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How India's forest foods will stem climate change

Indigenous food researcher Aparna Pallavi speaks to Lounge about protecting food cultures of forest dwelling populations for the ecological health of the planet  

Aparna Pallavi, indigenous food researcher. 

In April 2016, former environmental journalist Aparna Pallavi embarked on a journey that she called ‘Mahua Yatra’. She travelled across India to document recipes and food practices of forest dwelling adivasis. Her focus was the indigenous mahua tree and wild foods related to it. A believer of the ‘gift economy’ where goods or services are exchanged as gifts, she partly self-funded the project, and on occasions finances would come in from individual benefactors who wanted to support her work. Pallavi trimmed her expenses by travelling in buses and sleeper class in trains. After three years of gruelling research across 11 states—Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka—she is now in Auroville working on her book about mahua.

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On Sunday, Pallavi will be giving a talk at the TEDx Gateway Countdown 2021 in Mumbai. It is a virtual event that puts the spotlight on mapping solutions for climate crisis and turning ideas into action. Over a video call, Pallavi spoke to Lounge about her book, the mahua ecology and shared a heartwarming story from her travels. Edited excerpts: 

Tell us about your book?

The book is mainly about mahua—a neglected and forgotten forest food with a lot of potential to meet nutritional needs in an inexpensive and ecologically healthy way. It used to be a staple food for adivasis three or four decades ago. Although mahua is the central theme, the book covers a gamut of forest foods and lost food cultures. There are stories of people, recipes and accounts of why and how these foods are getting lost and why they matter. Although it’s a serious topic, the tone is light-hearted so that people can relate to it. Also, there are stories of hope.

What is the connection between mahua and ecological health?

Agriculture, as we are practising it now, is ecologically expensive. It takes up a lot of land and water, and strips the soil of its natural vegetation. But foods like mahua, and all other kinds of forest produce are ecologically friendly because the food is coming from the forest. The mahua tree lives for at least 1000 to 1500 years and provides an environment for other plants as well as animals to thrive. Unlike the depleting effects of monoculture, the mahua tree replenishes the soil. But growing a forest takes way to long, a large chunk of the population is not used to this produce and changing human habits takes time. So, how quickly we can scale remains a question, but we can at least start by protecting what exists and recognise its potential.

Adivasis already protect mahua trees. So, what is getting lost?

I had this impression that the adivasis treat the tree as sacred. But during my travels, I noticed in some states they were chopping off the branches. For instance, in Maharashtra, it is forbidden to cut it, but people would axe the branches, and use them as firewood. This is happening because the food culture around mahua is gone. And, mahua oil is now seen as a sign of poverty and there is the perception of shame associated with it. Refined oil in plastic pouches have more social currency. 

The destruction of such food cultures has reduced the economic value of mahua. The flowers are distilled for liquor, but it doesn’t bring in as much money as say cultivating and selling rice. In Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, adivasis used to be extremely particular about mahua because they depended on forest foods. But now people are beginning to clear mahua groves to grow rice in the hope of making money. Paddy, as you know, is ecologically expensive with a high emission rate of green house gases. But, rice is considered to be superior both economically and socially. The moment food culture starts being invalidated by those that have more commercial as well as social value, adivasis also start feeling ashamed about it. If their food culture survives and gains respect, then the ecology around these foods also stays. If forest foods are respected, the trees will thrive.

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Can you share a story from your travels?

This is my favourite story about how foods get lost even within families. I was in the kitchen of a lady in a village in the Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh. Her husband was hovering around, and her grandchildren came into the kitchen when she was not expecting them to be home. They enquired about the food. I imagined she had stopped eating mahua, and had cooked the dishes just to show me (these instances were common during my research). But, the lady said that they did eat it. So, I wondered why their grandchildren did not know about mahua when they lived under the same roof. 

After intense discussion and confused narratives, the picture that emerged was that the grandparents were still fond of mahua, but their children had no respect for the food and the grandchildren didn’t even know about it. When their son and daughter-in-law would go to work and the grandchildren would be in school, the couple would cook mahua without their knowledge to avoid censure. Finally, what followed was those children asked me several questions—why was I researching it, what was it and so on. By the end of the conversation, they told their grandparents that next time whenever they cooked mahua, they should keep aside some for the whole family.

Aparna Pallavi will be speaking at the TEDxGateway Climate Countdown 2021, India’s biggest climate change congregation supported by the Govt of Maharashtra. The event will be held virtually on Saturday, 31st October 2021, IST 4PM.

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