, and tribes have their wisdom regarding when a food should be consumed. For instance, tender peepul leaves are consumed for just about one month in March-April just before the summer, because they are considered a coolant. There are also rules about when a certain food can be harvested and how much. For instance, among the Korkus of Melghat, each family is allowed to hunt just one porcupine per year (its meat is high in calcium). Also, different communities have different wisdoms regarding certain foods. For instance, in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, the Gond tribe consumes bitter oleander flowers in large quantities but the Kamar and Kawar tribes living in the same area don’t eat it at all. What fascinates me most about wild food is its sheer variety. Once in the Dindori district of MP, a Baiga tribal showed me several grasses that we find growing commonly on roadsides, and told me that in his childhood the seeds of these grasses were cooked like rice and eaten. What was your experience working with the tribal communities of Central India and researching their food practices? Dried mahua flowers are used to make sweet rotis by tribals I first stumbled upon the existence of uncultivated foods about 20 years back in Ramtek near Nagpur, where I found a tribal man drying mahua flowers. He said his community uses the flowers to make sweet rotis, and that the flowers have health benefits. I was fascinated, and brought back a few handfuls of flowers and made some clumsy rotis, which turned out to be delicious. Later, some 15 years back, in my early days of environment journalism I again ran into mahua bhakhars (jowar rotis) in Melghat, a tribal area in the Amravati district of Maharashtra, when I had to spend a night in a Korku (a tribal community) village during the monsoons. That is when I got to hear in detail not only about more mahua recipes, but also about what mahua and other forest foods mean to the Korkus’ nutritional needs, and how the creation of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, which had blocked their access to the forests, had impacted their access to their preferred foods. I had gone to do a story on malnutrition deaths among children in the area and had been looking at the effectiveness of the public distribution and public health systems. But that night changed the direction of my story totally and I wrote the first ever story that connected the Melghat malnutrition deaths to forest rights. After this I grew interested in forest foods in earnest. I started writing about specific forest foods and documenting recipes and health benefits, and about the importance of this traditional knowledge and the role of these foods in the nutrition of forest-dwelling poor – mostly tribals and Dalits. Till date I have worked extensively with tribes of central India like Gond, Baiga, Madia, Kamar, Mahadeo Koli and Thakar. During these explorations I uncovered the many legal, political and cultural tensions that this subject was fraught with. In some areas, especially around protected areas like national parks and tiger reserves, I found that people were facing arrests for as little as collecting a few mushrooms or tubers for food. In almost all areas, I discovered the deep shame people feel about eating these foods, which they enjoyed and at the same time consider ‘inferior’ to market foods. I found conflicts brewing between generations over these foods. The older generation wants to conserve the knowledge and practices around their food traditions, while the younger generation is taken in by government and media propaganda. What are the benefits of the usage of uncultivated foods from an ecological standpoint? Aparna Pallavi dressed as a tribal in the house of a tribal woman Firstly, forest foods are the only foods with no carbon or ecological footprint whatsoever. These foods grow spontaneously in the forests, and are part of the ecosystem. When you source your food needs from the forest, you don’t have to clear forests for growing food – food and forest can coexist! All that is needed is sustainable harvesting. Secondly, forest foods are highly resilient to erratic weather conditions being brought about by climate change especially variation in rainfall, which has become the most important reason for crop failures worldwide in recent times. Restoring forest food traditions can go a long way in ensuring food security, apart from stemming environmental degradation, restoring green cover and what I consider most important, restoring the delicate human-forest connection. Increasingly, evidence based both on traditional knowledge and scientific study is also coming up that forest foods are more nutritious and biodiverse than conventional cultivated foods, and that they have a very important role to play in disease prevention and immunity-building and overall, ensuring better health. The International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO), a network of forest scientists, has recently recognised that forests have the potential to feed the world. In India, too, a large number of non-profit organisations are now documenting the local uncultivated foods. How does rediscovering these different food sources tie into the mainstream world? At present we are seeing a dynamic where urban food culture, which is heavy on packaged foods, junk foods and specific choices regarding ingredients and style of cooking – heavy use of oil, for instance – is coming to dictate food preferences in rural and tribal areas. With this comes a sense of certain kinds of foods, especially expensive market foods, being ‘superior’ to the usual foods eaten in the region, leading to a lot of negativity about the native foods and food culture. Some see this phenomenon as the urban ‘corrupting’ the rural. But I want to also see the broader reality – that all human beings, urban, rural or forest-dwelling – need nutritious and tasty food that satisfies their need for taste as well as good health. I see the need for a healing of our food culture, and I see this dynamic flowing from the forests to the rural and urban. I see this as having a two-way benefit; it means rediscovering their connection with the original food culture of humanity, and with that, better health, creativity in food, and relief from the monotony of mainstream food. For the custodians of the forest food tradition, it might mean much needed validation of their knowledge from sources they have grown to look up to, a chance at better terms of trade for some of their food produce and support in terms of demanding the rights that will enable them to nurture their sustainable and meaningful way of life. This was basically the vision with which I decided to quit my job and work with communities towards building up a better, healthier and more sustainable food culture. At present I am exploring the various avenues through which I can contribute to this process. I am basically working on two levels now – first, I am undertaking food journeys into the tribal areas of India to research their wild food traditions in depth, and I am also starting to work with urban conscious communities on learning to identify, cook and eat forest foods. From an urban standpoint, how would you suggest integrating more native and uncultivated nutrition sources into our diets? This is the core area of my present work, and I’m still exploring the various ways in which such an integration can happen. At present in India, the number of communities organising around healthy food is growing, but most of them are working around cultivated foods. I have found in my work that wild foods work on a different, more complex but connected dynamic. I see different strategies through which connections can be made. One is to help people identify and connect with the wild biodiversity in their own vicinity and learn how to harvest and use them. The second is to help people connect to the taste of these foods. The urban palate has become used to certain specific tastes, and I am now working on developing wild-food based recipes. At the same time, I als
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