How much of a resource can be harvested without jeopardising conservation? Manju Vasudevan, founder of Forest Post, speaks about what sustainability means in the context of her work with forest-dependent communities in Kerala.
Receiving a parcel from Forest Post can feel like a piece of the forest brought home. And in this case, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Some of the ingredients that go into Forest Post’s wild food products range from tender fern fronds and wild grapes, to queen sago and shatavari roots.
Formed in 2017, Forest Post was started with the aim of securing sustainable livelihoods for forest-dwelling communities like the Malayar and Kadar in central Kerala’s Western Ghats. Founded by Manju Vasudevan—an ecologist by training—Forest Post follows a cooperative model of enterprise-building, with Adivasi communities at its centre. Their efforts have so far been focussed on finding viable and dignified work for the forest-dependent communities that they work closely with, and at the same time, conserving the forests that they have protected for decades.
We spoke to Manju, who is committed to community-led conservation, and has been working on a range of wild forest produce like fern pickle, queen sago flour, beeswax soaps, and shatavari in honey. Excerpts from our conversation:
The word sustainability is everywhere these days, and has become something of a buzzword. What does it mean in the context of your work with Forest Post?
You’re right. One word that has been overused, and seldom lived up to. For us, while working with forest-dependent communities, it means two things. One is from the angle of how much of a resource can be harvested without jeopardising conservation—even if it is a traditional practice—for it to be value-added and marketed. Secondly, time spent in very remote villages is a reminder of how light our carbon footprint can be if our needs are reasonable, and how well it is possible to live in harmony with nature.
You founded Forest Post. What led you to working with forest produce and Adivasi communities living in Kerala?
Over the years, ecological research had given me large doses of wilderness time, and there was often an overlap with communities. Community-centred conservation has been attempted in many parts of India. Like River Research Centre in Trichur, Kerala, a grassroots NGO that I worked with, and which does advocacy work on the right of a river to flow. In 2016, we ventured out to build women-led enterprises as a tool to assert Community Forest Rights of indigenous people. We wanted to explore if it’s possible to create meaningful livelihoods based on MFPs such that those who chose to stay close to their home could do so, and still find means to earn a living.
What does a good day at Forest Post look like? Tell us about the last amazing day that you had at work, a day that made you happy.
A good day is when we get to accompany indigenous people on a harvest trail. The shatavari harvest in Sholayar (upper catchment of Chalakudypuzha) in mid February was incredible—it was a 16-18 kilometre walk. With a Kadar elder like Chandrika chechi—who knows the forest like the back of her hand—to lead you, it only gets more exciting. She is a treasure house of ethnobotany, and is brimming with stories. Shatavari isn’t easy to spot in the dry season, unlike in the wet season when the leaves are lush. So, the harvest itself wasn’t very fruitful, but the whole experience left one richer. Not to mention the sense of adventure and exploration when you are out in the wilderness, not knowing where you will find what.
What are the challenges of working with Minor Forest Produce (MFP), especially for the communities that you work with? Could you name some of the MFPs that you work with?
A lot of non-conventional MFPs (Minor Forest Produce) are not in demand in the market and if they are, then the market prices are fluctuating. This is one reason why it is important to intervene, and offer training that will add creative value to forest produce. And once the products are ready, the next challenge is to find a market for them.
At the producer’s end, the Kadar and Malayar frequent the forests much less than they did in the past. Nudging them to go back and trace those routes in the wild either gets them excited, or the risk is too high even if there are incentives. Since these are plant resources in the wild, there is also uncertainty to factor when planning a harvest, not just seasonality. For instance, it could be a weak flowering season for a fruit that they planned on collecting, which means lower yields than usual. Some of the MFPs we work with are queen sago (Cycas circinalis), shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), wild grape (Ampelocissus sp.), ferns, mango ginger, amla/ nelli, sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus), jamun (Syzygium cuminii), and tubers.
Tell us about some Forest Post products that you wish more people would come to discover, something that’s special?
At Karikkadav village, there are some products that were born out of a mix of tradition, intuition and experiment—like the Shatavari in Honey and Fern Pickle. While the fern pickle has potential to find a mainstream audience, shatavari honey might attract the attention of the more health-conscious. Then, of course, there are others to look out for as the seasons change: the mango ginger candy is something that we hope will become popular since the plant is available in abundance in these forests. Our nelli preserve is a simple, preservative-free preparation with unrefined sugar, and a dash of ginger and lime.
How do you strike a balance between the needs of the forest, the wildlife, and the communities that you work with?
Apart from gathering honey and resin for an income, and fishing and occasional harvest of tubers for sustenance, forest-dependency in most communities that we work with has come down. This could be due to other influences in their landscape—for instance, a Forest Department employment, or access to the nearest town where there are odd jobs. Most of the time, it is to rekindle a memory that we request them for a harvest trip.
Conservation is central to our approach. If a particular MFP is sought after by wildlife, we do not plan value-addition around it. The Mooty fruit (which tastes a bit like rambutan but has far less pulp) that the Kadar harvester got us in the monsoon of 2020 was turned into a jam at Karikkadav. Then, we realised that it is much loved by elephants, deer and even tortoises, so we didn’t encourage its harvest the following year. The labels that were designed will remain a memory of a wonderful trek into the Anapantham forests in search of Mooty trees. In instances where we are dealing with wild foods consumed by the community—like queen sago, for instance—we push them to save enough for their families before it is processed for sales.
Tell us about the different regions that you work in. How are they different from each other, and what learnings have you gathered from each?
We work in the Chalakudy river basin which is dominated by the Kadar people. In some villages, we hope to begin bamboo craft and macrame training. The Kadar have a rhythm that doesn’t necessarily fit the long-term commitment required for enterprise-building. Having said that, it has been very easy to work with them in spurts—plan harvest trails, organise events centred around their knowledge on wild foraged foods, river fish, and so on. In this community, our documentation of wild foods is at a very nascent stage.
The Malayar people that we work with are mostly distributed in the Karuvannur river basin, and they are motivated to form functional collectives which then take up responsibility for managing everything from pre-production to order processing. The Kadar in this river basin form our key network of MFP harvesters, and we rely on them for every food production session.
Apart from purchasing products from Forest Post, are there any other ways in which consumers can support an initiative like yours? Is there anything that one needs to be aware of in the context of forest-dependent communities?
A lot of us may not realise that the pristine wilderness in several parts of our country is a result of hundreds of years of Adivasi co-existence. These are communities that have interacted with the forest with minimum burden on its land, water and other resources. Their way of life is in fact a lesson in sustainability. And yet, they live on the edge, and are marginalised in more ways than one.
At Forest Post, we urge the consumer to appreciate the immense skills and knowledge possessed by these communities, and help us in giving them the value that’s due. You could contribute a blog post that aligns with our philosophy. Spread the word, give us feedback, help us grow.