The tubers collected from the forest are also prized for their use in traditional medicines for treating arthritis, cold, fever, cough, menstrual disorders, and skin diseases.
Women collecting wild yams
The humble wild yam is a staple of the tribal population of Odisha. The region is home to many yam varieties, including the famed 'jangali kanda', which provide nutrition and boost the immune system. Not to say, the seven particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Koraput survive on 122 types of wild trees, creepers, bushes, fruits and tubers!
"The collection of wild yams is an age-old practice. All our forefathers did it," says Trilochan Muduli of Bolyguda village in Koraput district. Muduli belongs to the Paroja community, a particularly vulnerable group. Harvesting and protecting all forest food sources are part of the traditional knowledge of many tribes here, among which yam stands out. Reason: its ability to provide both nutritional cushion and commercial benefits to the forest-dwelling communities.
This boiled spud is often served with ragi gruel or rice. A popular recipe calls for cooking the chopped tubers with pulses, eggplant and onion, liberally seasoned with garlic, chilly, turmeric powder and salt. The yam also finds its way into traditional curries when prepared with hill gram, horse gram and bhodei. Sometimes, it is fashioned into a soup, called ambila, along with rice powder.
The tubers collected from the forest are also prized for their use in traditional medicines for treating arthritis, cold, fever, cough, menstrual disorders, and skin diseases. Shuaram Chalan, a traditional healer or dishari, has been practising for 40 years and learnt the trade from his father. He buys yam and many other forest products from tribal communities, in addition to cultivating wild yams on his land.
A recent research by Dr Debabrata Panda at the Central University of Koraput brought the benefits of jangali kanda to the fore.
"During the post-Covid-19 days, we studied the lifestyle and food patterns of tribal communities and found that despite having a vitamin deficiency, the population was not deficient in nutrients and minerals," Dr Jayant Nayak of the Central University told 101Reporters.
In the paper, Panda claims that wild yams could be the key to fill the nutrition gaps in Koraput tribals. As indicated by the research, yam (Dioscorea spp.) is recognised as the fourth most important tuber that plays a prime role in the food habits of forest-dwelling communities during periods of food scarcity.
Each family of the Gunji and Lenja villages of Boipariguda block collects wild yams from the forest on the hillock and sells it in the market. A family collects as much as 20 to 25 kg of yam in a month, saves some of it for personal consumption and sells the rest, earning between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000.
To harvest the tuber, one has to dig at a depth of three to four feet. "The village women go into the forest to collect them. They know when is the best time to harvest and where exactly in the dense forest can they find high-quality yams," Muduli says.
Tulshi Jani of Jhiaguda village says, "We consume it daily, and sell the surplus to disharis (traditional healers). Disharis from Similiguda, Lamtaput, Potangi, Kotpad and Kundra purchase yams from us at the rate of Rs 200 per kg. They collect up to 50 kg of the tuber in a month." For most villagers, around 60% of their household income comes from yams.
Usually, a group goes into the forest to get the yams, which are enough to provide for one hamlet or almost 10 families, who divide the produce among themselves. The distribution depends on the number of family members, and the purpose of collection � whether it is for personal consumption or sale.
There is a market for Odisha's yams in Chhattisgarh as well. Ghasi Harijan of Badamundipadar in Koraput supplies yams from the forest in Kundra, which lies on the border with the neighbouring state.
"Medium-scale businessmen come to me for wild yams. I get them directly from the forest dwellers or buy them from the local market," says Harijan, adding that he usually collects about 8 to 10 kg of yams from each tribal family per day and wraps them in bags for supply in Chhattisgarh.
"From May-end to July-end, wild yams help me earn Rs 15,000 to 20,000 per month," says Harijan.
The tribal population returns the favour that nature does by taking up forest conservation activities. Both men and women follow thengapalli (thenga means stick and palli means turn), where they patrol the forest area with a stick in hand and protect it from poachers and smugglers.
In Maliguda and Pukulpada, locals have demarcated their forests from the neighbouring villages to have better control over conservation practices. Twelve years ago, Maliguda shared a large forest area with Kurkuti village, but it became difficult to govern the conservation activities. "We were on the verge of losing all green cover," explains Mangala Mali, president of Maliguda Vana Surakhya Samiti (VSS).
Alarmed by the situation, Maliguda residents collectively decided to demarcate their 60 acres of forest land. Every day, five to six villagers, along with two sevakars (helpers), keep a vigil in the forest. All the 85 families residing here pay in cash or kind -- 15 kg of rice collectively per year -- to the sevakars in return for their services.
"Since 2019, the forest department has been providing technical assistance in development projects such as tree planting, setting up ponds for rainwater harvesting, and marketing of our minor forest produce by the Tribal Development Co-operative Corporation," Mali says.
Dibya Madhuri Sethy, Range Officer, Boipariguda, confirms Mali's statement. "We have been associated with the community since 2020. After the formation of the VSS, people are engaged in activities such as pineapple plantation, capacity building programmes by the Odisha Livelihood Mission, marketing of forest produce at Adivasi Mela, Pallishree Mela, Toshali, and the ORMAS (Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society) Mela, to name a few."
The department is considering granting land rights to the community under the Community Forest Rights category, she adds.
The tribal community has their own rules for forest protection, which are decided by the village committee. Padam Pradhani, a member of the Boliguda village committee, says, "Our village falls under the protected forest, and anything to do with the forest and its conservation, including the collection of minor produce, is controlled by the village committee. Nothing goes out without its permission."
Dr Kartik Charan Lenka, a senior scientist at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Jeypore, Odisha, informs that a People's Biodiversity Register and Biodiversity Management Committees have been created in Koraput, with the help of the Odisha Biodiversity Board.
"The idea is to promote equitable sharing of benefits. Also, there is a need to create awareness among the forest community on the commercial aspects." Any industry that extracts biological resources from the forest villages has to share a part of its revenue with the local community.
Elaborating further, Lenka says that when the sale of yam begins on an industrial scale, the management committees would be empowered to negotiate with traders/corporations and regulate the harvest and supply, with the State Biodiversity Board playing the role of a middleman. The forest department would also have a role in granting permissions to find/expand cultivation sites.
But harvesting is now happening at the individual level. And in this case, the traditional method of harvesting is sustainable in itself, Lenka says. The tribal farmers ensure that they do not over-harvest from one particular site and carefully cut the spud and leave behind the root and seed so that fresh yams can sprout when it rains.
"The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have given formal recognition to the local communities' knowledge of their biodiversity and their responsibility to protect and conserve the same," says Dr Sweta Mishra of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute, while adding that many tubers and wild yams are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
"Conservation and sustainable use of wild yams are essential for the optimal use of biodiversity and for meeting the present and future food and medicinal needs of the locals," Mishra emphasises.