Economic Sustenance from the Forests: Women, Wild fruits and the Weary Winter

By Srinibash Das, Ravi Shankar Behera and Ranjit K. Sahu

Emphasis has been laid over women empowerment time and again as the main factor behind effective strategies to provide sustainable livelihood to the developing and underdeveloped communities around the world. However, in the din of high rhetoric and large scale program planning, often small and important steps to reach out to the most needy has been overlooked. Among these women are less educated or uneducated women who have been managing their family and finances purely based on their traditional knowledge, experience, efforts and determination in an ever changing world. Women who collect some of the lesser known non-timber forest products (NTFP) and sell them for their livelihood fall under this category. We conducted a survey to identify women who were overlooked in this manner due to their inability to fall into a major category of target population that was being catered to as their means of livelihood is adopted by a  few and has very little economic relevance to both government, NGOs and private players in the region.

Women have played a major role in the sustenance of traditional families and social structure in the tribal belts of Odisha. More often they have borne the brunt of social upheavals and political unrest and have endured the indifference of sociopolitical institutions. In spite of these limitations, women in the hilly regions of south west Odisha have strived for  sources of income from the existing forests through collection, processing and sale of non timber forest products (NTFP). While main focus has been on the products that are found in large scale like bamboo and brooms, leaves for manufacture of plates, resins and among others, little has been done to identify products with lesser revenue but of significance to the women due to their availability in off season especially winter when most crops have been harvested and field labor is less in demand. These women have continued this activity as a mode of sustenance and have been doing it for decades and their dependence on this source of income in essentially irreplaceable. This is especially true for older women who have little interest or purpose to learn new trades but are still involved in the family maintenance activities including earning money. The visit to a weekly market in Kashipur has brought out some facts about these women whose drudgery is many folds and needs to be addressed, perhaps with an individualized support, consultation and    counseling approach rather than through designing of programs to be implemented en masse.


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In Pictures. (Left) A tribal woman selling processed fruits of  Bana Bhalia (Semecarpus anacardium L. (Middle) The roasted fruits being sold and (Right) Immature fruits on trees. Siali (Bauhinia vahili)seeds being sold in the market and A woman selling different types of tubers in shares rather than by weight.(Right) Different kind of wild  tubers being sold.

We traced the availability of such products that gain importance as a source of income for tribal women where they undertake journeys into the forests for collection processing and sale during the cold winter months under inclement weather conditions. Of the 73 women surveyed 17 sold bana bhalia, 12 sold siali seeds, and 21 sold roots and tubers. The rest sold routine items like bamboo products, vegetables and clothes/garments.

Thus these types of NTFPs are procured in a  very small scale and  often sold locally and on a small scale with very little interest from major business men. While this alleviates the presence of middle men in the system leading to direct income generation for the women, it simultaneously prevents these products from gaining the market value or hogging limelight in public. Products like resins, wild tubers (some of which are known to people of urban and sub-urban residency and hence finding ready acceptability and in demand and others mainly for consumption by the collectors themselves , honey and lac collected during the colder months are an important source of income for women. However, unlike the aforementioned products there are products limited in their consumption to the localities of their prevalence, both eliminating the interest of the middlemen as well reducing the market demand and expansion for the same.

Among these forests products are fruits of bana  bhalia (Semecarpus anacardium which are mainly collected by the women between December and January from the forests. These fruits are then roasted very fire, their seeds removed and the roasted product sold in the local village weekly markets (Haats). A kilo of seeds yield about 20-30 rupees. Andhaari Majhi of Podhabandha village in Kashipur block of Odisha informs that in each weekly market she sells about 10 kilos of these seeds. While the income she gets amounts to 200-300 rupees, the rigor of the labor is immense. It is further made difficult by the prevailing low temperatures in the Eastern Ghats during this time of the year and the long hours it takes to collect the fruits. The clearing of forests for plantation purposes, changing climatic conditions and degrading ecosystems further contribute to loss of this means of sustenance for women.

Another product that falls into this category is the seeds from siali (Bauhinia vahili) vines (lianas). Well known for the leaves that are picked and harvested for manufacture of leaf plates, the fruits of this species are also consumed. These are again collected during the winter months of December and January. Though nutritious, the collection and successive processing of these seeds for the market consumes considerable time and energy of women. The seeds after collection are roasted and then dehulled. They are sold at rupees 50 per kilo, usually in shares of 4-5 parts. This helps women earn about 80-100 rupees per day on the days of weekly market.

The tubers being sold have their own importance as a source of both nutrition and income and have often been reported in several popular and scientific journals and we do not describe those in detail. Some of the products are displayed .

Though these products seem insignificant at present from the market perspective,  their popularization and research of their other unique and potential benefits can lead to their demand. There is abundant scientific literature on these and other plant products to establish their importance in the field of biomedicine. An emphasis on these would thus not only help the struggling indigenous communities but also bring new knowledge and resources to the world that is dealing with newer health and nutrition problems each day. These approaches would address the issue of generation of a safe income for the women and  indirectly help to conserve these species in the eastern ghats leading to prevention of further ecological degradation. Apart from this women need to be alerted about the importance of the product and its unique properties so they do not fall prey to unscrupulous middlemen who may deny them of their rightful price.

About the Authors 

Srinibash Das is a development professional based in Odisha and works as a District Coordinator of Agragamee. His thematic areas of works are right based advocacy, education, women empowerment and strengthening community based organizations. He has also a keen interest in environment protection and health care in rural/tribal areas and has been witness to the sufferings of the people in the hinterlands for several years.

Ravi Shankar Behera is  a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations.

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a freelance writer currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.






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