Illustrative and illuminating: Review of ‘Wild Tastes in Asia’ by Madhu Ramnath and Ramon Razal

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and written with an extraordinary sensitivity

Updated - November 21, 2020 06:46 pm IST

Published - November 21, 2020 06:30 pm IST

An Adivasi girl with her little brother in a tea garden in Sonitpur district, Assam. (File photo)

An Adivasi girl with her little brother in a tea garden in Sonitpur district, Assam. (File photo)

“All around food lies ready which nature has distributed in every place; men pass it by as if blind to it…” The authors of Wild Tastes in Asia quote Seneca, the Stoic philosopher from ancient Rome, on the prevalent lack of knowledge about ubiquitous wild foods. The quotations that embellish this book are from a wonderfully wide variety of sources. Stoic philosophy resonates remarkably with environmental connectedness and Gandhi’s insistence on eating local foods rather than transporting them absurd distances as the modern market system dictates.

But the main subject of this book is the knowledge, deep yet barely recognised, that tribal communities possess about the wild foods of the forest. ‘Forest as Home, Home as Forest’: this is a book that confronts many modern assumptions about normality, starting with ideas about food as something cultivated, bought and sold as part of an economised food chain.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and written with an extraordinary sensitivity that balances botanical knowledge with a deep understanding of indigenous cultures and food traditions. It should be an indispensable resource for those working in a number of related areas. In the Indian context, it is unique in its survey of ‘wild food’ in the form of fish, animal, bird and insect species as well as plants. It broadens our horizon far beyond the farms and plantations which dominate the modern mind’s imagination as sites of food production.

We meet the situation of indigenous peoples in six countries: India — where Madhu Ramnath has unparalleled experience — as well as specific peoples in Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. All six countries have witnessed appalling depletion of forest biodiversity, and ‘greening’ programmes, such as the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act in India, that increase ‘forest’ in the form of plantations of non-indigenous mono-crops, with few benefits for indigenous peoples who depend on wild species.

Tragically, these programmes have usually discounted these peoples’ immense knowledge of forests and their species, and the complex, ancient interdependence between human and non-human. The top-down hierarchy of India’s forest service, for instance, inherited from British times, tends to discount indigenous knowledge completely, though Ramnath’s form of activism, developed over decades, has cultivated friendships with sensitive forest officials, encouraging them to meet Adivasis and draw on their expertise in a quietly egalitarian mode.

A key theme is the fun and pleasures of convivial life among those living close to nature. Humour is a key aspect in most indigenous societies, that many ethnographers evoke rather poorly, and that helps people in these communities face the pressures that make their traditional economies increasingly fragile. The book situates food practices not only in the geographical habitat that indigenous peoples inhabit but also in their social milieu, and illuminates the logic embedded in the tapestry of food and accompanying rituals.

The emphasis in this book is therefore the wealth of knowledge about natural species that indigenous people pass down through the generations, with poignant comment on its decline among the youth today, and paths of rejuvenation. In each society — especially many Adivasi societies in mainland India but also those in NE India and SE Asia — those who know them well over several decades have been witness to a marked decline of skills and interest among the younger generation. Partly this is because of deforestation, and illegalisation of gathering and hunting in remaining forests.

Another range of reasons for the frequent decline of this forest knowledge involves rapid social change, and the diversion of youth interests into other channels: the allure of money, roads, mobile phones, and the structuring of school education in a way that undermines traditional skills and values by denigrating nature-based traditions as old-fashioned ‘superstition’.

In India, most tribal schools are ridden with notions of primitivism and backwardness, leading to devaluing of indigenous languages and values, skills and knowledge, including those around wild food. The predominant models of Hindutva schooling and different models of extraction education in the rush to assimilate indigenous children into dominant economic and religious ideologies leave no room for forms of knowledge outside of the mainstream. As the authors remark pointedly, “Most of the main streams are already polluted”. Yet there are signs of hope and resurgence, with many communities counteracting these tendencies.

A Tiwa tribeswoman in Karbi Anglong, Assam, prepares the day’s meal for her family.

A Tiwa tribeswoman in Karbi Anglong, Assam, prepares the day’s meal for her family.

Most ethnobotany emphasises plant medicines separately, recording lists of plants and uses disembodied from the cultures and ‘Adivasi Economics’ that give this knowledge life. Traditional societies (including Ayurveda) tends to look on food itself as our primary medicine, rather than trying to isolate specific chemical elements in medicinal plants, as pharmaceutical companies do, that draw on indigenous knowledge of healing properties of plants to make ‘great discoveries’ that at another level hugely diminishes this knowledge.

The wider context in India bears the shadow of the Green Revolution, involving vast challenges presently faced by farmers, with tens of thousands of farmer suicides, due to market manipulations, terminator/ GM seeds, reliance on chemical (fertilizer/ pesticide) inputs, high levels of debt, and new legislation promoting monopolistic agriculture. These issues of rights of farmers and organic traditions are extremely important, yet the book’s emphasis on wild food offers a radically different, complementary perspective.

This forest knowledge forms the essence of many of the world’s indigenous cultures, that the modern world needs to relearn. The Amazonia has seen some of the deepest work on indigenous plant-food knowledge, from a Brazilian indigenous language compendium to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think , from the Kichwa-speaking Runa in Ecuador, paving the way for an anthropology that goes beyond the human — as the present book does also, in a different way.

Wild Tastes in Asia gives a vital Asian perspective from cultures that are increasingly marginalised, presenting this knowledge through each element of the plant, and different uses for root, bark, leaf, flower, fruit, stem and shoots. For its botanical photos and compendium of knowledge alone, this book is unparalleled.

As the authors comment, introducing the dimension of ritual and festivals near the end: ‘Most indigenous peoples believe in the sacredness of the forest and relate to it in ways unexplained by “scientific logic”.’

What is vital now is to move beyond the lists, as this book does, and to find ways of celebrating the resurgence of Adivasi learning systems, supporting the identity of forest peoples in terms of their self-sufficient symbiosis with the forests where they live. At this time, their land and forest rights are still being rapidly undermined, and the government’s tendency is to inculcate dependence at many levels. Can we start to think of forest as home, and forest knowledge about its foods as a necessity for human survival, as well as a joyful terrain of learning?

‘There is no doubt that the forests have largely remained intact for hundreds of years because of the presence of the native people inside forests, with their regular use and consumption of the resources in them. That the forests then were left largely unperturbed in the hands of indigenous peoples is a testament to their ability for harmonious co-existence and the spot-on blending of their practices with the forest ecology.’

Wild Tastes in Asia: Coming Home to the Forest for Food; Madhu Ramnath & Ramon Razal; published under NTFP Exchange Programme, 2019; $30 (hardbound) or $20 (paperback — ).

Felix Padel is a social scientist trained at Oxford and Delhi Universities. Malvika Gupta is a D.Phil candidate at the Department of International Development at Oxford University.

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