By Abhijit Mohanty*, Niyamgiri Hills, Odisha
The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha, one of India's vulnerable tribal groups, have been living in the foothills of the Niyamgiri hill range—which spans across Rayagada and Kalahandi districts—for centuries. It is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the Eastern Ghats and to the tribal residents, it is their supreme god (they refer to the range as Niyam Raja).
The region has witnessed a history of struggle by Dongria communities to protect the Niyamgiri range from Vedanta Resources, a London-based company that was awarded a contract to mine bauxite from the hills. From the beginning, the Dongrias resisted the proposal as Niyamgiri is their source of livelihood. Thanks to the support and solidarity from community-based organisations, civil society and international agencies, the Supreme Court of India gave a historic verdict in favour of the Dongrias, banning Vedanta's mining project.
The region has witnessed a history of struggle by Dongria communities to protect the Niyamgiri range from Vedanta Resources, a London-based company.
While the Dongrias' resistance against mining got wide public attention, the other problems they face go unnoticed. Traditional crops such as millets, pulses and tubers, and the wild harvests from the forests that have ensured their food security for centuries, are on the verge of extinction. An influx of outsiders has resulted in the introduction of hybrid crops and chemicals to the hinterlands.
The Dongrias' once self-sufficient agricultural system that relied on local resources has been affected by the introduction of commercial high-yielding paddy. High-yielding crop varieties have resulted in the loss of numerous indigenous varieties with important traits. The result is that the Dongrias have become dependent on commercial seed suppliers.
Reviving indigenous crops
Now, after involving the community, landraces and uncultivated food systems are being revived to ensure the food and nutrition security of the Dongrias.
Susanta Dalai, a development professional who lives among the Dongrias to understand their low carbon lifestyle, encouraged them to revive indigenous crops to ensure food sovereignty and to build their resilience against climate change.
As part of sensitising the Dongria on the importance of preserving indigenous crops, open village days were organised. These gave them a platform to discuss, share knowledge and raise awareness about crop diversity, preservation and multiplication of endangered seed varieties. Farmers from neighbouring villages were invited to observe the demonstration plots.
The emphasis was on in-situ conservation of landraces. The Dongrias were sensitised on the importance of preserving and cultivating landraces in their fields. Regular use of indigenous crops, and involving farmers in crop improvement and plant breeding, has now resulted in crop diversity.
We don't need GM crops like golden rice when we have naturally bio-fortified crops such as pulses and millets.Susanta Dalai
Kala mali phulo is a lowland, drought-tolerant and flood-resistant indigenous paddy variety. "No extra irrigation is required to grow kala mali phulo. Rain water is sufficient, and it's a three-month crop. It can be stored for long periods. It has good germination power," Kurmali Majhi, a farmer, told VillageSquare.in.
According to Ghana Majhi, a Dongria farmer of Sindhbahal village, his family used to grow 12 varieties of millet. Farmers like him are now being encouraged to revive their traditional practices such as mixed cropping and inter-cropping of pulses besides growing finger, pearl, kodo, proso, little, barnyard and foxtail millets. "Pulses and millets need less water and maintenance, but have high yield, ensuring food and nutritional security. We don't need GM crops like golden rice when we have naturally bio-fortified crops such as pulses and millets," said Susanta Dalai.
Farmers produce grain and seed, while maintaining landraces that are suited to the local conditions.
"We usually reserve a part of the harvest to be used as seed for the next season. We also exchange varieties of seeds with neighbouring farmers," Raibari Sisaka informed VillageSquare.in. Thus farmers produce grain and seed, while maintaining landraces that are suited to the local conditions. Eight years after starting their conservation efforts, the Dongrias have revived many indigenous crops.
Nutritional security from uncultivated foods
Many wild plant species serve as important sources of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. Dalai is working on promoting conservation and rational use of wild food plants once found abundantly in the region.
We collect flowers, fruits, tubers, leaves, stems, seeds, wild mushrooms, tamarind, bamboo shoots and edible insects from the forest.Nelai Majhi
Throughout Niyamgiri, uncultivated plants provide a vital source of livelihood for the Dongrias. "Uncultivated plants have multifunctional roles which add diversity to the indigenous food system, reinforce local culture and contribute diversity to farming systems. They are equally important for ensuring food, nutrition, social, and economic security," said Susanta Dalai.
"We collect flowers, fruits, tubers, leaves, stems, seeds, wild mushrooms, tamarind, bamboo shoots and edible insects from the forest," Nelai Majhi, a Dongria woman, told VillageSquare.in. For instance, the leaves of the mahua tree provide fodder while the flowers are used to make jaggery, liquor or porridge. The fruits are cooked and consumed as a savoury dish. The seed is crushed to yield cooking oil and the residual cake is a valuable manure for farm crops.
But over the years, due to unrestrained logging in Niyamgiri, the forest cover is decreasing at an alarming rate. After a series of awareness campaigns on forest protection in several villages, the Dongrias now play a key role in protecting the forest from the timber mafia and poachers.
Special focus was given on sensitising women as they possess knowledge and experience in harvesting and cooking forest produce. Systematic documentation of uncultivated plants has been taken up to check extinction of important species.
Forest produce is a safety net
"Uncultivated food acts as a safety net against the increasing trend of crop failure caused by climate change, erratic rainfall, and ecological degradation, including groundwater depletion, degraded soil and decimated biodiversity," said Susanta Dalai.
Tubers play a crucial role especially in the lean season when availability of food at home is insufficient. Different varieties of tubers are either boiled and eaten, or cooked as curry or dried and made into flour. For instance, a popular tuber called pani aru is sweet and is eaten raw. Pit aru is acrid in taste, so it is peeled, sliced and soaked in running water for three days to remove the bitterness.
Similarly, flowers of several plant species are also cooked—usually boiled before being fried and seasoned—and eaten. Jerhul flowers available in spring are most delicious.
Uncultivated fruits are also used in a number of ways—some are eaten raw, while others are cooked or made into pickles and chutneys. Karmata, korkotta, pakare and badru, for example, are cooked and eaten as part of a main meal. Varieties of leaves and edible weeds, too, are collected in different seasons, cooked and eaten with boiled rice. Plants such as chakor are sun-dried and preserved for off-season use.
The way forward
Increasing farmers' access to a wide variety of traditional seeds and planting materials will help them become more resilient to ever-increasing climatic hazards. Uncultivated wild foods form a major source of food security for the people in Niyamgiri. Yet these are largely neglected in food programs and policies. There is an urgent need to document and develop an inventory of important plant species.
"Policies on climate change, conservation, food security and agriculture need to be integrated to recognise and preserve the importance of uncultivated food," said Susanta Dalai.
Farmers have a critical understanding of traditional local varieties and their uses, honed through generations of farming. The importance of this knowledge and know-how should not be overlooked while developing agricultural policies and schemes.
Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked extensively with the indigenous communities in India and Cameroon. Views are personal.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.
The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.