Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

"Hungry season" food from the forests

J. Falconer

Julia Falconer is a community forester currently based in Kumasi, Ghana on a forest management project implemented by Overseas Development Administration

Forest foods are widely consumed in most agricultural communities and even in many urban areas in the developing world. In some cases, they provide a regular supplement to the diet; in others they represent a primary source of food. Most often, however, forest foods are consumed when cultivated food supplies are in short supply at the end of the agricultural season, during crop harvesting when there is little time for food preparation, or during emergencies such as famines and wars (Chambers and Longhurst, 1986). Although few studies systematically examine the seasonal importance of forest foods, a number of case-studies from around the world but primarily from Africa provide enough information to illustrate the critical role of forests in reducing seasonal imbalances in food supply, particularly for the rural poor.

COLLECTING MAHUA FLOWERS as a seasonal grain substitute In India

In most agricultural communities people rely on seasonal crop production. For many rural people, and especially for the poor, these cycles entail periods of food shortage. It is at these critical periods that the importance of forest foods is greatest.

Of course, forests and fallow lands provide food resources in most seasons, in the form of edible leaves, fruits, wild vegetables, roots and tubers and wildlife. But it is at times when few cultivated varieties of food are available-during seasonal shortages and droughts-that forest foods are most appreciated. In southeastern Nigeria, for example, the leaves of the forest trees Pterocarpus sp., Myrianthus arboreus and Ceiba pentandra are highly valued because they flush at the end of the dry season, providing a vegetable during this "hungry period". Similarly, the fruit of Treculia africana, Chrysophyllum albidum, and Dacryodes edulis is popular since it matures with the early rains during the crop planting season (Okigbo, 1975).

Ogle and Grivetti (1985) conducted one of the most extensive studies of wild food consumption. They found that throughout Swaziland more than 200 species of wild plants are commonly consumed. Wild leaves such as those of Grewia sp. are consumed primarily in the spring and summer, while fruits are eaten during the winter and spring when they supply the main source of vitamin C. Other forest/bush foods are also used seasonally, most notably mushrooms, caterpillars and termite larvae. In Upper Shaba, Zaire, women are reported to spend several hours a day collecting mushrooms during the early rainy season (Parent, 1977). The potential of mushroom cultivation as a nutritional component in forestry development efforts has been demonstrated conclusively in successful pilot activities in Bhutan, Thailand and Mexico.

Wild leaves are popular in the rainy season in the Machakos district of Kenya. It has been estimated by a study team that these foods contribute 35 percent by weight to the diet at that time (Wachiira, 1987). Fruits are also consumed seasonally, especially by children. Ximeia caffra and Sclerocerva birrea fruits are so popular that they are found increasingly on farms. In the Kathama area, wild fruits have long been valued as buffer food resources in famines and food shortages.

A study of forest fruit consumption in Zimbabwe revealed that peak collection and consumption of wild fruit do not take place during the main fruiting season, but rather when cultivated food supplies dwindle and requirements for agricultural labour are at their lowest (Campbell, 1986). Thus fruits are consumed when they are most needed rather than when they are most plentiful. Despite the diversity of forest fruits (at least in some regions), the three species Diospyros mespiliformis, Strychnos cocculoides and Azanza garckeana are most popular. They are generally consumed as snacks (by 95 percent of those surveyed), but in some households they are consumed in meals as well. The fruiting season of some fruit-trees, including mangoes, can be easily manipulated and the potential benefits of this type of intervention merit further research.

In Zambia's Luangwa valley, Marks (1976) noted that wild foods are important components of the diet, especially during the hunger period. In Mukupu village, for example, in September wild vegetable foods provide ingredients in 42 percent of the meals served (compared with cultivated vegetables, used in only 10 percent of the meals at this time of year). By comparison, in June wild vegetables are used in only 7 percent of the dishes compared to cultivated varieties which at this time feature in more than half the meals.

In many regions hunting is also a seasonal activity, undertaken during the off-peak agricultural season. In the rain forests of Zaire, hunting is at its peak in July and August (the slack period in agriculture), and at its lowest level during the planting season (Mankoto ma Mbaelele, 1987). Similarly, in the Boualé region of Côte d'Ivoire, hunting and gathering are at their peak in the agricultural slack period (Blanc-Pamard, 1979).

The seasonal contribution of forest foods is especially important in arid regions where seasonal food supply fluctuations are acute. In the Ferlo region of Senegal, although there are as many as 150 wild plant foods available, only those products that are available during seasonal "hunger" periods are widely consumed. Of particular importance are the leaves and fruit of baobab (Adansonia digitata), the leaves, fruit and seeds of Balanites aegyptiaca and the fruit of Ziziphus mauritiana which is principally gathered by the Moors. The processed fruit of Boscia senegalensis is consumed as a staple during the hunger period since it is one of the few species producing at the end of the dry season. Similarly, the availability throughout the wet season of the leaves of Cassia obtusifolia contributes to their popularity. Other forest foods are relied upon only in food emergencies (Becker, 1983).

In Ethiopia, Pterocarpus sp. and Myrianthus sp. are highly valued for their dry season flushes which provide leaves when few other vegetables are available (Getahun, 1974).

In the semi-arid Pokot region of Kenya, tuyunwo (Balanites aegyptiaca) is highly valued because it produces during the dry season even in drought years when few foods are available. Trees also provide valued bee fodder for honey production; honey is used to produce the traditionally popular mead drink (Ostberg, 1988).

Although most of the studies on seasonal uses of forest foods drawn upon in this article are set in Africa, there are examples from other regions. In northeastern Brazil, approximately two million people depend on babassu palm (Orbignya sp.) products for food, medicine, building materials and cash (May et al., 1985). The fruit and kernels provide critical foods during the seasonal hunger period. Milk, produced from crushed kernels, was consumed by 69 percent of those interviewed, and processed fruit provides oil for most households. In addition, palm groves are important hunting grounds for several popular large rodents (notably Agouti paca and Dasygprocta punctata). The fallen stems of babassu also provide a habitat for beetle larvae-a popular snack food.

In India it is estimated that 80 percent of the forest dwellers in Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh depend on forests for 25-50 percent of their annual food requirements (CSE, 1985). These resources are especially important during food hardship periods. Surin and Badhuri (1980) relate that the tribal peoples living in the Chotanagpu plateau depend on forest foods for four to five months when agricultural production is impracticable. Many varieties of mushroom, fruit, leaves, and seeds are consumed. Of particular importance are sal seeds (Shorea robusta) which are boiled with mahua flowers (Mahua-Bassia latifolia) as a substitute for grain staples.

In Bangladesh, consumption of fruit, roots, tubers and fish increases dramatically during the two food scarcity periods preceding the rice harvests. For example, during the May-June lean period, average daily consumption of tree fruit reaches 191 g per caput, compared with 1 g per caput in the post-rice-harvest season (Hassan et al., 1985).

Beyond their contribution as a source of gathered food, in many rural areas trees are incorporated into farming systems (see article on p. 35 by J.E.M. Arnold). These trees are highly valued for the foods they produce during strategic periods; they often help to even fluctuations in food supply. In addition, during planting and harvesting seasons tree foods may provide snacks which supplement the diet when there is less time available for meal preparation. In northern Thailand farmers plant or protect existing fruit-trees in or near their paddy fields. The fruit, and the leaves in some cases, are especially valued during the hunger period as well as at planting time (Grandstaff et al., 1985).

Nutritional studies of home gardens (intensively managed areas combining perennial and annual species) have shown that they provide foods throughout the year. In Puerto Rico, for example, home gardens are thought to increase the total food supply during particular seasons (Immink et al., 1981). In Java, a significant portion of foods consumed by a household is cultivated in home gardens. Tree foods are particularly valued as year-round food sources. Jackfruit and coconuts actually produce year round, whereas mango, durian and mandarin production coincides with periods of staple food scarcity (Soemarwoto, 1985).

The causes of seasonal nutrition problems are not necessarily confined to the vagaries of dry and wet seasons; "administrative seasonalities" can create or worsen seasonal food shortages (Chambers and Longhurst, 1986). For example, school fees must often be paid on an administrative calendar that does not correspond with crop production. Similarly, loan payment schedules may differ from harvest cycles (Moris, 1985). Thus, the need for cash may not correspond with a household's ability to earn it. In these circumstances, a lack of cash for food purchases may lead families to supplement their diet with gathered foods. The potential role of forest foods in filling "administrative" hunger periods should also be considered in forestry development efforts.

Emergency foods from the forest

For many people forests also provide foods during emergency periods. In the Sine Saloum region of Senegal, for example, the Wolof and the Soce have traditionally turned to the forests in food emergencies (Bergeret, 1986). The wild yam Dioscorea praehensilis provides a staple food when grains fail. Similarly, the forest tuber Raphionacme daronii is consumed raw as a staple (at other times, it is often eaten by children as a snack). The leaves of Portulaca cleracea and Ficus dekdekena are used in sauces when other products are unavailable.

In the northeastern regions of the Amazon, the Kayapo Indians intensively manage "islands" within forests for forest foods to provide refuge in times of war or disasters (Posey, 1985).

In general, famine foods differ from those forest foods consumed at other times. They are characteristically energy-rich, but often have other qualities that discourage their use on a continuing basis. For example, throughout Sahelian Africa, baobab (Adansonia digitata) roots are consumed during famines; during less trying times, only the fruit is eaten (Irvine, 1952). In northern Senegal, Becker (1983) found that fibres extracted from Grewia bicolar and the seeds of Combretum aculaetum were used only in emergencies.

DRY SEASON SUPPLY - this baobab has lost its have. but still bears fruit

Often the limiting factor is the lengthy processing needed to make these foods palatable. During famine periods fishermen from coastal East Africa utilize the spongy pith of cycads (Cycus thuarsii) as a grain substitute. The stem is cut into pieces and allowed to ferment for a week; then it is washed, sun-dried and pounded into flour (Weiss, 1979). Wild yam tubers (Dioscorea sp.) also have a high energy value, but to remove toxins they must be sliced, boiled several times in salt water, washed in fresh water and then pounded before they can be consumed.

In their study of the food resources of the Zambezi woodlands Malaisse and Parent (1985) note that the stems of Encephalartos poggei are a good source of energy and protein. However, they require lengthy processing: the stems are steeped in running water for three days, sun-dried and then crushed into a powder.

Roots and tubers are particularly good famine/drought foods as they persist with low rainfall and, in some cases, provide drinking-water. Across most of tropical West Africa people have traditionally relied on roots, tubers and rhizomes gathered from forests (or fallow lands) to tide them through famines (Irvine, 1952).

Gums are also consumed. Gum arabic (from Acacia senegal) is fried to make n'dadzalla (a dish eaten by Mauritanian nomads), or is mixed with sugared water as a milk substitute (Giffard, 1975).

In Botswana, the San bushmen use numerous plants as sources of drinking-water, notably the tubers Raphionacme burkei and Coccinea rehmannii (Fox and Young, 1982). In Natal, Fox and Young found 33 species valued as famine foods, including the fruit of Carissa macrocarpa and Natal plum (Bequaertiodendron natalense), and the roots of many species including Boscia albitrunca and Maerua caffra.

Approximately 150 species of wild plants consumed in India, Malaysia and Thailand have been identified as sources of emergency foods (FAO, 1984). For example, the kernels of Shorea robusta, the bark of Acacia leucophica, Bombax ceiba and Premna mucronata are ground into a fine flour to make chapatis (normally made with wheat or rice flour). The grains of several species of grasses, especially bamboo, contribute to the bulk of foods consumed in such scarcity periods.

Changes in forest food exploitation

The consumption of forest foods appears to be declining in many regions. This is partly a result of changing tastes and expanding markets for foreign goods as rural economies become increasingly exposed to market forces. Another important contributing factor is the declining availability of forest foods as growing populations, severe forest degradation and privatization of formerly common lands combine to put increasing pressure on the remaining forest resources.

In the Sine Saloum region of Senegal, Bergeret (1986) examined the impact of forest degradation on people's forest food consumption. She found that as a result of serious degradation by a combination of drought and overexploitation by charcoal-producers (outsiders producing for the urban market) many of the valued and traditional foods are no longer available. The majority of those interviewed felt that the loss of forest resources had negatively affected the quality of their lives. In a few cases, forest trees have been planted on farms, in villages and near people's homes. However, as the rights to use and manage forest trees are unclear in this area, there is little general support for planting.

Turton (1977) suggests that the degradation of wild resources had disastrous effects upon the Mursi of southwestern Ethiopia. Prior to the severe drought of 1973, the Mursi had always relied on wild bush foods to tide them through crop failures. The severity of the drought and the degradation of wild bush resources led to severe deprivation and famine in a society that had formerly coped well with drought conditions.

As the availability and consumption of forest foods declines, so too does knowledge of their utility (Turton, 1977). This is especially true for those foods traditionally exploited in emergencies since poor processing techniques can in some cases prove fatal.

In southern Africa, for example, Fox and Young (1982) found that veld foods were less commonly consumed than in the past, and only older women were knowledgeable about the diversity of bush foods. The introduction of education has meant that children spend far less time on agricultural lands, in the bush, or at cattle posts and thus have less exposure to the "bush" and its resources. addition, the diversity of bush resources has declined.

Furthermore, in some areas the advent of food aid and increased commercialization in rural areas has also contributed to a decline in the use of forest products during shortage periods. Where more easily prepared and often better-tasting alternatives are available, people may abandon their traditional emergency foods.

Nonetheless, for many rural people, and particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable, forest foods continue to be essential dietary components in hard times. This can lead to the planting of trees or their incorporation in farming systems. For example, Campbell (1986) found that residents in the most severely deforested areas of Zimbabwe had selectively maintained their favourite wild fruit species by incorporating them into the farming system. However, deforestation had affected the prevalence and use of other less favoured fruit species. In the southeastern areas of Nigeria, Okafor (1979) reports that forest fruit-trees are increasingly found on farm lands and there is increasing demand for fruit-tree seedlings.

Development options: Gearing forestry activities to people's food needs

Forests have traditionally met, and still can meet, specific dietary needs. The potential for programmes to help fill important food gaps can be summarized as follows:

Supplementary foods: forest species that meet daily diet needs, as well as providing foods of cultural importance.

Seasonal foods: forest species that produce during food stress periods. Also important ate species that produce during peak agricultural labour periods when energy requirements are greater and there is less time for meal preparation. Research will be required to identify species that leaf or fruit during the desired time periods; the potential for development of simple methods of altering leafing or fruiting periods of valuable species should also be evaluated.

Emergency foods: a different variety of food is required during these periods. Roots and tubers, for example, are often more important than fruit since they provide more calories and are more persistent in droughts. Before trees are introduced as emergency or drought species, a clear understanding of how they perform under extreme conditions is needed. In many cases, the time and land investment for emergency food production may be too great for the potential risks involved.

MARKETING TAMARINDS - tamarind fruits (used to make a nutritious beverage) can be stored for several month. after harvesting

In all three categories above, but particularly in the case of emergency foods, there is an urgent need to tap sources of traditional knowledge.

The potential of forests and trees to provide food resources, especially during food-scarce periods, depends largely on appropriate management. Protection and development (through selection) of forest food resources are essential. Forest fruit and nut species are generally found in low densities in natural stands; appropriate selection and management of food tree species can lead to increased densities. Forest areas can be managed for the production and protection of wildlife and fish species. Wildlife habitat management such as selection for fodder species, small clearings and buffer strips along stream edges can all contribute to increased, or sustained food production.

Although it may be a truism, access to forest areas by local people is essential if forest foods are to be used and appreciated. Development efforts that restrict the access of local people to previously available resources will need to provide alternative sources of food or income if negative nutritional impacts are to be avoided.

On the other hand, careful attention will also need to be paid to programmes or policies that nationalize forest land previously subject to traditional or private control. Issues of common property resource management will be of particular importance.

Of course, the nutritional value of forest foods in terms of smoothing seasonal imbalances in food supply will need to be more fully understood in order to plan and manage their continued or increased utilization. However, being aware of nutrition problems is not enough. An understanding of cultural tastes and traditions is also important, especially if the introduction of new products is foreseen. In addition, the timing of cash needs and sources of income need to be considered. Many institutional seasonalities can influence resource use. Forest species that produce goods to fill these institutionally created hard times can also directly affect household food security. Similarly, periods of peak labour demand can have important repercussions on the use of forest foods as well as on people's nutritional needs. Thus, nutrition information (e.g. hunger periods), cultural (e.g. food preferences) and economic information (e.g. labour demand) must be balanced with forestry management and technical expertise to form the base from which forestry projects can address the development potential of forest food resources.


Bahuchet, B. 1978. Les contraintes écologiques en forêts tropicales humides: L'exemple des pygmées Aka de la Lobaye (République centrafricaine). Journal d'agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquées, 25(4): 257.

Becker, R. 1983. The contribution of wild plants to human nutrition in the Ferlo, northern Senegal. Agroforestry Systems, 1: 257-267.

Bergeret, A. 1986. Nourriture de cueillette en pays sahélien. Journal d'agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquées, 33: 91-130.

Blanc-Pamard, C. 1979. Un jeu écologique différentiel: les communautés rurales du contact foret/savane au fond du V Boualé. Travaux et documents, 107. Paris, ORSTOM.

Campbell, A. 1986. The use of wild food plants and droughts in Botswana. J. Arid Environments, 11(1): 81-91.

Campbell, B.M. 1986. The importance of wild fruits for peasant households in Zimbabwe. Food and Nutrition, 12(1): 38-44.

Chambers, R. & Longhurst, R. 1986. Trees seasons and the poor. IDS Bull., 17(3): 44-50.

CSE. 1985. The state of India's environment 1984-1985. New Delhi, India, Centre for Science and the Environment.

FAO, 1984. India, Malaysia and Thailand: a study of forests as a source of food. Bangkok, Thailand.

Fox, F.W. & Young, M.E. 1982. Food from the veiled: edible wild plants of southern Africa botanically identified and described. Cape Town, Delta.

Getahun, A. 1974. The role of wild plants in the native diet in Ethiopia. Agroecosystems, 1: 45-56.

Giffard, J. 1975. Les gommiers: essences de reboisement pour les régions sahéliennes. Bois et forêts des tropiques, 161(3).

Grandstaff, S. et al. 1985. Trees in paddy fields in Northeast Thailand. Series in Ford Foundation Project socio-economic studies of the farmers in rained areas of Northeast Thailand. Khon Kaen Univ.

Hassan, N. et al. 1985. Seasonal patterns of food intake in rural Bangladesh: its impact on nutritional status. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 17(2): 175-186.

Immink, M.D.C. et al. 1981. Home gardens and the energy and nutrient intakes of women and preschoolers in rural Puerto Rico. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 11: 191-199.

Irvine, F. 1952. Supplementary and emergency food plants of West Africa. Econ. Bot., 6(1): 23-40.

Malaisse, F. & Parent, G. 1985. Edible wild vegetable products in the Zambian woodland area: a nutritional and ecological approach. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 18: 43-82.

Mankoto ma Mbaelele, M. et al. 1987. Data on small- and medium-scale game utilization in the rainforest of Zaire. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Wildlife Management in sub-Saharan Africa, Harare Zimbabwe.

Marks, S. 1976. Large mammals and a brave people: subsistence hunters in Zambia. Univ. Washington, Seattle, USA.

May, P.H. et al. 1985. Babassu palm in the agroforestry systems in Brazil's Mid-north region. Agroforestry Systems, 3(39): 275-295.

Moris, J. 1985. Indigenous vs. introduced solutions to food stress. Paper presented at the Workshop on Seasonal Causes of Household Food Insecurity. Washington, D.C., International Food Policy and Research Institute.

Ogle, B.M. & Grivetti, L.E. 1985. Legacy of the chameleon. Edible wild plants in the Kingdom of Swaziland, southern Africa: a cultural, ecological and nutritional study. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, in four parts: 16(3): 193-208, Parts II-IV: 17(11): 1-64.

Okafor, J.C. 1979. Edible indigenous woody plants in the rural economy of the Nigerian forest zone. In D. Okali, ed. The Nigerian rainforest ecosystem; man and the biosphere, Unesco.

Okigbo, B.N. 1975. Neglected plants of horticultural and nutritional importance in traditional farming systems of tropical West Africa. Acta Horticulturae, 53: 131-150.

Ostberg, W. 1988. We eat trees: tree planting and land rehabilitation in West Pokot District, Kenya. A baseline study. Working Paper No. 82. Uppsala, Sweden, International Rural Development Centre, Swedish Univ. Agric. Sciences.

Parent, G. 1977. Food value of edible mushrooms from Upper Shaba. Econ. Bot., 31: 436-445.

Posey, D.A. 1985. Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems: the case of the Kayapo Indians from the Brazilian Amazon. Agroforestry Systems, 3(2): 139-158.

Soemarwoto, O. 1985. The Javanese homegarden: an integrated agroecosystem. Food and Nutrition, 7(3): 44-47.

Surin, V. & Badhuri, T. 1980. Forest produce and forest dwellers. In Proc. Seminar on the Role of Women in Community Forestry. Dehra Dun, India.

Turton, D. 1977. Response to drought: the Mursi of southwestern Ethiopia. Disasters, 1: 257-287.

Wachiira, K.K. et al. 1987. Women's use of off-farm and boundary lands: agroforestry potentials. Final report. Nairobi, ICRAF.

Weiss, E. 1979. Some indigenous plants used domestically by East African fishermen. Econ. Bot., 33(1): 35-51.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page