2. The historic role and recoverable value of Indian forests

In Tending the Earth [p15], Winin Pereira notes the description, in an ancient Indian treatise – the Arthashastra –  of the spatial arrangement which contributed to Indian villages’ self-reliance: “Village houses, massed together, were surrounded by orchards, pastures and forests in that order”.

 The forests and pastures were common property, providing grazing and a large number of wild plants with multiple uses. These provided a range of products which would otherwise have had to be cultivated or purchased with cash.[89] 

During the British rule, the Chief Conservator of Forests, C.C.Wilson, reported that villagers obtained a great part of their daily needs from the forests: cooking fuel, timber for building shelters, to make ploughs, grazing for cattle, green-leaf manure for their fields, tanning bark for leather and bamboo used for many purposes. [22] 

Elsewhere, Pereira adds to this list of plant-derived uses: fodder, resins, fibres, pesticides, and medicines. He writes:

[82] A number of products were collected from ”waste” lands and forests, of which only a representative few can be mentioned here. 

Gokhru, a wild herb, was gathered for food in large quantities, providing a substantial contribution to food. Mahua, a forest tree, grew best on stony ground. Its seeds yielded an oil used for cooking and lighting, particularly by Adivasis. The oil was also used to make soap. The thick fleshy flowers were either dried and stored for food since they are rich in carbohydrates and sugars or distilled to produce alcohol. In the Konkan regions (coastal Maharashtra), the dried flowers provided up to a third of their annual carbohydrate requirements. In Gadchiroli, the dried flowers are stored by the Gonds in baskets lined with the leaves of kojam, which prevents fungus from infecting the flowers, for up to 2 years. The marking nut (bibva) provided edible and nutritious nuts and was also used by washermen for marking clothes. 

Chandrajyoti (physic nut), although an exotic shrub, grew in almost every stream bed and plot of fallow ground The live plant was used as a framework for fences. It gave oil for lighting the seeds being so rich in oil, that they were threaded on a thin stick and lit as a mobile torch. Today the oil is used for soap, lubrication . . . The twigs were used as toothbrushes. 

The bark of the anjan tree from the forest was much used in making ropes, which were cheaper and more lasting than ambadi ones. But again, enclosure forced farmers to use more of their land for the latter crop.  

An inedible wild bottle gourd, called kadva bhopla, was used for floats. Two of them, firmly tied together with string, made a very substantial buoy for a single swimmer; more of them were made into a raft which was used to carry heavy loads across the roughest rivers . . . 

The plant diversity in turn maintained a diversity of insects, birds and other creatures . . . Much fish was obtained from streams and wells.”


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