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Forest Farming v. Cash Crops, Indigenous In India Take A Stand

In the Indian state of Odisha, the Khond, a large Indigenous community, are losing their forest and their food sources. There are environmental and nutritional consequences.

Khond women in Niyamgiri Hill, Odisha
Khond women in Niyamgiri Hill, Odisha
Kalpana Pradhan

KHALPADAR — Lush emerald green hills stretch out into the distance in all directions, as we drive along undulating roads towards Khalpadar tribal village.

This is the southern part of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa state. These hills are home to the Dongria Khond tribe, whose traditional practices have helped nurture the area's dense forest and unusually rich wildlife. When we reach the village of Khalpadar nestled at the base of a hill, a group of Khond women are sitting together, talking and singing.

Shukumoti Shikoka tells me that the forest is their lifeline, and Khond people are very protective of it.

"We protect the forest not just because it gives us food, but also because many living things, animals, ants, monkeys, everyone lives there and they are all part of our lives," she explains.

Khond people regularly gather fruit and roots from the forest. They also grow vegetables, millets, legumes and corn in the area. After each harvest, they store and exchange seeds to ensure local adaptability and availability. They grow a wide variety of produce, which maintains soil fertility. "When we grow something it is not just for us, but it's for everyone in the forest who we consider as our family," Shikoka says. "As long as the forest is there, we will continue to be prosperous."

Odisha is one of the poorest states in Eastern India, and here Khond make up a quarter of the population. But Shukumoti tells me Khond people have traditionally been very prosperous. "We as a community, as whole Adivasi tribal group are the most prosperous community in the world, that's what we believe," Shikoka stated.

As I travel between villages in the area of Muniguda, I see a large tract of cleared land. Since 2013, the Odisha State Forest Department has been converting this diverse ecosystem into a single-species cash crop plantation zone. Forest is being cleared, and replaced with crops of eucalyptus, teak, rubber and coffee. The Odisha State government plans to continue cash crop plantations until 2022. The initiative is supposed to create 45 000 jobs over a ten year period.

A local villager, Landi Shikokua, refuses to be pushed from a life of self-sufficiency to working cash crops. "the Forest department, they come here and they want to plant eucalyptus and teak trees. We asked them, what value does it add to our lives," Shikokua recalled. "It really adds no value for us, or for the lives in the forest, so we are resisting them."

Anticipating an acute shortage of food in the future, the Khond women are taking the matter up with government officials. But they're also taking matters directly into their own hands. In an act of resistance, villagers have cut down the teak and eucalyptus, and replaced them once again with traditional crops. "As forest dwellers, the fruit bearing trees like dates, jackfruit, mango, and berry are valuable for us and for other animals in the forest," Shikokua explains. "We are very much against it. We are going to fight it tooth and nail."

Several indigenous people have been arrested in protests against cash crop plantations. And last year, two people from the Nabarangpur tribal group were killed as they fought for their land.

They know what should be left for regeneration.

The Khond people have been told that they will be able to access subsidized rice, wheat, and pulses under the government food security program. But it won't match the variety and nutrition of their traditional diet.

Salome Nadimidodde is a nutrition researcher with twenty years experience working on the food culture of India's indigenous tribes. "They gather a whole lot of colorful greens, mushrooms, tubers, fruits and number of animals including insects and worms," says Nadimidodde. "They know exactly how and when harvest should take place, and what is to be left for regeneration."

Nadimidodde says she has seen a devastating decline in the Khond's diet. "The health and the nutritious status of the community is in a very pathetic state."

Adivasi, or tribal people, in Odisha are already feeling the impacts of ecological destruction. Around 46% tribal children under the age of five are underweight and have stunted growth, while 17% are severely underweight, according to a 2014 study by UNICEF and the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Shikoka Siromoti is a mother of three kids, and she says she can see how poor nutrition is taking its toll. "Our people could climb from one mountain to another, they could walk miles without getting tired, that's not the kids today," she says.

But the Khond are not giving up. As I leave the area, I hear villagers singing a traditional song whose lyrics vow to dedicate one's life to protecting the forest.

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