Tribal communities in Odisha’s protected forests better placed in keeping virus at bay

Their interaction with outsiders is less as Nature gives them abundant nutritious food in the shape of leafy vegetables, roots, tuber as well as fungi.

July 19, 2020 06:35 pm | Updated July 20, 2020 12:56 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

People collect mushrooms inside Similipal Forest in Odisha.

People collect mushrooms inside Similipal Forest in Odisha.

With many States resorting to lockdown measures to break the chain of infections in the wake of the spiralling COVID-19 positive cases, tribal communities in Odisha’s protected forests seem to be better placed to keep the virus at bay during the monsoon season.

Most national parks and reserves have shut their doors for visitors with the onset of the monsoon season. While the government justifies the closure of protected forests stating that the roads turn non-motorable, conservationists say the decision is based on sound scientific logic as the forests and wildlife need time to rejuvenate.

Also read |Odisha imposes 14-day lockdown in four districts

Blessing in disguise

It has, however, come as blessing in disguise for the forest communities.

“While the tribal hinterland has so far largely been untouched by the pandemic, seclusion of aboriginal communities in protected forests for the next four months would help them stay away from the infection,” said Hemanta Sahoo, a senior researcher who works with Vasundhara, a city-based voluntary organisation.

The monsoon season marks intensification of shifting cultivation in forest areas. “After a few showers, we broadcast seeds in vast stretches of forestland. Both women and men work in the fields to ensure good harvest. Even visitors stop entering forests. We have already heard of the virus. The lesser we interact with outsiders, the better we will be,” said Gunjeram Bodra of Kohla village inside the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj district.

Mr. Sahoo said, “The tribals do not depend on markets during rainy season. Nature gives them abundant nutritious food in the shape of leafy vegetables, roots, tuber as well as fungi. As per our studies, 228 nutritious food items are found in Similipal alone. And half of the edible varieties are sourced during the monsoon.”

According to a study by Debal Deb, a scientist, on the foods consumed by the indigenous forest households in Rayagada district, the wild foods provide between 12% and 24.4% of annual household uptake of cooked food and many of them are rich in macronutrients and energy contents.

Indigenous rice varieties

Around 8 lakh people mostly tribals live in 1,461 villages that fall in Similipal. They grow indigenous rice varieties, horse gram, black gram and sesamum indicum. This population virtually stays in lockdown mode during monsoon.

As per conservative estimates, 20 lakh people stay inside the 18 major protected forests. Odisha houses the largest diverse groups of tribal population (62 tribes) in India. Thirteen of them are particularly vulnerable groups.

“They also preserve food such as roots, seeds and meat. As a matter of fact, they find it difficult to step out of their villages as roads get cut off by swirling stream water,” said A.B. Ota, Director of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI).

Sudden spike

Odisha has been witnessing a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in July with Ganjam and Khordha districts being the major contributors. Though there has been a substantial rise in the cases in the tribal-dominated districts such as Sundargarh, Keonjhar, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanj, Koraput, Malkangiri, Rayagada, Kalahandi and Nabarangpur, the spread has been confined to mainly district and sub-divisional headquarter towns.

The forest hinterland is untouched by the pandemic. Researchers emphasised that tribals inside forests remain in natural lockdown and the government must ensure their seclusion. Most of the tribal areas are bereft of robust healthcare facilities. In the event of the spread of the virus, the government may find it difficult to save its aboriginal tribes, researchers warned.

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