On a Sunday morning, when half of Mumbai was submerged in torrential rains, I got on a train to Neral to learn about the forest foods of the Konkan region. The workshop was being organised by Vanvadi, a forest collective around 15 kms from Neral railway station. After almost a 45-min auto-rickshaw ride, I reach a place which is far removed from the urban development just a few kilometres away from one of the busiest cities in the world.
More than two decades ago a bunch of like-minded people pooled-in their resources to buy undulating land in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats. “Ecological regeneration and local self-reliance was our primary aim,” says Bharat Mansata, an active founder-member of the collective. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more like-minded people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” he adds. The venture was tentatively named Vision Acres which was later changed to a more local name ‘Vanvadi’ which means forest settlement of forest farm.
Over the past 24 years, the 64 acre land has regenerated into a magnificent forest, dense and rich in biodiversity. A local adivasi family looks after and works at Vanvadi, almost since its inception. Bua, the eldest member of the family, guides us inside the forest to introduce us to various edible wild greens and plants that grow in abundance during monsoon. He gently navigates his way and points out various vines, plants and trees that either yield seasonally edible parts, or are useful to the adivasis in some other way.
During the trail we spot ran suran (loth), a wild variety of yam which has a beautiful ruby red flower sprouting from the ground like mushroom. Its tender leafy growth is also consumed as a vegetable, cooked along with another forest plant bondara. Bua plucks a young leaf off a plant and hands it over to us to chew on, the leaf is bitter with a sour aftertaste. We also munch on tiny variety of awala and aliv, a fruit which looks like chikoo but has a sour aroma when it’s not fully ripened.
Vanvadi, with the help of local adivasis, has listed over 120 plant species in its forest which are useful to the locals in some way or the other. Out of these about 52 species provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root) at a certain time of year. However, early monsoon is the peak season for harvesting many wild greens – the fresh, tender growth of almost a dozen vine species. Certain trees have multiple uses like mahua’s leaves are turned into fodder, flowers are well known for brewing liquor but they’re also cooked in various ways (there are dozens of recipes in Central India that use mahua flower), fruit can be cooked like a vegetable and seed is crushed to yield cooking oil. The residual cake after extracting the oil works as manure for the crops. The wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments, agricultural tools etc. However, it’s sacrosanct to cut a mahua tree; the wood is only used if the tree dies.
Presently, less than 2 acres at Vanvadi are used for farming. Mansata tells us that the original plan was to plant mainly fruits and vegetables, the adivasis showed them that a variety of local millets like nachni, varie, kangu, jowar can also be grown on the gentler slopes; and rice too on relatively flat, lower-lying areas.
After our walk in the woods we come back to the mud cottage, the only house in the midst of the forest, for a lunch cooked by the adivasi family and the Vanvadi volunteers. On the menu there are greens like a wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leaves, and ulshya, all stir fried with minimal spices. For accompaniments there’s sesame and garlic chutney, koshimbir with mahua flower and dry black chana with dried mahua flower. We polish off the humble meal with nachni bhakri and local variety of rice.
The forest regeneration has also helped the area solve the problem of water scarcity in summer. “We get around 8 ft of rain in an average year. With such a generous supply any water scarcity is a human failure, not nature’s short-coming,” says Mansata. The porous soil of the forest acts as a massive sponge to efficiently recharge the groundwater drawn from wells and bore-wells, while stream-bed check dams and reservoirs harvests rain as surface water bodies. . The land and its downstream villages now have water all year round, despite a proliferation of one-way extraction bore-wells in surrounding areas in recent years.
Vanvadi has had its fair share of struggles and fights too, mainly dealing with the builder community which is deforesting big chunks of land to build resorts and holiday homes. “When locals cut the trees for firewood or other use, they don’t damage the roots and most trees regenerate. However, the developers dig out the roots with JCBs, which is the major reason for soil erosion under heavy rain, which then silts up stream-bed water bodies,” says Mansata.
While there are challenges, Vanvadi is slowly growing as a space to host workshops, work camps, forest food trails and ecology-related educational activities to understand the local flora and fauna, and the vital life-supporting ‘environmental services’ that the forest provides. Every year, starting on Dussera, it also hosts a Vanutsav or forest festival – to celebrate nature and community.
To stay updated with the events and workshops being conducted at Vanvadi, you can request to join their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/vanvadi.