Kamali, an old woman, treks six km to get some tubers to make a special dish at home. She lives in Kanne, a thick evergreen forest village of only 15 families. Typically, families grow their own tuber crops every year for their food supplement. “We largely depend on the forest for our many needs. Without the products and services provided by trees and forests, our life comes to a grinding halt. We don’t have much money to go to towns to fetch food products as they are getting expensive by the day. And we don’t have any transportation to fetch produce.”
This is true of all the Western Ghats forest villages of Uttara Kannada and Belgaum districts. All the villagers grow their own tuber crops which will suffice them for a year. Whenever they grow more, they bring it to the nearby market in the town to sell their produce. Tuber crops find an important place in the dietary habits of small and marginal farmers, especially in the food security of the tribal population. The Western Ghats are particularly rich in wild tropical roots and tuber crops. The key tropical tuber crops are cassava (manihot esculenta), sweet potato (ipomoea batatas), yams (dioscorea alata, d.esculenta and d.rotundata), aroids which include elephant foot yam, taro and tannia (amorphophallus, colocasia or taro) and other minor tuber crops such as arrow root, yam bean, canna etc.
In recent years, Ramanagar, a market hub and a small town in Joida taluk on the way to Goa and Belgaum, has seen a surge in demand for colocasia. Every Sunday, people from the surrounding villages fetch loads of it to sell in the market. Most of the people travelling to Goa and Belgaum purchase them in a large quantity. Jayanand Derekar, a young wildlife conservationist, who has grown up in the forests amid people of Kunabi tribe, says that the tuber has “recently been grown in 30 acres of land around Ramanagar only. It has a great demand in Goa. There is a need for an integrated approach to biodiversity conservation, value addition and good market facitlities for this variety.” The indigenous knowledge that the tribals and ethnic groups of Joida forests have is an important resource.
A marketing and utilisation survey of some forest tubers sold in Dandeli, Haliyal and Ramanagar revealed that eight plant tubers were sold and utilised for food in the region.
Owing to their perishable nature, these tubers are either stored in ventilated areas or buried in the ground. The price of each plant tuber ranges from Rs 20 to Rs 50. The cost of each tuber in all the four markets was almost the same.
The Western Ghats region is also a storehouse of several under-utilised edible tuberous species of which tacca bipinnatifida, asparagus spp., aponogeton sp., and ceropegia sp. are also used as vegetables.
Yams (dioscorea) are also valued greatly in the Western Ghats, because of their nutritional quality. Every household in the villages of the Western Ghats grows a few lines of yam climbers.
The contribution of these forest tubers to the village economy is invaluable. An integrated approach on biodiversity conservation and sustainable utilisation is crucial. Root and tuber crops have tremendous importance as a means of livelihood; they serve the immediate needs of individuals for both food and income. Safe conservation and sustainable use of plant biodiversity is essential for meeting the present and future needs of people in the Western Ghats.