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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Are Forests Still Relevant for the Nutrition Security of Traditional Forest Dwellers? Insights from One Year of Fieldwork in Kalahandi, Odisha

A woman carrying wood from a forest in Thuamul Rampur. (Photo by Amrutha Jose Pampackal/TCI)

Forests have garnered a lot of attention in international policy discussions in recent years because of their role in addressing the rising challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. Less discussed is the importance of forests for the sustainability of many local food systems. Across the globe, billions of people live in proximity to forests and are directly or indirectly dependent on them for their food security. While some view traditional forest dwellers as protectors, others view local people’s dependence on forests as a threat to forests’ health. As part of my PhD research, I study how the nutritional security of forest-proximate communities can be strengthened without increasing the socioeconomic and ecological pressures on forests.

My research is empirically rooted in one year of fieldwork that I conducted in 2021-22 in Thuamul Rampur, a highly forested and tribal administrative block in the Kalahandi district of Odisha, India. The preliminary findings of my research suggest that although forests are not the main source of food for the forest-proximate people of Thuamul Rampur, the collection of forest produce does improve their diet diversity. My study also provides insights into various pathways through which the contribution of forests to the local food system may be strengthened.

Study setting and data collection methods

Nestled among the hills of India’s eastern ghats, Thuamul Rampur is characterized by its remote villages, hilly forests, and traditionally forest-dependent people. Although ecologically rich, Thuamul Rampur has high rates of economic poverty and malnutrition. Sixty percent of its population are scheduled tribes (adivasi), who have traditionally depended on forests and forest-based agriculture as their main source of livelihood.

Amrutha Pampackal speaking with two men in a village

Amutha Jose Pampackal speaks to two villagers from Thuamul Rampur during her fieldwork. (Photo provided)

In recent years, because of low-income-generation opportunities, young men from the region have been increasingly migrating to southern Indian states in search of better wages. Financially motivated migration and changes in human–nature interactions are a feature not just of Thuamul Rampur, but of many other tropical, forested regions in low- and middle-income countries. Such changes have important implications for the pathways through which people access food.

In order to develop an in-depth understanding of the factors affecting the food and nutrition security of the forest-proximate communities of Thuamul Rampur, I used a combination of various ethnographic and survey-based methods. With the help of the NGO Gram Vikas and a team of vibrant local youth, I surveyed 440 households and 12 weekly food markets in the study site. Because food security vulnerabilities in rural contexts are highly seasonal, the same households and markets were repeatedly surveyed across 3 seasons – winter, summer, and the rainy season.

Preliminary results

The preliminary results from the study indicate poor dietary diversity in women across all seasons, but with seasonal variation in the relevance of different food sources. According to the FAO, a woman is considered to have achieved minimum dietary diversity (MDDW), an indicator of micronutrient adequacy, if she has consumed at least five out of the ten defined food groups the previous day or night.  However, the average dietary diversity score for female respondents in my sample ranged only between 2.4 and 2.8 across all seasons, much lower than the desired score.

While there is seasonal variation in people’s dependence on different food sources, own-agriculture and market sources are the most relied upon across all seasons. All households buy at least some food items from market sources, mostly from weekly food markets and neighborhood kirana stores. However, as a remote area with poor market integration, the variety of fruits and vegetables available in the local food markets is mostly limited to what is produced locally. Since local agricultural production is predominantly rain-dependent, its importance to food security is most pronounced in the winter, when the harvests from rain-fed crops are available.

[D]ata from the rainy season survey shows that dietary diversity (number of food groups consumed in the last seven days) is one unit higher for women who collected non-firewood forest produce in the last three months than those who did not.

During the rainy season, when people are working on their agricultural land and most of the crops are yet to be harvested, the importance of forest produce is more pronounced. Around 90 percent of the survey respondents reported collecting forest food during the rainy months. More importantly, data from the rainy season survey shows that dietary diversity (number of food groups consumed in the last seven days) is one unit higher for women who collected non-firewood forest produce in the last three months than those who did not.

Forests also help in partially alleviating the issue of extremely low vitamin A-rich food consumption in the region by acting as a key source of ripe mangoes during summer, which are collected by the majority of households. Thus, despite the increase in rural-urban migration and the decrease in traditional forms of forest dependency, forests still play an important role in improving seasonal nutrition security.

Forests also have the potential to contribute indirectly to the food security of local people through income from the sale of forest produce, though this potential is mostly unrealized in Thuamul Rampur. Two key factors that affect local people’s ability to generate income from forests are low market connectivity leading to difficulty in selling produce at a fair price, and non-recognition of people’s collective rights to manage forest resources.

Improving forest–food linkages: the importance of The Forest Rights Act, 2006

Most of the 275 villages in Thuamul Rampur are occupied by traditional forest dwellers whose rights to protect and manage forest resources (known as community forest rights) are supposed to be recognized under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly referred to as the Forest Rights Act. However, people’s community forest rights claims have been approved for only nine villages in Thuamul Rampur so far. Even in these nine villages, both the villagers and their elected representatives have very low awareness of their rights. The lack of awareness about their right to sell forest produce individually and through the formation of cooperatives is one of the reasons that very few forest products are sold, and that most sales are restricted to buyers who visit the villages and offer extremely low prices.

Although the recognition of community forest rights has been poor, the individual rights guaranteed under the Forest Rights Act to cultivate forest land have been recognized for adivasi households in many villages of Thuamul Rampur. While practicing agriculture on forest land is important to local food security, recognition of community rights to conserve and manage forest resources is particularly important for the protection of forest biodiversity and the sustainability of the local food system. Recognition of community forest rights and the subsequent formation of community forest resource management committees can lead to more sustainable management of forest resources in ways that improve both the health of forest ecosystems as well as the livelihoods and food security of local people.

Amrutha Jose Pampackal is a PhD candidate and a TCI scholar in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University.

Featured image: A woman carries wood from a forest in Thuamul Rampur. (Photo by Amrutha Jose Pampackal/TCI)