Botanical bonanza

Last Updated 28 July 2014, 13:49 IST

 Rajeshwari N writes how uppage, a fruit of the Western Ghats, is helping shape lives, livelihoods and economies

Every year during the monsoon, people of Benagaon, a sleepy village on the crest of the Western Ghats in Uttara Kannada district become extraordinarily busy for the next one month – collecting, processing and storing fruit rinds of uppage. Scientifically called Garcinia gummi-gutta, it is popularly known as Indian gamboge or manthupuli in some parts of Karnataka, and as kodampuli in Malayalam. It is a botanical cousin of the much-famous Garcinia indica or kokum.

Grown only in the evergreen rain forests of the Western Ghats, the fruits of uppage are a bounty of nature. The fruit rinds of uppage possess a special chemical called Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) which has a proven anti-obesity property. Curiously enough, the seeds of uppage are also a rich source of edible fat which can be used to gain weight. About 400 gm of edible butter could be extracted from a kilogram of seeds.

Traditionally, the people of west coast relish dried fruit rinds of uppage as a culinary agent to spice up non-vegetarian dishes such as fish curry and give them a delicate smoky flavour. Extracting the edible butter from the seeds is a traditional art, mostly of the upghat region.

Sweet dishes like athrasa, prepared out of uppage butter are a special delicacy during festive season. However, the discovery of the HCA in the fruit rinds and subsequent demand by the pharmaceutical industries catapulted uppage from as a small-time subsistence fruit into the international arena. Today, the business volume of HCA world over has crossed a few million US dollars.

Keeping families busy

One can find more than a dozen anti-obesity products based on the Indian gamboge for sale on the internet. Several Indian pharma giants have also fielded Garcinia-based anti-obesity products recently. Today, nearly 80 percent of the world’s HCA production is done in Karnataka.

With the increase in the demand for uppage, fruit rinds as raw material, collecting and processing the fruit rinds has become an activity that generates substantial family income in villages of the Western Ghats. Since the last two decades, the people of Benagaon are convinced that two or three months of hectic activity of uppage processing would bring them economic returns almost comparable to that of cultivating arecanut.

The Hegde family from Benagaon, remembers that the art of processing fruit rinds was introduced in the village for the first time in 1980s. Hegde perfected the art to suit to the Malnad conditions. He also demonstrated that processing fruit rinds could generate income to the family.

Uppage fruits start to mature during the monsoon. It is also the right time to start picking them. The golden-yellow ripe fruits are either picked from the ground or harvested from trees during June-August period. As the fruits are highly acidic, they are susceptible to fungal infestations. Hence, it has to be processed immediately after their collection. However, sun-drying of uppage is almost impossible as the fruit maturity coincides with the peak rainy season, where it rains for more than 25 days a month.

The matured collected fruits are cut into halves and the seeds are then separated. The fruit rind is spread out on a raised iron mesh platform and a fire is lit beneath it. The heat dries the fruit rinds and turns them black with a characteristic smoky odour.

The processing of uppage offers jobs to all family members; while men collect them from the field and bring them home, the womenfolk separate the fruit rinds and seeds. A group of four to five women and children do the separation job in the back yard. Drying the fruit rinds on fire and periodical turning on the mesh is a speciality job of the men.

Looking for alternatives

On an average, close to 10 kg of dry fruits are processed in a day in a household and sold at Rs 80 a kg. In this village, almost 120 households are involved in Garcinia processing, making it the most valuable non-timber forest produce of the Western Ghats. Girish Bhat of Benagoan is of the opinion that this traditional processing is ecologically expensive since all the firewood used in the processing is extracted from the nearby forests and cost is not included production.

At least 10 kg of fire wood is used to produce one kg of dried fruit rind. He feels there is a need for an alternative way of processing the fruit rinds using fuel-efficient driers.

At least in Benagoan village, the marketing of processed uppage fruit rind is channelised through a tender process of the Forest Department. With the people’s participation in the decision-making process, the village forest committee is actively engaged in the tender process. However, the price fluctuation for processed fruit rind is still a big worry for the people. Further, the villagers feel that despite the large demand for uppage, butter in nearby towns like Sirsi, Siddapur and Yellapur is not available in the market for over-the-counter buying.

The College of Forestry, Sirsi, has undertaken a United Nations Environment Programme-Global Environment Facility-supported regional project on Conservation and Sustainable Use of cultivated and Wild tropical Fruit Diversity: Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods, Food Security and Eco System Services.

The project is being coordinated regionally by the Biodiversity International in collaboration with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, Indonesian Centre for Horticulture Research and Development (ICHORD), Jakarta; Malaysian Agriculture Research and Development Institute (MARDI), Kuala Lumpur and Department of Agriculture (DOA), Bangkok. The project involves mass multiplication of tropical fruit crops and in situ and ex situ conservation and grafting.

(Published 28 July 2014, 13:37 IST)

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