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Building Robust Rural Economy in Tribal Areas through MFPs

NeW Bureau

Forestry is the second largest land-use in India after agriculture. The forest occupies a central position in tribal culture and economy. Its products are the main sources of income for the tribal population that inhabit wide ecological and geo-climatic conditions in different concentrations throughout the country. It offers vast potential for poverty reduction and rural economic growth in India while also supporting critical national conservation goals. For numerous forest dwellers across India, particularly people from scheduled tribes, minor forest produce (MFP) also known as non-timber forest products (NTFP) has significant economic and social value.

Forests have been playing a vital role in the socio-economic and cultural life of the Tribal people of India. The areas inhabited by the tribal constitute a significant part of the underdeveloped areas of the country. The two main regions of tribal settlement are the country’s northeastern states bordering China and Burma, and the highlands and plains of its central and southern regions. The latter is home to more than 80 per cent of the tribes, which differ from the northeastern tribes in ethnicity and in having experienced greater “intrusion of the Indian mainstream and of the pan-Indian model of the state, society, economy and culture”. There are also differences in the extent to which the tribes interact with non-tribal communities. While the northeastern tribes are usually isolated communities, the tribes in peninsular India may at times coexist with non-tribal people.

Tribal communities which largely occupy the forest regions from time immemorial have lived in isolation from the mainstream of national life but in harmony with nature. They have rich traditions, cultures and heritage with unique life styles and customs. Despite some regional variation, the tribes share many common traits, including living in relative geographical isolation, and being relatively more homogeneous and more self-contained than the non-tribal social groups, they enjoy autonomy of governance over the territory they inhabit. They held control over the land, forest and other resources and governed themselves in terms of their own laws, traditions and customs.

India’s population includes nearly one hundred million tribal people.  As a consequence millions of people in rural areas depend on forests for at least part of their livelihoods. Forest Produce is defined as “All material yielded by a forest estate”. Forest produce is further classified as “Major Forest Produce” and “Minor Forest Produce or Non-Timber Forests Products”. Major forest produce is referred to timber, small wood and firewood and minor forest produce is referred to all forest produce other than major forest produce. For communities to benefit from the untapped potential of forests, wide ranging and carefully phased reforms are required. At the same time, programs need increased development focus to broaden livelihood opportunities. The potential benefits from such a reform program at the community level, coupled with gains in forest productivity, are enormous. In India, the MFPs over the years have been playing an important role in the viability and survival of tribal households because of the importance of forests in their social, cultural and economic survival. Hence if the country is to reduce poverty rapidly, developing a dynamic agriculture sector and diversifying into nonagricultural activities must be key objectives. Rural economic diversification, both within agriculture and into non-agricultural activities, has significant potential to reduce poverty, increase coping mechanisms in face of crop failure or price volatility, and improve food and livelihood security of rural households.

Consequently Government of India has initiated a number of steps to develop socio economic conditions of tribal population in the country and one of those initiatives, is the formation of Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Limited (TRIFED) in 1987. It is a national-level apex organization functioning under the administrative control of Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Govt. of India. TRIFED has a network of its (Member Federations) and (13 offices) all over India with its headquarters in New Delhi. The ultimate objective of TRIFED is socio-economic development of tribal people in the country by way of marketing development of the tribal products on which the lives of tribals depends heavily as they spend most of their time and derive major portion of their income.

The approach of marketing development of tribal products envisages TRIFED’s role as a facilitator and service provider. The philosophy behind this approach is to empower tribal people with knowledge, tools and pool of information so that they can undertake their operations in a more systematic and scientific manner. It involves capacity building of the tribal people through sensitization, formation of Self Help Groups (SHGs) and imparting training to them for undertaking a particular activity, exploring marketing possibilities in national as well as international markets, creating opportunities for marketing tribal products on a sustainable basis, creating a brand and providing other services.

TRIFED in its endeavor to develop the marketing of minor forest produce is engaged in skill up gradation and capacity building of Minor Forest Products (MFP) gatherers with the objective of improving their income by way of organizing training for non-destructive harvesting, primary processing, value addition and marketing of MFPs. It has been observed that without value addition of MFP, possibility of providing remunerative prices to the MFP gatherers is limited. Accordingly, TRIFED has now designed its training programmes to include forward & backward linkages as an integral part of the training. Now the objective is to empower the beneficiaries through training, provide information and handhold them by including them as a supplier of TRIFED as far as possible or link them to different marketing channels.

Minor Forest Produce (MFP) is a subset of forest produce and got a definition only in 2007 when the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted. Section 2(i) of the said Act defines a Minor Forest Produce (MFP) as all non-timber forest produce of plant origin and will include bamboo, canes, fodder, leaves, gums, waxes, dyes, resins and many forms of food including nuts, wild fruits, Honey, Lac, Tusser etc. The Minor Forest Produces provide both subsistence and cash income for people who live in or near forests. They form a major portion of their food, fruits, medicines and other consumption items and also provide cash income through sale. Minor Forest Produce (MFP) starts with the word “Minor” but is a major source of livelihood for tribals who belong to the poorest of the poor section of society. The Minor Forest Produce has significant economic and social value for the forest dwellers as an estimated 100 Million people derive their source of livelihood from the collection and marketing of Minor Forest Produce (Report of the National Committee on Forest Rights Act, 2011). The importance of Minor Forest Produces for this section of the society can be gauged from the facts that around 100 million forest dwellers depend on Minor Forest Produces for food, shelter, medicines and cash income. It is important for them for food, shelter medicines and case income beside providing critical subsistence during the lean seasons, particularly for primitive tribal groups such as hunter gatherers, and the landless. Tribals derive 20-40% of their annual income from Minor Forest Produce on which they spend major portion of their time. This activity has strong linkage to women’s financial empowerment as most of the Minor Forest Produces are collected and used/sold by women. Minor Forest Produce sector has the potential to create about 10 million workdays annually in the country.

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