Radhika Borde and Siman Hansdak
Once upon a time, growing up as an Adivasi in rural Jharkhand in eastern India meant learning what the forest could provide in terms of nourishment, education, and enjoyment— as for Adivasis, a group claiming an Indigenous identity, the forest was a context for living rather than a resource to be exploited. Things had changed, however—until recently, when they suddenly changed back. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of a lockdown across the country, life slowed down in rural Jharkhand, employment opportunities dried up, and villages temporarily barricaded themselves in, preventing entry and exit. Rates of COVID-19 infections in these villages are very low, and it can be argued that it was wise for villagers to barricade themselves in, particularly when one considers the plight of Indigenous villages in South America where infection rates are up to eighty percent.
Just as the pandemic imposed some restrictions, it made other things possible. Significant among these was a resurgence in biocultural activities.
But with no income from daily wage labor, reduced sales of vegetable produce due to the closure of markets, rice stocks from the previous year’s harvest nearly depleted, and a lot of free time on their hands, how are these villagers coping? Just as the pandemic imposed some restrictions, it made other things possible. Significant among these was a resurgence in biocultural activities. We tell the story of this turn of events from the viewpoint of the village of Chanaro, Jharkhand. Chanaro has a large Adivasi population, mostly belonging to the Santhal tribe. While remote, it is nevertheless firmly ensconced in our globalized world—witness the case of a young man from this village who was studying in China and had to return when COVID-19 first began spreading there.
In this both local and global village, groups of women are now going into the forest every day to gather edible fruits, leaves, tubers, and edible herbaceous plants. Men too are going into the forest in groups, to enjoy the communal hunting activities that their ancestors practiced regularly.
Traditionally, these forest-based activities also served as educational programs for Adivasi children, teaching them how to subsist off the forest. In addition, forest activities also enabled children to undergo rites of passage. Since these activities were mostly gender-segregated, girls were initiated into what it meant to be a woman while accompanying older women on gathering expeditions, and information regarding sex was also imparted at such times. Boys were also educated along similar lines by older men when they went into the forest to hunt with them. A Santhal creation myth emphasizes the cultural significance of these activities. According to the myth, the primordial man and woman brought up their sons and daughters separately: the man took their sons with him and the woman took their daughters with her. When the children became adults, however, and the grown women were out gathering together while the grown men were out hunting, they met in the forest, discovering the opposite sex for the first time.
The chance to engage in these traditional activities has meant a chance to rediscover the forest, their culture, and themselves.
Currently, the lockdown has taken a lot of children and young people out of educational institutions, and for some of them the chance to engage in these traditional activities has meant a chance to rediscover the forest, their culture, and themselves. Some young Adivasi men report that by having the opportunity to participate in hunting expeditions, which they hadn’t had before, they feel as if they have been given new life. Indeed, this is the ritual significance of hunting for young Adivasi men.
This resurgence in forest-based biocultural activities, however, is also a renewed dependence on the forest. This raises some important questions: whether pressure on the forest has increased; whether these activities are sustainable if continued for the long term, given that the population of these villages is much higher now than it used to be when such activities were commonplace; and whether the cultural aspects of these activities are as prominent today as they used to be, given that Adivasis have experienced a significant degree of cultural erosion.
This resurgence in forest-based biocultural activities, however, is also a renewed dependence on the forest. This raises some important questions.
When it comes to hunting, it is clear that the way it is being practiced during the pandemic-induced lockdown differs from how it would have been conducted in the past. Santhals distinguish between a Disum Sendra and a Situm Sendra. A Disum Sendra is a territory-based hunt, and it would be organized in each hunting territory that services a group of villages, but only at specific times and with several rules in place regarding it. It is still organized each year, but mostly for ritual purposes. Prior to conducting a Disum Sendra, the spirits that inhabit that particular territory need to be propitiated and a chicken is ritually sacrificed. A Disum Sendra is announced by a herald beating a drum and another man carrying a green branch of the sarjom tree (Shorea robusta), who travel together from one village market to the next. The hunting party needs to leave for the forest early in the morning and avoid being seen by anyone as they do so. A ritual pseudo-hunt conducted by women, called a Kudi Sendra, is also held once every twelve years. It mostly involves the capturing of animals within the boundaries of the village.
The hunts that are being conducted at this time, however, are what the Santhals call Situm Sendras. These are hunts that do not require the propitiation of land spirits. They do not have the same ritual significance and can be conducted at any time and in any manner. Traditionally, Situm Sendras involved a couple of people hunting together. By contrast, now the hunting parties participating in these hunts have swelled in number, and fifteen to twenty people often go hunting together.
When it comes to hunting, it is clear that the way it is being practiced during the pandemic-induced lockdown differs from how it would have been conducted in the past.
Communal forest-based gathering activities by women also possess ritual significance. When women would go to collect leaves, snails, or other wild foods in the traditional manner—that is, in a group and with the specific intention of engaging in a holistic forest activity rather than merely accumulating forest products—they would make a ritual stop along the way to mitigate any effects of the “evil eye.” The forest-based gathering that women do at this time, however, is not taking place in this manner, and the groups that go into the forest for this purpose are smaller. Nevertheless, it is still common for women to take their children with them when they go into the forest to gather—and when queried as to why they do so, the women mention educating children about the forest and its products as an expected outcome.
Some villagers express that it gives them pleasure to participate in the activities of their ancestors, although most of them suggest that the hunting and gathering activities they are engaging in at this time are mainly a way to keep themselves busy and entertained. This is particularly so when it comes to hunting, as there are very few wild animals left in the forest (mostly rabbits and wild boar are being hunted now), and few people possess the skills to catch them with the traditional bows and arrows that are still being used for these hunting activities.
Gathering and hunting are a way to get food for free without dependence on markets—and with the income reduction resulting from the imposition of the lockdown and the scarcity of meat and vegetables due to supply disruptions, this is another reason why these activities have increased.
Yet there also are anxieties about the future, and a way to stave them off is to gather more—more firewood, leaves, edible tubers, mushrooms—some of which can be dried and stored for the uncertain times that the Santhals believe might lie ahead. And there is a perception that these forest foods are healthy and that it is good to eat them during times when diseases are spreading. As well, gathering and hunting are a way to get food for free without dependence on markets—and with the income reduction resulting from the imposition of the lockdown and the scarcity of meat and vegetables due to supply disruptions, this is another reason why these activities have increased.
Nevertheless, the Santhals of Chanaro are unanimous in affirming that it is important to preserve the forest, because if that doesn’t happen the forest will cease to provide for them, and also because they have an ancestral connection to the forest. This is clearly apparent from the manner in which most Santhal women continue to gather firewood, attempting to do minimal damage to the trees and expertly cutting branches in such a way as to allow for multiple shoots to arise from each cut branch. It is also meaningful that the hunting that is taking place is being conducted with traditional weapons that have cultural significance.
For the things we need to learn, it may be the world’s Indigenous Peoples that we must turn to.
As the world reels from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of people with limited financial resources is making the most of what they still have—and what they have is not just the forest, but a whole legacy of interacting with it in a manner that brings nourishment, knowledge, and pleasure. We can only hope that this may be a time when this legacy is both safeguarded and strengthened, and that the children and young adults who are being introduced to it for the first time will learn to appreciate its value. In more developed areas of the world, “foraging” is now being discovered as an alternative to getting food from a supermarket—but perhaps we need to rediscover and recreate entire cultures around this activity so that it may bring us more than just products and goods. For the things we need to learn, it may be the world’s Indigenous Peoples that we must turn to. If we do so, not only will we learn from them, but they will also learn that they have something to teach, and this may help ensure that the legacy they have is never lost.
Radhika Borde is a researcher in the Department of Social Geography and Regional Development at Charles University in Prague and is conducting research in India, where she also worked as an activist and social entrepreneur. She holds a PhD in social sciences from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Siman Hansdak is a member of the Santhal tribe. He has worked with NGOs and government agencies across India and is involved with agricultural projects in rural Jharkhand. He holds postgraduate degrees in Geography from Nalanda Open University and in Rural Development from Xavier Institute of Social Service.