Wild edible plants as a link between habitat, need and culture

ATREE has been chronicling the use of wild edible plant species in the MM Hills 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, being a reserve forest area, communities have always had access to forest land. This too was useful in ATREE’s continuing perusal of the role of forests in the lives and livelihoods of forest dwelling communities. The image on the left shows informal meeting with Soliga community in Gorasane village, MM Hills.

ATREE researchers tried to contextualize what this resource —of wild edible plants— means for poor rural households of the Soliga and Lingayat communities. How the knowledge concerning WEP availability, seasonality, phenology, use and recipes is now part of traditional knowledge. And 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 wild plants that these communities have traditionally used lists a diverse 92 wild plants 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. Grazers, away from home for the entire day, used to live off the land, on wild edible plants only.

Key findings are:

  1. Less intensively cultivated areas harbor more wild edible species; usage of wild edibles is also higher in such areas.
  2. 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 wild plant foods that are not particularly palatable and that are used primarily as drought foods may also have important implications for availability.
  3. The relative importance of wild edible species was higher for poorer households than richer one. The poorer the family, the greater the dependency (unpublished data).
  4. More wild edibles are consumed in times of agriculture production decline.
  5. Knowledge regarding use of wild plants is decided usually by gender, age or social role.
  6. Both communities reported a decline in the use of wild edible plants. 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, displacingknowledge about indigenous food plants.80% of younger generation are migrating to cities and neighboring states in search of jobs. Knowledge of wild edible plants 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 hasbeen 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 allelopathic 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 selectwild species that are disappearing, particularly perennial shrubs and climber species, despite issues regarding water availability.

Wild edible plants 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 introduced 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.

Wild edible plant 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 wild edible plants are interlinked. This is vital when we talk about households that work in near- subsistence circumstances.