Can marketing wild produce rejuvenate India’s forests?

When villagers get a steady income from forest produce, they will invest in protecting and expanding forests, says the leader of an initiative underway in three states

Himachal Pradesh India
Agricultural land in Himachal Pradesh, India. Image: Marc Hastenteufel / Unsplash

For generations, Ratna Kumari and her family would comb the forests of Pangi Valley in India’s Himachal Pradesh, gathering nuts, wild honey, roots and shrubs to sell to local traders to scrape a subsistence income.

But their hand-to-mouth existence in the remote Himalayan mountains is changing dramatically. Under a recent initiative by the prestigious Indian School of Business and the local administration, the people of Pangi Valley are able to sell their forest products to corporate buyers at their doorstep by connecting with them digitally.

Earlier this month, high-end retail chain Dry Fruits Basket bought a large consignment of wild Himalayan hazelnuts, while Swedish Company AAK’s Indian arm purchased a sample of walnut oil as part of a plan to place a large order next year. Many other prospective buyers are lining up too.

This could double the incomes of such forest produce collectors, who are typically women.

“We hope to sell to large buyers instead of local traders now,” says Kumari, who has been encouraging more women in her community to join a self-help group to aggregate their products to sell to large industries, rather than depend on petty traders.

The initiative is part of a drive across three Indian states – Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand – to help those living on the fringes of forest areas to enjoy the same economic benefits as anyone living in a village, town or city. The programme will eventually be rolled out across each of the country’s 29 states and eight union territories (small regions governed by the central government).

“I wanted to think of people who live near forests as no different than us. They have aspirations. They want motorcycles, colour televisions and a better future for their children,” says Ashwini Chhatre, a professor at the Indian School of Business who has led the initiative, after studying models worldwide to connect remote forests to the mainstream economy.

“More fodder and fuel wood is not part of their ambitions. They need it to get by, but their outlook in life is not mere subsistence,” he says.

No conflict with conservation

For long, it was thought that livelihoods and conservation could not go together. 

“The belief was that if you support livelihoods, then you can’t conserve. I found that all the imagination on what can happen to those people (living in forest areas) for their development was very restricted. It was almost as if we wanted them to remain poor because we wanted to protect the forests,” says Chhatre.

This flawed thinking has removed any incentive for local communities to expand the area under trees, which is why India’s forests have hardly grown for decades. 

India’s forest cover is around 21.71 per cent of the country’s total land, compared to the national objective of 33 per cent as per the Forest Act, 1980. The total forest area increased by 1,540 sq km  in 2021, a mere 0.2 per cent from 713,789 sq km in 2019, according to the Forest Survey of India’s state of forest report published in January this year.

Any patch of land measuring more than one hectare with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent is considered as a forest area in the report.

Even as forest cover has hardly grown, 30 per cent of the country’s total land area has been degrading since 2003-2005. Degradation is the process by which the biological wealth of a forest area gets permanently diminished, threatening local species and reducing the forest’s ability to provide essential services. Of the total degraded land in India, 22 per cent is forested land.

Chhatre believes the new initiative could accelerate forest development because higher income from forest produce will encourage local communities to protect and expand forests.

Forest rights claims

Some community members say they were not even aware that they had a legal right to forest produce under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which recognized the rights of forest-dwelling communities to forest resources.

Forest produce in this region includes tendu leaves, used for rolling hand-rolled cigarettes, bamboo, and flowers and seeds from the venerated mahua tree. Aided by civil society, millions of claims have been submitted under the Forest Rights Act across India, which directly impact forest dwellers’ ability to gain a sustainable income from these lands.

Now aware of their rights, thanks in part to the forest produce marketing initiative, the village council is forming a bamboo management committee, says Bhima Madkami, a member of the tribal community in Jhakhalgundi village in the eastern state of Odisha. “We have collectively decided to sell bamboo directly to the industry, without any middlemen. We want to use the income for developing our village – to improve education, build roads, improve healthcare and livelihoods,” he says.

By the end of next year, the programme will cover about 3,000 villages and close to 5,000 sq km of forest, generating around 10 billion rupees of revenues annually, Chhatre says. The revenues are expected to multiply to 250 billion rupees annually within three years in the three states that have already embarked on the initiative, he says. “The economy already exists. It is just that it is informal” and needs to be organized into bigger groups, he adds.

How the programme works

The programme has three focus areas: creating visibility for forest products using digital technology; aggregating products into large volumes by organizing the local communities and increasing productivity; and setting up formal supply chains connected with industries.

Typically, the world outside of local communities knows little about India’s local forest produce such as the millions of tons of sal seeds that are collected by forest gatherers. Sal yields a butter that can be a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolates (the European Union allows up to five per cent cocoa butter alternatives in chocolates), can be used in cooking, as well as in paints and pigments.

So far, the supply chain for sal seeds has been entirely informal, but now the programme has partnered with three of the five largest buyers, creating a formal supply chain linked with local entrepreneurial groups.

From “stone age” to 21st century technology

Such entrepreneurial groups are not only able to provide the larger volumes that big companies need, but are also better able to grade and sort the produce as well as process it more efficiently. For example, smaller producers would typically dry their seeds in the sun for up to a week, but larger producers’ groups are able to invest in solar driers that slash the processing time by up to a third.

The same technology will be used in Odisha’s tribal areas to process mahua flowers into medicinal oil used in the traditional Indian system of Ayurveda. Although the technology has been available for about a century, Chhatre says, before the programme the local communities were relying on “stone age” technology.

“Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, we created wealth by destroying forests,” says Chhatre, “Now, 40 or 50 years later, we have a much better idea of how to create wealth from forests.”

The use of industrial technology, especially the new emerging technologies such as machine learning and satellite mapping, makes it possible to estimate how much forest produce to expect from a given geographical area, as also to chalk out areas for future production – by planting more trees, for instance – as and when demand picks up.

“We undertake daily, regular patrolling in the forest, during the day and at night,” says Madan Poreti, secretary of the Gram Sabha (village council) at Padiyaljob village in the western state of Maharashtra, where forest rights claims have been made at scale. Villagers are also discussing longer-term forest regeneration plants.

Chhatre projects that communities in Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, where the forest produce marketing initiative is being run, will similarly come together to patrol the forests and implement plans to regenerate them.  

He says two things are clear from the experience of similar programmes worldwide – one, that a model that puts the government at the centre of procurement and sale of forest produce does not work; and two, that a partnership between the local communities, the government and businesses is vital for success.

The government will need to provide the right policy support to strengthen the linkage between the local communities and industry, says Chhatre. The state governments where the programme has been launched have signed an agreement to provide such support.

“The government must provide the policy support and regulations; businesses must provide the market access; and communities must provide the knowledge and management. Sustainability comes from people who live near the forest and benefit from it,” says Chhatre.

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