Last Forest supports traditional livelihoods like honey hunting and millet farming among the indigenous peoples of the Nilgiris, home to one of the last shola forests in the region.
Members of the Last Forest team trickle in one by one for our call, braving the rain that pelts down on the roofs of their office. And for a memorable hour and a half, us city dwellers at The Locavore are transported to the Nilgiris—the ‘blue’ hills that range three south Indian states.
Based in Kotagiri in Tamil Nadu, Last Forest’s mission is to create aesthetic and sustainable products while supporting indigenous communities in the region to sustain themselves. Initially founded in 1993 as a project under the Keystone Foundation—which works towards a sustainable future through environmental justice and climate change solutions for indigenous communities—Last Forest was established in 2010.
Today, it sells honey—raw and infused—and spices such as fennel and nutmeg, as well as beeswax-based personal-care products, a majority of these sourced from Aadhimalai, a cooperative formed by the four communities that inhabit the hills. As far as the team at Last Forest is concerned, however, the Irula, Kurumba, Toda, and Badaga tribes do much more than live off the forest: they are caretakers of the shola ecosystem. Following sustainable practices, they’ve left behind a barely traceable carbon footprint over several generations.
We share excerpts of our interactions with Teny Ann Johnson, Madhu Ravishankar, Miller Ashok and Isabel Tadmiri, of Last Forest, here:
We find the juxtaposition of the names intriguing—Aadhimalai, meaning ‘first mountain or hill’, and Last Forest. Could you elaborate on the idea behind these?
‘First Mountain’ and ‘Last Forest’: at first glance could be seen as at odds with each other. However, we believe and our communities live a reality in which both these are simultaneously true.
‘Aadhimalai’ was chosen by the indigenous communities that make up the cooperative—all decision making lies with the stakeholders. ‘First mountain’ alludes to the fact that we are working with traditional foods that we first used; it alludes to the Nilgiris, India’s first recognised Biosphere Reserve atop old mountains. Last Forest comes into the picture because these mountains have ecosystems and forest-food work that only exist here, but that are facing deforestation, climate changes. Kotagiri, where we are based, has the last remaining urban shola forest of its kind.
You’ve told us how sustainability was always part of community practices, like leaving one honeycomb ‘for God’, which also ensures that the population of the bees doesn’t dwindle. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes, community practices are always sustainable practices; they have to be; that’s how these peoples have depended on the forest for food and livelihood over generations. This can be seen in multiple ways: honey harvesting does not harm the bees, or the people forage for honey. Both humans and bees go unharmed due to the nuanced collection traditions: about two of 10 hives are left untouched—’left for God’.
When the Kurumbas and Todas harvest honey, the part of the hive where the brood lives—essential to bees’ development and survival—is left undisturbed too, so that the bees can return to them, and the hive remains healthy. This way, the larger ecosystem continues to thrive.
Have you ever seen the need to have interventions where sustainability is concerned?
In general, we do not see the need to intervene in community practices, whether in the name of sustainability or otherwise. An exception has to do with amla collection. Earlier, whole branches of trees would be hacked to get to the fruits. Now, they use long sticks with hooks, or koki, to pull down a branch and pluck fruits to minimise harm to the trees, in addition to wastage.
In terms of packaging, we initially used cardboard boxes to ship our honey, but that saw a lot of breakage and damage—a waste of honey. So we moved to bubble wrap, but the idea of using plastic did not feel right. Finally, we settled on a honeycomb shaped corrugated cardboard. This offers a snug fit, and protects the bottles even without extra packaging like wrap. We also repurpose shredded office paper for packing, and cardboard boxes wherever possible.
Last Forest has been around for over a decade. Did you see any shifts in the market during the pandemic, and the following recession? How did Covid-19 affect your day-to-day functioning?
Like so many people and small businesses, Last Forest was affected by Covid-19 in a number of ways, some unquantifiable. Covid and lockdown challenges pushed Last Forest into new partnerships and relationships: we partnered with the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), and social enterprise Indian Yards. We banked on the fair trade network to support our communities during the pandemic. We made close to 20,000 handmade, Toda-embroidered, and safety-standard approved masks to distribute to frontline workers. Neither of these was originally in our portfolio of products.
We tied up with Keystone Foundation to make donations and distribute food and vegetables to surrounding villages; from local producers like fishermen to our own staff, Last Forest was out and on the ground. Our vehicles went out three times a week, even into Coimbatore: we took our masks to the panchayat there.
Covid also pushed us to build and strengthen our e-commerce, domestic and international. Of course Covid had adverse effects too: we had to shut down a retail store, and half of another. Our restaurant in which we served Last Forest and Aadhimalai indigenous fusion foods also closed down, thus members of our community lost employment, endured paycuts, or deferred salaries.
What are your favourite parts of working with Last Forest? And what can you do better?
Miller: I have worked with Last Forest and Keystone since 1996, in multiple roles. Now, I work both at the front-end and back-end; they’re both important. Some of my favourite parts include visiting the cliffs while honey hunting happens.
Improvement, so far as I’m concerned, is a constant process.
Madhu: This is home. I’ve grown up here, known the landscape, the people. Plus, the diversity you see—visitors from different cities, from outside the country, local folk, indigenous people—it’s vibrant.
Customer interactions are also insightful. Once, someone received a bottle of honey that was broken. Normally, people want a replacement or refund, but this customer said: ‘I’m not worried about that. But to think that honey that is gotten after so much of hard work, has gone to waste.’
When it comes to improvement, we could always have more field visits: to the millet fields, or honey hunting. This strengthens relationships between office staff and those who procure, forage, and grow.
Teny: My favorite part is empowering the team. I feel I am able to help everyone contribute, feel confident about themselves. When they learn something new everyday, they can contribute to the decision making. This confidence spills over to their personal lives as well.
What I’d like more of: I would like to have more regular orders—because that’s what contributes to the livelihoods of the women. Now it’s sporadic—one order of 2,000 and then it’s quiet; and we don’t know when the next order will come.
Isabel: Working with Last Forest is about working with the two best things: people and food. And together, these two best things are even better.
Growing up in New York, I heard about ragi or banana flower—embedded into family oral histories or stories of my father’s childhood. It scared me to think that traditional ingredients or practices were ‘lost’ or ‘gone’. I wanted to enjoy these yummy, underappreciated things. Now I can make them accessible to others!
Which are some of your favourite food products from Last Forest and Aadhimalai, and how do you enjoy eating these?
Madhu: Ragi is quite something—making the ragi mudde, or ragi balls, and even the ragi koozh that you drink. As a Badaga, I’ve been enjoying these since I was a kid, and it fills you up. Also amla candy, and jamun jam. After introducing my family to Last Forest honey, it has become a staple at home. I especially like the pepper honey.
Miller: Honey. The natural and the different flavoured honeys are all good, but the sweet Nilgiri natural jungle honey is my favourite. I first tasted that honey when I joined Last Forest 30 years ago, and it still tastes the same.
Teny: Definitely our pepper. The quality is even better than the pepper we use at home.
Isabel: My favourite honey is the jamun honey. The first time I tasted it, my jaw dropped. I also love that we sell banana flower pickle. Growing up, the banana plant (actually, it’s a herb!) was a prime example of the importance of not wasting any part of a plant. The pickle by Aadhimalai makes me think of my grandmother—it has the perfect carby-nutty taste.
To read more about Last Forest and their practices and efforts, check out our producer page here. We strive to keep the practices of a producer transparent and honest across all forms of partnerships.