KANDHAMAL, India — Sampati Kahanra, a woman from the Kandha tribal people of eastern India, has a deep connection with the forest. From as long as she can remember, she has been walking in the dense greenery to find food, firewood and leaves. It started when she was a child going out with her mother, and now continues for her own home and three children. Up at dawn, Kahanra, 48, quickly finishes her chores and then with a few others, heads to the jungle. Together, the women forage for bhalia seeds (an indigenous wheat), tamarind, nutritive mahua flowers and, most important, huge siali leaves.
Back by noon with her collection, Kahanra sits down to stitch together homemade plates from the leaves. It is time-consuming work, and she gets tired sitting for long hours on the floor of her thatch-roof hut, binding the leaves together. But Kahanra knows that this work brings in much-needed money for her family.
Making plates from siali leaves is a tradition in India. Until last year, Kahanra made a pittance from the sale of plates to local traders, but today, thanks to an Indian-German venture that exports the biodegradable leaf plates internationally, Kahanra’s monthly income has grown 10 times, to the rupee equivalent of almost $45. As export of the plates has grown in recent years, three federations of self-help groups in the area are benefiting from this project, which has given a whole new meaning to this home-based work by tribal women.
“There was a time when we used to get 10 or 12 rupees [about 15 or 16 cents] for a bundle of 80 plates,” Kahanra said. “The money was not commensurate with the effort involved. But ever since I joined a self-help group, I have been able to secure a better price from the traders in the large market around five kilometers from here.”
A neighbor and fellow group member, Ashumati Kahanra, agreed, saying: “Fact is, that before we formed the self-help group we had no bargaining powers. Most of us were forced to accept the poor rates that the traders would offer us. Those days are well behind us.”
What changed the rules of engagement with traders was an intervention initiated by Vasundhara, a nonprofit research and policy advocacy group in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, where the women live. The group works on issues of environmental conservation and livelihood creation for the rural poor.
“We have been working to create awareness around the Forest Rights Act [of] 2006, among communities that depend on the forest for their sustenance,” said Manmohan Barik, the Vasundhara program officer in Kandhamal.
“[The forest act] enables them to set up and run enterprises using forest produce,” he said. “Tribal women like Sampati, Ashumati and many others have benefited immensely. Being part of a group has not only improved their income but has also enabled them to collect forest produce responsibly. They understand that if the forests survive, then so do they.”
The forest act puts the ownership rights of small-scale forest produce in the hands of the village and gives it the authority to issue permits that enable the transit and sale of products by local people. This has opened up possibilities for the tribal people to reach buyers directly. As a result, with the assistance of Vasundhara, 33 women from eight villages joined to set up a self-help group in 2015. “The forest is ours, and our livelihood is directly linked to the resources we can gather from it,” the women say.
“Siali is a vine that grows in abundance in a forest of sal trees,” said Rashmita Bindhani, 22, secretary of the local group and one of the few tribal women in the area who is educated. She handles the group’s accounts and negotiates with the traders.
“Its lush leaves are large and durable, and for generations we have used them to make plates and bowls for household use as well as to sell,” she said. “Earlier, we used go individually to the market to sell our wares, but nowadays the traders have started coming to us. Through our association with Vasundhara, we have learned a better technique of stitching the leaf plates.”
The partnership with the German company, Leaf Republic, which retails biodegradable tableware across the world, appealing to environmentally conscious buyers, has been the big game changer, said Chittaranjan Pani, the Vasundhara forest researcher and program coordinator.
“Leaf Republic’s India division, Bilotech Plant Materials Pvt. Ltd., was scouting for leaf-based biodegradable products when they got in touch with us,” Pani continued. “After several rounds of discussions, an agreement was signed last September between the women from the self-help groups in three districts and the Germans. Thereafter, we organized training programs to teach them an improved technique of stitching the plates so that they could deliver a quality product. So far, collectively, the women have supplied nearly one lakh [100,000] Siali leaf plates.”
Collecting and processing the leaves remains the same. After leaves are gathered, they are left to dry in the sun for around three days before the women sit down to sew. The one big difference is the stitch they use. “The training has definitely helped us,” Sampati Kahanra said. “We collect the better quality leaves and then make sturdier stitches so that the end product is up to standards.”
For these industrious tribal women, however, their relationship with the forest is not one-sided. They also believe in giving back. Putting things in perspective, Rambhabati Kanhara, another woman in the group, talks about the challenges they face.
“Bad weather conditions are playing havoc with our forest,” she said. “A few months ago, during the summer season, a fire broke out in the siali forests nearby, and we all suffered huge losses. The erratic rains, too, bring their own set of problems. For instance, the humidity is perfect for caterpillars and other insects to thrive. They spoil the leaves. If we have to continue to derive our livelihood from the trees, then we have to find a way to protect them.”
To save their forest, the women’s group in the Kandhamal district, where Sampati Kahanra lives and works, has decided to take some important steps. “We are going to start planting more saplings in the forest and also keep an eye on who all are accessing the forest produce, so that there is no indiscriminate exploitation,” she said. The group plans to set up a warehouse where the women can come to make the products and store them safely.
“In this way,” she added, “we will ensure that there is minimal wastage, which will positively impact the forest as we will not unnecessarily keep going back for more leaves.”
Pani of Vasundhara noted: “As eco-friendly products gain ground nationally and internationally, it creates a win-win situation for all. That’s because while this gives forest dwellers a fighting chance at building a better life for themselves, instinctively these communities are bound to defend their habitat.”