They Lost Their Jungles to Plantations, But These Indigenous Women in India Grew Them Back

Source: Yes! Magazine

When a governmental effort to encourage cash crops threatened their food security and native land, India’s indigenous families came together to revive their traditional food systems.

It is early morning in Dhepagudi, a sleepy hamlet nestled in the green hills of Odisha, India. Admai Kumruka is sifting millet in a traditional sieve made of bamboo strips. Children mill around, playing on a mud and sand mound. A few huts down, Rello Dindika is sorting through harvested corn. A group of women are chopping fresh pumpkin leaves and flowers for a stir-fry dish. They have finished morning chores and farming work and are now preparing breakfast. Some of the corn will be ground to a powder for a wholesome porridge. The rest will be popped in clay vessels for evening snacks.

“We have mandya or kosla [varieties of millets] or maka [corn] porridge in the mornings sometimes with roots and tubers or gondri saag [a variety of greens] foraged from the jungles,” Kumruka says. “In the afternoons and evenings, we make rice with tubers, vegetables and legumes. Sometimes we add wild mushrooms or jhotta [okra] and holud [turmeric roots].”

The women belong to the Khond community, a large indigenous tribal group of India that has relied for generations on a rich and diverse variety of native millets and foraged jungle foods. That is, until the state forest department proposed that forest lands be cleared for cash crops like teak, eucalyptus, soy, and cotton.

Following years of extractive forest management practices established under British rule, India’s government began a paradigm shift in the late 1980s toward prioritizing ecological conservation and recognizing the rights of the tribal communities. Then, in July, it passed a controversial bill to govern how the country’s forests are razed, cut, and reforested. The new measure was strongly opposed by environmentalists and tribal advocates who argued it would ease government seizure of tribal forests.

“The forests were managed by community resource management under the Forest Rights Act,” says Hrusikesh Panda, former secretary of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Panda, who retired last year, has consistently criticized the present government’s attempts to tamper with tribal rights. “Now the forest department has become very aggressive,” he says.

Kumruka recounts how entire patches of forest were taken for plantations, and how much of her tribe’s green wealth disappeared. “We had so many different millets on our plates earlier, and jungle tubers, saags, mushrooms, and so many mahua trees,” she says.

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