Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme

“Jiwar” greetings from Bastar, the herbal state

June 28, 2003

by Jenne de Beer (Field Coordinator NTFP Exchange Programme) and Madhu Ramnath (LeAF)

In February, a two-day NTFP meeting took place in Jagdalpur, the capital of the district of Bastar, Central Eastern India.

After spending a night and a day in the village of Kakalura to discuss the nitty gritty of the soon-to-be meeting, the ‘EP preparatory committee’ proceeded to the sleepy town of Jagdalpur.

Over there, about 35 people from different parts of India were involved in fairly lively discussions. Three main NTFP related issues emerged and were focused upon. These were: a) policies and rights; b) markets and value-addition; c) depleting resource base. Some highlights of the discussion are given below. Please note that more details can be found in the minutes, available on request.

ISSUES

A.     Policies and Rights related to NTFPs
For a start, keynote speaker Kala shared the following observations: “Bastar is a place to which outsiders came to ‘take away’ in the form of material wealth or knowledge, rarely ever to give back. We tribals are so simple (I realise now). We always had an attitude of ‘Okay, let them get their way’. Therefore, from now on the right to livelihood of forest dwellers depending on NTFPs should not be compromised under any circumstances. Such a perspective allows us to move towards the idea of ownership, similar in content to the Ancestral Domain Title as, what I understand, they are working at in the Philippines.” In fact, as another participant remarked, in some remote areas, particularly in former princely states, such as Orissa and Southwest Bastar, those rights still survive – although contested by the forest department, the mafia and others.

Kala also shared her experience with ‘revolutionising’ the village-based NTFP cooperative of which she is chairperson. “Previously, the cooperative was dominated by outsiders (e.g. Forest departments). The Adivasi were represented, but only by some of the men. Our men, though, are hardly involved in NTFP collecting. Over the years, we managed to reverse that situation: the outsiders are out and the board is now almost entirely run by women, that is women who are all active in collecting.”  In the subsequent discussion, that ‘outside control’ is a hot issue in most places.

Other issues that came up:
Forest departments (FD) are not used to incorporate Adivasi values in relation to forest in their working plans.
Several legal instruments are at play with regards to NTFPs, the chief ones being the Forest Acts and the provisions of the Gram Sabha. Confusion with regard to the legal instruments is aggravated by laws that vary between different states.

B.     Market & Value Addition
Insufficient accurate market information is available.
Collectors usually require immediate payment for their goods. A fact often taken advantage of by traders. Goods are inappropriately priced (e.g. barter with salt), while weights and measures are often faulty. In turn collectors are also known to adulterate their produce (or to wet them to increase the weight), therefore being partly responsible for the falling prices.

In addition, lack of proper storage in the villages (e.g. for mahua) forces the collectors to sell quickly, thereby further weakening their bargaining positions towards traders.

Many of the state marketing bodies are bureaucratic or delay payments – making local collectors succumb to traders.

Little value addition takes place in or near the villages.

Subsistence use: one has to weigh food security aspects before promoting (further) commercialisation. A good example is tendu. Its leaves play no role in the lifestyle of the Adivasi people but the fruit does, being an important part of the diet through the summer months and during hunts or long journeys in the forest. The external stress on the leaves caused by intensive commercial collecting (it is widely used as cigarette wrapper) has resulted in a dearth of the fruit, not only for the people but also for several mammals.

C.     Resource Base
Practically all NTFPs are down.
Depletion of resources has been caused by the following causes/trends:
Commercial pressures are increasingly organised and exploitative;
NTFPs are harvested from deeper forest areas;
Increasing pressure on land, also due to more forest areas coming under the ‘protected category’ of the state;
Traditional harvesting restrictions are less practised/enforced;
FD management tends to clear all lianas and undergrowth from the forest with severe negative impact on wildlife, medicinal plants, etc..
Information on status quo and trends is insufficiently available.

Solutions to focus on in the (near) future:
Lobby for Adivasi rights to use and manage ancestral forest; sensitise FD about this issue.
Accept obligations that come with rights. Step one: invigorate traditional harvesting restrictions and define ownership in terms of ‘I don’t do those harmful things, therefore it is mine’.
Actively monitor any changes in the resource base. Developing a database of locally available resources would be a requisite for effective monitoring.
Push for the development of true and mature tribal NTFP co-operatives everywhere. (There is also still work to be done at the higher echelons!)
When the co-operatives are in full swing, establish simple market information system and use matrix to explore potential of new markets and value addition.

By then, we were almost reaching the end of the talking part. After a short visit to the department of forestry’s ‘high tech forest’ (drip-drip), a final evaluation and planning session took place under a large sal tree in the botanical garden of the same department. Because the relaxed facilitation of this session was in the hands of Prakruti’s Pandu, it took us less then 40 minutes to rap it all up and come to final conclusions.

EVALUATION OF MEETING

Happy:
‘Women of Bastar’: we are all conscious of depleting resources and extremely happy that such a meeting took place with our concerns at heart. Though other such meetings are held, this is the FIRST TIME we are involved. Very positive that a start had been made and keen to see it through.
‘Others’: More productive/concrete and a better mood than most. Particularly positive was the direct input of Adivasi participants.

Unhappy:
One point of critique ventilated in a song by some of the tribal women present: ‘Outside participants did not contribute much in terms of singing and dancing!!!’

IMMEDIATE FOLLOW-UP

Following concrete activities are planned for the next 6 months:
Strengthen traditional harvesting restraints in Bastar tribal villages: advertise and enforce this policy starting next season with wild mango. Later to be extended to such products as tendu leaves, gooseberries and wild almond. The same will also be discussed soon in Orissa.
Produce a bi-lingual manual documenting the experience of the tribal NTFP co-operative in Bastar and organise exchange between co-operatives in Orissa, Bastar and Himachal Pradesh.
Keystone runs network secretariat, incl. distribution of information.
‘Community Forestry’, a magazine produced by Orissa-based RCDC, makes available 4 pages in each issue for information from the NTFP network.
Compose a plan/project proposal for the long term.

With the long day waning, it was time for something more festive. A small but professional orchestra, made up of castless people from town, arranged themselves around a nearby fountain. Wind instruments and violins got tuned. The drums were ready to give it a go. Was anything missing? Perhaps… Brownish leaf cups were being made at top speed! Followed by the rapid unloading of bottles and jerry cans of freshly brewed mahua from an arriving rusty motorcycle.

Soon, participants were seen dancing and singing between the trees. And they were joined, oh yes they were, by a colorful brigade of woman workers who had just ended their shift maintaining the high tech forest.

Below some of the NTFPs passing the review during the Bastar meeting:

Ø      Gooseberries
Ø      Tendu fruits and leaves
Ø      Mahua blossoms
Ø      Sal seeds, resin and leaves
Ø      Apis dorsata honey
Ø      Arrowroot
Ø      Wood apple
Ø      Wild almond & mango
Ø      Kusum seed oil
Ø      Soap nut
Ø      Gum karya

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