Chennai: In the forests of Bastar in eastern India, indigenous women busied themselves with picking the beige-colored fruits of the tamarind tree, a spicy staple of Indian cuisine that earned them rare profits this year thanks to an exceptional harvest.
For decades, mining has eaten away at the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh. But as the state moves away from opening coal mines, authorities have introduced measures to increase production of forest products – from tamarind to cashews and medicinal seeds.
â€œSetting a minimum price means that intermediaries and traders have to pay a fair price. Families’ incomes have increased, â€said Sushma Netam, who oversees the implementation of the public program to promoteâ€œ tribal entrepreneurship â€.
Netam said production has skyrocketed since the state launched its “just transition” plan, a green economy strategy put in place to cushion the impact of moving away from coal.
â€œWe now have over 200 village groups in the area, 49 haat (local market) groups and 10 processing centers,â€ she said.
As India strives to expand coal mining to meet its energy needs, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has announced that the state will move away from opening new mines in charcoal in 2019 to help reduce emissions and protect forests.
Chhattisgarh has India’s second-largest coal reserves and significant deposits of iron ore, limestone and bauxite, but it remains one of the poorest states in the country, with over 40% of its population living below the poverty line.
As part of the â€œVan Dhanâ€ plan, the state increased the purchase price of 52 forest products in 2019 and purchased 73% of all products harvested in the state last year.
â€œMining has been the key to the economy and continues to high standards. But our priority is now the forest, â€said Manoj Kumar Pingua, State Principal Secretary for Forests and Industries.
â€œWe are ready to give up millions of rupees generated by mining to protect and improve the livelihoods of forest gatherers. In mining, a few earn money, but in the green economy, the profit goes directly into the hands of the people. “
Chhattisgarh, 44% of its land area of â€‹â€‹which is forested, is now seeking to build an organized industry around non-timber forest products, which it says would benefit around 1.7 million families working as gatherers.
Deforestation of land for mining has significantly affected the livelihoods of indigenous communities, who derive up to 40% of their income from forest products.
Revathi Bagel, 21, works in a recently reactivated cashew factory in the village of Bakawand where she and other local women prepare the nuts to ship to markets across the country. Previously, she traveled hundreds of kilometers to work as a seasonal worker.
â€œI walk to work and get paid 8,000 Indian rupees ($ 108) per month. It’s so much better than going to (the western state of) Gujarat to pay off an advance and work in someone else’s fields, â€she said over the phone, as heaps of cashews were unloaded.
Forest products are traditionally harvested mainly by women, who sell them in village markets and use the income to buy basic necessities, but a large network of middlemen has limited the benefits for forest communities.
The lack of storage facilities and processing units in remote villages also limits their profits, said Anushka Rose, research coordinator at the Center for Labor Research and Action, a charity promoting the rights of informal workers.
â€œIf you look at the mahua, people pick it up and sell it in May to local traders because they can’t store it,â€ she said, referring to the flowers of the Madhuca longifolia tree, which have many medicinal uses and are brewed for a party spirit.
â€œTwo months later, they buy it back at a higher price to use it in their festivities. If the Van Dhan program is strictly monitored, this situation will change. “
But despite such optimism about the program’s potential, uneven implementation and banking problems have limited its impact so far, said Rajim Ketwas, coordinator of Dalit Adivasi Manch, a collective working on indigenous rights.
â€œLate payments or digital transfers remain an obstacle. Families want cash on hand and waiting to be paid for hard work will not be acceptable, â€she said.
Deep in the forest in the state’s Baloda Bazar district, village resident Kaushalya Chauhan said by phone that her community’s payment for chironjee seeds – used medicinally – had been delayed.
Pingua acknowledged these issues and said state authorities were working with the banking industry to ensure women in local markets can access digital payments.
Netam, the forest officer, said his biggest achievement so far had been to ensure that the 3,741 tonnes of tamarind collected in Bastar over the past eight months was seeded and processed in record time.
This was the largest harvest of tamarinds ever in the district.
â€œIt made me so happy that the job was done and the women were paid,â€ she said.