Present scenario of user knowledge and availability of Wild Edible Plants in Male Mahadehswara Hills, South India
Contributed to the ISE Newsletter by Harisha Ranganahalli Puttahariyappa
I have been chronicling the use of Wild Edible Plants (WEPs) species in the Male Mahadeshwara (MM) Hills Reserve Forest region since 2009. The motivation for this study came through interactions with the community, which time and again returned to the subject of disappearing useful species. MM Hills communities , being in a reserve forest area, have always had access to forest land. This too was useful in ATREE’s (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) continuing perusal of the role of forests in the lives and livelihoods of forest dwelling communities.
I tried to contextualize what this resource of WEPS means for poor rural households of the Soliga and Lingayat communities. How the knowledge concerning WEPs availability, seasonality, phenology, use and recipes is now part of traditional knowledge. And also how agriculture intensification and economic development are undermining the importance of wild edible plants in food culture and nutritional security of these communities. Research shows that while WEPs do not bridge the existing gaps in nutrition, without them, this gap would be much wider.
An inventory of WEPs that these communities have traditionally used lists a diverse 92 wild plant species, belonging to 68 genera, spread across 38 families. These include leaves, fruits and tubers. Plants from the Amaranthus, Cleome, Solanum and Dioscoria genera: annesoppu (Celosia argentea L.), kaddisoppu (Jasminum pubescens Willd.), sundekai (Solanum species), sodlihannu (Scutia myrtina (N. Burman) Kurz, J.), murkihannu (Buchanania lanzan Sprengel, J.) and noregenasu (Dioscorea pentaphylla L.) are particularly popular.
These plants are collected from surrounding areas of natural forest, farm lands (where farmers often classify these plants as weeds), fallow lands, grazing lands, roadsides and backyards. A household typically uses 12 to 130 kg of wild plants in its diet per annum, using as many as 25 species collected from the wild per household (Harisha et al 2011). Grazers, away from home for the entire day, used to live off the land, on WEPs only.
Key findings are:
- Less intensively cultivated areas harbor more WEP species; usage of wild edibles is also higher in such areas.
- Certain wild species are more preferred than others. Households switch to other species in times of species scarcity. Collection behavior favors proximate availability: species found closer are preferred. The continued consumption of WEPs food that are not particularly palatable and that are used primarily as drought foods may also have important implications for availability.
- The relative importance of WEPs species was higher for poorer households than richer one. The poorer the family, the greater the dependency (unpublished data).
- More WEPs are consumed in times of agriculture production decline.
- Knowledge regarding use of WEPs is decided usually by gender, age or social role.
- Both communities reported a decline in the use of WEPs. The reasons vary:
• Reliance on store-bought foods and a moving away from land-based livelihoods (like grazing, farming etc.). School education has replaced traditional apprenticeships, displacing knowledge about indigenous food plants. 80% of younger generation are migrating to cities and neighboring states in search of jobs. Knowledge of WEPs is confined to elders (above 35 years of age); especially women who have been residents of forest fringe areas throughout their lives.
• Post Veerapan, the forest brigand who terrorized the region, women’s earnings from NTFP sales (e.g. firewood) have increased, NTFP collection itself is now driven by an established local market, women and men receive equal wage in the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. So women are now spending fewer hours cooking or gathering wild plants, and choose to invest time and effort in economically rewarding activities instead of subsistence level activities. A well-established public distribution system has also provided an alternative buffer against loss in nutrition and food security.
• Changes in agricultural and land use policy, infrastructure development and better access to markets has been a driver of land use change in this region. Shift to market driven commercial crops (maize, tapioca, sunflower, etc.) has significantly affected wild edible plants’ diversity, availability and use.
• In addition, natural forest, grazing land, fallows and roadsides, which were a rich source of wild edible plants, are now filled with invasive such as Lantana (Lantana camara L.) and Eupatorium (Chromolaena odoratum L.) Lantana cover is very high in natural forest and fallow land— 60% and 58% respectively— when compared to other land use categories (Aravind et al 2010). A resource mapping exercise with Soliga and Lingayaths participants revealed that in the course of a decade, more than a dozen collection locations have been abandoned due to inaccessibility and loss of wild edible plants in these locations. Research studies reveal that allopathic property of Lantana impact growth of native plants.
7. One hedging mechanism to preserve dietary diversity has been in the form of attempts to transplant select wild species that are disappearing, particularly perennial shrubs and climber species, despite issues regarding water availability.
WEPs play an important role during droughts and food shortages for rural agricultural households. Such plants are innately resistant and adaptive to micro climatic change such as low rainfall, high temperature etc., especially in comparison to introduce or exotic plant species. This has been proven in several ecology, conservation and restoration studies. However since wild plants fulfill a subsistence need and occupy fallow lands and forests, both of which are open accessed and poorly managed (except farm lands), these wild plants are underestimated and not captured in national economic assessments.
WEPs use is more like a living link with the surrounding habitat and a keystone of culture, but not just food and income. Therefore, the decline of traditional ways of life and decreased use of WEPs are interlinked. This is vital when we talk about households that work in near-subsistence circumstances.
Contributed to the ISE Newsletter by R.P. Harisha1
Of the over 15000 (33.1%) higher plant species in Indian tropical forest, a wide range of them are harvested for WEH purposes. In particular, dozens of plants are used as wild food plants; harvested from and around arable fields, scrub wood lands, wetlands, and homesteads. Several families of plants are used, with the genera Amaranthus, Cleome, Solanum and Dioscoria being the most conspicuous. The amount of wild edible plants consumed in forest fringe areas of India are known to range from 12 to over 130 kg per household per year, with a single household using as many as 25 species. However, not much information exists on the cultivation and domestication of most of these wild edible plants. The socio-economic status of individual households (e.g., Wealth, gender of household head, location of community and culture) could potentially influence the use of wild edible plants. In the Malai Madeshwara Hills Reserve Forest of Southern India, the mean consumption frequency of wild edible plants per household and per capita was higher for poorer households than the richer households.
Of the over 15000 (33.1%) higher plant species in Indian tropical forest, a wide range of them are harvested for WEH purposes. In particular, dozens of plants are used as wild food plants; harvested from and around arable fields, scrub wood lands, wetlands, and homesteads. Several families of plants are used, with the genera Amaranthus, Cleome, Solanum and Dioscoria being the most conspicuous. The amount of wild edible plants consumed in forest fringe areas of India are known to range from 12 to over 130 kg per household per year, with a single household using as many as 25 species. However, not much information exists on the cultivation and domestication of most of these wild edible plants. The socio-economic status of individual households (e.g., Wealth, gender of household head, location of community and culture) could potentially influence the use of wild edible plants. In the Malai Madeshwara Hills Reserve Forest of Southern India, the mean consumption frequency of wild edible plants per household and per capita was higher for poorer households than the richer households.In spite of the importance of wild edible herbs in the complex livelihood network that involves extraction from marginal lands and agro-ecosystems, their economic and land restoration potentials are little known.
Therefore, the assessment of the value of lesser-known but useful plant species must tally their contributions to biodiversity and conservation and the environment in which they occur. The biggest challenges facing the conservation of wild edible species, just as several other species, is cultivating them ex-situ, domestication, and the management practices associated with them. Conservation benefits of herbaceous species may be through their ability to adapt and provide ground cover with the potential to minimize soil erosion. They may also contribute to improving the humus content of the soil through their root systems, and be ploughed to provide green manure in organic viticulture. Regrettably, herbaceous species well adapted to their local environments are often classified as weeds; they face replacement with more costly non-endemic species to meet soil and water conservation needs, which has long term repercussions for local species diversity and endemism.
1R.P. Harisha is a Research Associate, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Royal Enclave, Sriramapura, Jakkur Post. Bangalore -560064 Karnataka State, India. Email: email@example.com; Contact No: 91-80-23635555; Fax: 91-80-23530070; Website: www.atree.org
Reproduced with permission from Atlas Obscura
The living bridges of Cherrapunji, India are made from the roots of the Ficus elastica tree. This tree produces a series of secondary roots from higher up its trunk and can comfortably perch atop huge boulders along the riverbanks, or even in the middle of the rivers themselves.
Cherrapunji is credited with being the wettest place on earth, and The War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya, long ago noticed this tree and saw in its powerful roots an opportunity to easily cross the area’s many rivers. Now, whenever and wherever the need arises, they simply grow their bridges.
In order to make a rubber tree’s roots grow in the right direction – say, over a river – the Khasis use betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create root-guidance systems. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree, prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks, grow straight out. When they reach the other side of the river, they’re allowed to take root in the soil. Given enough time, a sturdy, living bridge is produced.
The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional, but they’re extraordinarily strong – strong enough that some of them can support the weight of fifty or more people at a time. Because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time – and some of the ancient root bridges used daily by the people of the villages around Cherrapunji may be well over five hundred years old.
One special root bridge, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, is actually two bridges stacked one over the other and has come to be known as the “Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.”
These bridges were re-discovered by Denis P. Rayen of the Cherrapunji Holiday Resort. Due to his efforts to promote interest in the bridges, the local population has been alerted to their potential worth and kept them from being destroyed in favor of steel ones. What’s more, a new root bridge is currently being grown and should be ready for use within a decade.
To see more photos, please visit Atlas Obscura
Contributed by ISE Member Amy Eisenberg1
While serving as an International Expert in Hunan Province of southwest China at the Research Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology, Jishou University in impoverished Xiangxi Autonomous Minority Prefecture, Maid Wux, my Hmong graduate student took us to her high mountain village of Hlib Jiangl in the rural reaches of Guizhou Province to celebrate Naox Niex, the Hmong New Year in November. We shared some wonderful days in her beautiful village, where the air is cool and fresh and the water is sweet. Hlib Jiangl is a remote mountain village with handsome wooden Hmong traditional houses where golden corn and millet are hung to dry beneath the eaves. Cascading terraces of diversified agriculture cover the mountainous landscape of this peaceful, highly organized and clean Hmong settlement. Hmong is Maid Wux’ first language and this beautiful and endangered local language is spoken fluently and daily in Hlib Jiangl, which is comprised of more than one thousand residents. Hmong people informed us that there are more than 160 dialects of their language spoken in China.
The Hmong of Hlib Jiangl are very kind, gracious, genuine and generous people who welcomed us with sweet songs and fed us rice wine. Pounded glutinous rice cakes are prepared and shared with guests for this very special occasion and Maid Wux’ mother stored many large cakes in the granary of their house. Glutinous rice cakes are delicious and very filling. We were invited to a number of homes for diverse and lavish feasts of soups, meats and vegetables. The Hmong use the medicinal, fragrant and refreshing buds, fruits and seeds of Zat zaid jiangl, Litsea mollis Hemsley in the Lauraceae for flavoring soups and other dishes. The globose fruits turn blue-black upon maturity and are used in Hmong culinary preparations. Litsea mollis is a deciduous shrub or small tree that grows up to 4 m tall. Its leaves are alternate and the young branchlets are covered with pubescence. This species grows in moist thickets or broad-leaved forests on mountain slopes between 600-2800 m.
The branches, leaves and fruits of Litsea mollis are processed for its aromatic oil, whose main chemical constituents are citral and geraniol, which are used as food flavorings, cosmetics and spices. Litsea seeds also contain oil and are applied as a main ingredient in soaps. The roots, fruits and seeds of this plant are all used medicinally. The seed oil is taken for stomach ailments, and the fruits are employed for treating colds, as an anodyne and antiemetic, and for regulating the flow of vital energy. Litsea imparts a light and citrus-like flavor to food, which is very pleasing to the palate and soothing for digestion. Zat zaid jiangl is an important wild plant of the region for the Hmong people of Hlib Jiangl.
A central wooden totem pole or post with detailed relief carvings is central to every Hmong village. Blood is smeared on this post in Hlib Jiangl as a sacrifice for Naox Niex – the New Year. Hmong grandmothers in Hlib Jiangl spin cotton and weave garments and tapestries of cotton fiber in the village square for Naox Niex. Hmong clothing is intricately embroidered with representations of animals and plants of the region. Intergenerational designs were developed long ago by great grandmothers and their elders, who gave the significant motifs to their children. The offspring have kept these images alive and were inspired to build upon them and create other patterns. Today, these dynamic and detailed depictions live, and adorn the garments of young Hmong women who will then pass them down to their children. Hmong elders of Hlib Jiangl are strong, healthy and extremely hearty women whose traditional indigenous knowledge is highly respected and valued. The young watched their elders weaving and spinning with great interest. We hope that the Hmong youth will glean these specialized techniques that have been intergenerational for many centuries.
Indigofera tinctoria L. is a plant in the Fabaceae that produces a natural blue-black colorant that is widely used to dye detailed Hmong batik works. Gossypium L. in the Malvaceae is grown in nearby fields for spinning and weaving cloth that is dyed blue-black with Indigofera. Hmong silversmiths create intricate ancestral designs in their silverwork that are representative of their history, stories, teachings and natural environment. Magnificent silver headdresses adorn young Hmong women in their finely embroidered traditional clothing.
Naox Niex is celebrated in Hmong villages throughout Guizhou Province. We traveled to Leishan and Kai Li to share the elaborate and colorful performances of Hmong music and dance. The men played and danced rhythmically and gracefully with their bamboo lusheng and manto bass instruments. Thousands of Hmong people came from many villages of the region to perform and appreciate the richness, meaning and diversity of their traditions. We traveled to Nanhua, a small and beautiful Hmong mountain village in Guizhou to share the Naox Niex performances. A large sacred tree stands in the central circle of every Hmong village. The divine tree is the ancestor of the Hmong people and sacrifices are offered to this tree.
My Hmong graduate student, Hoxsolwangd, has been researching and documenting endangered Hmong languages for more than a decade and has made significant contributions in the field of linguistics. Hmong students of China and I established an international cross-cultural relationship with the Hmong Cultural Center in the USA. Hmong people are very poor in the autonomous regions of China and rural to urban migration is widespread. The gap between the rich and poor ever widens. Timber companies have cheated Hmong villagers by taking their forest resources. There are many vital needs that are not being met and local governments are not effectively assisting Hmong peoples and their impoverished villages in southwest China. Gender inequity is an unfortunate reality in these areas and girls have lagged behind with regard to basic education, which their families were required to pay for. If unaffordable, young girls did not attend school but helped with work at home. Poverty and inequity are violations of human rights. There are many homeless elders and children and developmentally disabled in the autonomous regions of China. I strongly believe that the local governments are failing the Hmong people who pick through garbage heaps looking for food to eat and recyclables to sell.
We resided in a mid-subtropical montane climatic zone in the Wuling Mountains of Xiangxi Autonomous Minority Prefecture, where it snows and freezes in the winter, however my ethnic minority graduate students did not have heat or hot water in their dormitories, which lack basic life necessities. Some have children living in their dorms without these vital utilities. I contacted various international organizations and the Chinese government for assistance. If China can host international tourists for the Olympics, then I sincerely maintain that with transparency and right motivation, China can provide better living conditions for the ethnic minority peoples of the most populated nation in our world.
1Amy Eisenberg is an Associate Scholar with the Center for World Indigenous Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography by John Amato, RN; email@example.com. See more photos in John’s online gallery.