Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


The section reviews the importance of forest resources for the families to make a livelihood. The changing conditions in the forest environment and subsequent decrease in bio-resource base have significant implications for the livelihood and food security for forest dependent people. Herein, through a few illustrations the dynamics of shifting forest resource base as it impacts on family's food security is captured.

8.1 ‘Gotukola’ (Centella asiatica)

Centella asiatica (family Umbelliferae) is a small herbaceous plant with trailing habit, bearing near orbicular leaves on long stalks. In South Asia it has a wide geographic distribution from the Himalayan foot-hills to Western Ghats in India and also to Sri Lanka. ‘Mandoo Kaparni’, the ancient ayurvedic medical system in India had extolled its virtue as a drug to enhance memory and general vitality. In Northeast India, its leaves are used to treat stomach ailments. It has also been used in the treatment of leprosy and skin diseases and given to women with jaggery as a tonic after delivery. In France, its use in cosmetics has been patented.

In Sri Lanka the plant is popularly called ‘Gotukola’, occurs wild in the wet and intermediate climatic zones and also has become an integral part of home gardens, all over the country. It is used as a green vegetable in preparing gruel (Kanda). It is considered a tonic and given as a special food to growing children and women during pregnancy. The credit for its entry from wilderness into home gardens goes to women for having identified it as a safe nourishing green vegetable. They initially collected the daily requirement of leaves from the nearby forest, but subsequently thought it convenient to transplant the rootstocks into the home gardens and in the process domesticated the plant. Domestication saved the species from overexploitation of its natural sources. The clonal selection under domestication has produced sturdy large leaf cultivars, which have a genetic basis.

With increasing urbanisation, the demand for ‘Gotukola’ in the vegetable market also increased, which initially (partly even at present), were met by uprooting this perennial plant species from its natural sources. Keeping in view the sustained demand in the market and the bulk requirements for the preparation of ayurvedic medicines, supplies from natural sources became so inadequate and erratic, and so the enterprising farmers put it under cultivation.

In the home garden near Digennewa, a dryzone area in the Southwest region, three fourth of an acre are under ‘Gotukola’ cultivation. The land had been divided into 24 sq.m. Plots and rootstocks had been planted. The total land produced about 2 500 packs of ‘Gotukola’ leaf cuttings, each with about 60 leafy shoots. The crop is harvested in three months intervals. It fetches an income of 15 000 to 20 000 rupees annually, excluding the cost of nutrient inputs in the form of urea and pesticides. A motorised pump did irrigation. The entire family works especially the women and grown-up children and no outside labour is employed. Pharmaceutical companies purchased the crop. The rest of the home garden has coconut, papaya, banana, and mango, lime, lemon, and jack trees mainly for use of the farm family. About 300 farm families are engaged in ‘Gotukola’ cultivation in the area.

The popularity of ‘Gotukola’ as a green vegetable and its therapeutical properties as a health food had induced entrepreneurs of urban areas to market instant ‘Gotukola Kanda’ (gruel) preparations, sold in the form of attractive aluminium foil sachets in the leading supermarkets in Sri Lanka.

In this profitable chain of development the first step was the discovery of ‘Gotukola’ as a healthy green vegetable, and the second its transfer into the home gardens and its domestication. In both crucial steps, the ingenuity and deep insight of the farm women has to be applauded. However, during its subsequent shift commercial cultivation as a supermarket, the gender roles changed. Men took over the operative part of marketing, as it is the men's exclusive domain in Sri Lanka.

As ‘Gotukola's’ quantum jump from commonplace roadside market to super market was the success of post-harvest processing technology and modern marketing, the farm families who cultivated the crop did not benefit much. An intervening step of involving women and empowering through with training, access to post-harvest technologies, finance and urban market education would have been required increase their share in the higher earnings. After all ‘Gotukola’ has always been a women's crop and they constitute a socially and the economically disadvantaged class. The Gotukola example serves well to illustrate the developmental pathways which lead to an increasing dis-empowerment of rural women.

8.2 Products from Kitul (Caryota urens)

"Kitul (Caryota urens) is a multipurpose tree species found in natural forests and home gardens in the wet and intermediate zones, at altitudes between 200–1 500 metres. This species provides a variety of popular products, of which the sap is the most important. Kitul sap is the base for local beer (today), treacle and jaggery. Treacle and jaggery are sugary substances, which are used in preparing a variety of traditional sweets. Hence they have a good market throughout the country. Kitul sap is obtained by tapping the inflorescence. The sap is heated to produce treacle and jaggery. In producing toddy, the sap is fermented with natural yeast. Other non-wood kitul products include the sago-like pith, which forms a valuable food, and kitul fibre, which is obtained from the leaves.

Kitul tapping has a long history in Sri Lanka. There is even a special caste (hakuru), which make its living from kitul tapping and jaggery making, and also generate a large proportion of the rural economy. Both men and women participate in kitul tapping and processing. Men tap the inflorescence and collect the sap, while women boil the treacle and produce the jaggery.

There are two main kitul-tapping areas in the state forests. The largest is in the Southern and southwestern part of the country (Ratnapura, Galle and Matara districts). Smaller clusters are found in the central highlands (Kegalle and Kandy districts). As kitul is a wet zone species, no kitul-related activities are found in the dry zone. The kitul palm reaches maturity and bears flowers after about five or six years. Tapping is seasonal as the sap is produced mainly in the rainy season. The peak production times are from August to March. The income generated by villagers from this activity is sufficient for their normal livelihood. Although some engage in this work as a part-time occupation, many others regarded this as a full-time job. Around 20–30 percent of the villagers in the wet zone engages in this economic activity. In most of the wet zone forests, kitul products generate over 70 percent of NWFP income for village communities. The average value of kitul products from lowland rain forests (in the wet zone) is around SR 10 000 (US$ 200) per hectare per year.

Though production is localised, there is a high demand for kitul products all over the country in both rural and urban markets. The marketing structure of kitul has not been studied well. Products are marketed either through middlemen or directly by producers. “One of the basic problems in marketing jaggery and treacle is the lack of quality control measures. Kitul toddy marketing has been seriously affected by current legal restrictions. As a result, toddy is either consumed by the tapers or sold secretly in villages. Kitul products are not exported at present” (Bandaratillake, H.M. 1994).

Besides maintaining their home gardens, the villagers living in the nearby reserve forest areas such as Sinharaja International Biosphere Reserve, used to tap the kitul trees in the forests. Presently, villagers are not allowed to go to Sinharaja for kitul tapping.

According to Mr B. Somapala, who owned a small 1.5-acre tea plantation as a part of his homegarden near Sinharaja, “people no longer depend upon Sinharaja forest resources for their livelihood”. He was of the view that products of kitul tapping were out of fashion for the new generation. So kitul trees were dying out of neglect. Ms. Nilmini expressed similar view, lives in Colombo. In her homegarden, she had a couple of kitul trees, which could not be tapped for a number of years, due to lack of a professional tapper. The family kept the trees for a few years for sentimental reasons, then reluctantly, decided to replace these with other profitable fruit trees. The young generation of tappers felt that they could not survive on these seasonal tapping jobs, therefore, and sought other lucrative professions. With the passing away of the older generation of tappers, a highly skilled profession will also pass into history.

However, there are villages whose inhabitants survive on kitul tapping and rearing cattle. One such village near Matugama, Southeast of Colombo, specialises in tapping, for there is a virtual forest of kitul trees. In this village with 50 houses and about 250 inhabitants, the men do the tapping and women boil at home the sugary juice and produce treacle and cakes of jaggery. This being their meagre season-bound source of income, they live in mud-huts, with no roads, tap water and electricity available. They know no other skill. Therefore, to supplement their income, the men and women seek jobs as farm labourers in nearby paddy fields, which is again seasonal employment. The water drawn for household use is obtained from a nearby stream and a dug well. With changing times such a scenario offers no incentive for the younger generation of the tappers.

The kitul jaggery cakes are rich in nutrients with high mineral content. Its intake is healthier than that of white sugar. The food and taste value of treacle or ‘kitul honey’ to a Sinhala is same as of the ‘maple syrup’ to an American in north-eastern United States. A desert of curd with a layer of treacle is a sheer delight. The impending decline in the population of this graceful tree, will signal a significant loss of genetic diversity and also a loss of a valuable culinary product and an age-old cultural tradition.

8.3 Rattan products

In Sri Lanka, rattan comes primarily from the natural forests. Of the 10 native rattan species widely used in the rattan industry. The uses of rattan range from construction material for housing (wattle and daub houses) to raw material for furniture, kitchen utensils and rope. Rattan is one of the most important raw materials for cottage industries. At present, the rattan industry operates on a commercial basis in 13 out of 25 administrative districts in Sri Lanka, but production has declined recently due to shortages of raw material. About 2 100 – 2 200 persons are estimated to earn their primary family income from the rattan craft industry. This figure however, includes only those persons who earn over one third of their income through the craft. Full-time and part-time women are nearly equal in number, as are males and females. Some workers are engaged only in cottage industry production, while others work in all stages of production, from collecting raw materials to processing and selling rattan products. A third category of workers includes gatherers who only collect raw material, either for their own subsistence consumption or for sale to other crafts workers (Bandaratillake, 1994).

A study carried out by the Forest Department (Epitawatta, 1994) indicates that in almost every village near the wet-zone forests, between 20 and 60 percent of villages, the residents collect rattan, either for commercial purposes, or for their own subsistence consumption. This situation is different in the dry zone where the collection of rattan is confined only to certain areas. In some dry zone areas (e.g., Dimbulagala), more than half of all villagers earns substantial income from rattan collection and cottage industry production.

The small town Radwaduwa on the Colombo-Kandy Road has about twenty roadside shops, which act as outlets of cane furniture and other household products. It is a family business of manufacturing and selling. They obtain the raw material against a permit from the forests of Pollonnaruwa in the Central Northeast and Ampara in Southwest. Since, the local supplies are inadequate, rattan is also imported from Malaysia through the State Trading Corporation (STC).

Men do cane harvesting and peeling into shape. The furniture-making task is divided among men and women workers. The men prepare the frame and women do comparatively more intricate and refined tasks of cane weaving. While the men go to the place of work, the women workers prefer to get the material at their home, which enables them to attend to also household tasks. The making of frame is comparatively faster work, producing 3–4 frames per day, while the women doing the cane weaving are able to make only one per day. The wages for men and women workers are also different. Men are paid Rs.150.00 per frame, and women receive a higher amount of Rs. 200.00 per woven item, as the job requires a certain amount of artistry besides skill. Given the ease and greater number of frames produced, men earn more than women do, and hence a gender differentiated wage structure.

The women change the design of the cane furniture, in terms of shape and the art pattern periodically. The author talked to a shop owner, Mr Rohita Jayaweera, and his wife Mrs Pushpa Dharmadassa. Both had school education upto ‘A’ level, the wife had studied commerce as a subject and found it useful in conducting business. The family earns about Rs.4 000 to Rs.5 000 per month. This is supplemented by some income from the home garden, as they own 0.5 acre of rubber plantation. They consider the future of the cane furniture industry bleak, due to increasing shortage of raw materials and other supplies. The Government is discouraging the business of cane furniture making due to the continued over-exploitation of the rattan as forest resource. Expanded propagation of rattan cane is one way out of this dilemma.

8.4 Bamboo and palm products

Five species of bamboo are commonly used in Sri Lanka. Three are native, and two are introduced species. Both native and cultivated species provide raw material for the bamboo industry. Traditional production of basketware, bamboo flutes, ornamental items etc. Is based on native species, while the two introduced large-diameter species are used primarily as wood substitutes in the construction industry. The three native species (bata species) grow primarily in natural forests in the wet and intermediate zones. The number of workers engaged in bamboo craft production is smaller that engaged in rattan production.

Bamboo is utilised for household items and agricultural use as in winnows containers, called ‘kuruniya’ or ‘laha’ of woven strips for measuring paddy. Wayside shops sell bamboo handicrafts, variously dyed. Women are the main craft persons.

The trunk of a young kitul palm is utilised for making the pestle for pounding paddy. The fronds of coconut are used to make brushes with long handles for scrubbing the floor. The coconut husk is also used for similar purposes. The hard shell of the coconut is cut into two and used to set the concentrated jaggery syrup into half-spherical cakes. Women mostly prepare these items. These rural products of forest-based material, that help gain extra income for the farm family. These items find a ready market in the small wayside shops run by women (De Zoysa and Vivekanandan, 1991).

Unlike rattan, the bamboo industry does not totally depend upon natural sources, but the percentage of bamboo harvested from natural forests is unknown. The number of villagers involved in bamboo collection lower than that collect rattan. In wet-zone areas, 10 to 50 percent of villagers are involved in this activity. Since the natural distribution of bamboo species is confined only to the wet and intermediate zones, people living in the dry zone are generally not dependent on this industry" (Bandaratillake, H.M. 1994).

8.5 Case study forestry resources and the landless poor

Case 4
Bio-resource use for subsistence production scrapping atex and collecting procupine quills
Along Ella-Wellawaya road, three young women named Gianwathi, Nandawathi and Karunawathi and one aged man found a vocation in making small rubber balls by scrapping latex from an abandoned rubber plantation and collecting porcupine quills. They would try to sell these unsophisticated items to tourists who visit the area thus make a small earnings. They represent the landless, skilless poor. They were married women with six to seven family members, including their aged parents. Being skilless, the women and the men could earn a living only as seasonal agricultural labourers and work as irregular employees in some local industry such as ‘beedi’ making. One of them earned about Rs. 100/- making 1 000 ‘beedies’. Their husbands found employment on average for 20 days per month at the rate of Rs. 100/- per day. The monthly family income varied between Rs. 2 000 to Rs. 2 500/-. It could be less but not more. The Government, under the Samurdihi economic aid programme for poor below the poverty line, provided Rs. 500/- in form of food stamps and Rs. 500/- for the education of children of school-going age. Notwithstanding the harsh economic conditions and no assets, these families were keen to educate their children.
The old person named Perumal was also landless and due to old age his physical infirmities had gained over him. But to add to his family's bid for survival, he also went scrapping latex to make a souvenir, which had few buyers. His two grown-up sons, who were just literate and with no special skills, worked as casual labourers and earned Rs.100 per day for 20–25 days a month. Perumal's family lived at subsistence level and survived under severe economic limitations. However, in spite of their limitations, they saw an earning opportunity from a resource available at no cost - hoping that the novelty of a porcupine quill could attract buyers - tourists! Their special skill existed in the form of knowledge of the flora and fauna in the nearby forests, especially of plants of economic importance. A large number of medicinal plants were being harvested from the forest area for local and commercial purposes.
Perhaps here existed a good opportunity to utilise the knowledge base of the poor for cultivating medicinal and other plants of economic value, to serving the dual purpose of providing sustainable self-employment, elevate them above the poverty line, and achieve sustainable management of the wild genetic resources.
The approach calls for the development of a policy framework by the Government, and under it provisions to be made for access to a plot of land, adequate financial support during the gestation period, and marketing linkages. Apparently skill less, these women possessed a wealth of knowledge of forest flora and fauna available. They utilised their knowledge in collecting plants for food, medicine, fuelwood etc. For their day to day needs. The support programme should, therefore target the women in the category of landless, poor quality land holders and other socially deprived group of women such widows, female heads and poor single women. Such a programme would help in providing meaningful employment to women, reduce the amount spent on welfare schemes and also provide sustainable utilisation of natural forest resources.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page