Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Tribal household economy, forests, and the role of women

Tribal household economy, forests, and the role of women

Forests and forest resources, primarily minor forest products (MFP) or NWFPs, play an important role in the viability and survival of tribal households in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere in India, because of the importance of forests in their social, cultural and economic survival (Tewari, 1989). Estimates of the revenue contributions of NWFPs in India vary considerably. Some estimate that NWFPs contribute US$ 208 million to the Indian economy while another calculation places the revenues from NWFPs at US$ 645 million (Lele et al., 1994). Yet another figure offered by Poffenberger estimates that the total annual value of NWFPs from the central Indian tribal belt alone exceeds US$ 500 million (Poffenberger, 1990a). All of the estimates, despite their variations, lead to the conclusion that collecting and processing of NWFPs are economically significant activities for forest dependent tribals. Studies conducted in the tribal regions of north-east India also indicate high rates of dependence on forests to meet fuelwood needs (Maikhuri, 1991).

Recent studies conducted in the tribal regions of Bihar, West Bengal and Karnataka offer further empirical evidence for the extent of dependence of tribal households on NWFP collection. For example, in two southern districts of Bihar, 41 percent of the families collect mahua flowers (Madhuca indica); 31 percent collect tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon) used in making indigenous cigarettes (or bid)); 23 percent of the families collect mushrooms and mahua seeds; 55 percent of the families collect tamarind (Tamarindus indica); and 31 percent of the families depend on the collection of wild brooms (Rao and Singh, 1996). Even higher rates, ranging between 5673 percent, have been recorded in Midnapore district of West Bengal (Rao and Singh, 1996, p. 338). Hegde et al.(1996), in a study of Soliga households, found that the income contribution from the collection of NWFPs is disproportionately greater than the time spent in collecting the products. Their study indicated that households living on the periphery of the forest spend 39.25 percent of their time in collection and realize 47.63 percent of their income from NWFPs; for tribals living closer to the forest, the figures are 54.46 percent and 60.44 percent respectively. Moreover, "...variance in income from the extraction of NTFPs is much less than that of income from other vocations, indicating that the collection of NTFPs constitutes the most reliable source of income" (Hedge et al., 1996, pp. 248, 249-250). The critical role that NWFPs play in the livelihood strategies of tribal households is highlighted by the very favorable income returns to the time spent in collection, and the stability of income from NWFPs.

Recognizing this importance of NWFPs is critical to crafting tribal sensitive forest policies. Others have noted the important role of NWFPs not only in meeting the subsistence needs but also in poverty alleviation of tribals (FAO, 1995). More importantly, however, any community-based strategy to use and manage forests must consider the gender issue in order to have a lasting impact.

The primary players in the collection, processing, and marketing of NWFPs are women who gather the bulk of forest produce, including food and fuel-related forest products. Women also gather NWFPs that are primarily sold in the market. Men are mainly responsible for construction timber, poles and some collection of medicinal plants which are also gathered by women. The importance of women in collection of forest produce is borne by data from almost every country in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For instance, a study in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan showed that 78 percent of morel mushrooms are collected by women and children (Iqbal, 1991). The same study also showed that while women and children are the dominant players in collecting and drying, men (53 percent) play a much more active role in selling the morels. Similarly, women and children collect 90 percent of the medicinal herbs and 100 percent of the drying is done by women. About 71 percent of medicinal herbs are sold by women and children, and 29 percent by men.

Similarly, in West Bengal, tribal women gather sal (Shorea robusta) leaves for six months of the year and make about Rs. 72 (US$ 2.16)1 per month under the best circumstances (Rajan, 1995 Poffenberger, 1990b). Throughout India, collection of tendu leaf (Diospyros melanoxylon) generates part time employment for 7.5 million people - a majority of them tribal women (Arnold, 1995). Women, according to studies in Uttar Pradesh, derive a greater proportion of their income from forests and common lands; poor women derive 45 percent of their income from forests and common lands as opposed to 13 percent for men (FAO and SIDA, 1991). Fernandes and Menon (1987), based on a study done in Orissa, reported that women generally walk 3 to 4 hours into the forests and work 15 hours per day, whereas men work 11 hours a day. The studies all indicated that women spend more time and labor in forest-related activities, and depend on forests not only to meet subsistence needs but also for income. Interestingly, the considerable role played by women in ensuring food security, and in the provision of cash income from the sale of NWFPs gives women a higher status in tribal societies (Sarkar, 1994). The differential roles and responsibilities of men and women vis-à-vis forests and the concomitant social and economic consequences for tribal households at large, and women in particular, are considerable.

1 1 Rs. = US$ 0.03


Tribals in Andhra Pradesh collect a large variety of NWFPs including tamarind (Tamarindus indica), adda leaf (Bauhinia vahlii), gum karaya (Sterculia urens), myrobalans, mahua flowers and seeds (Madhuca indica), wild brooms and soap nuts (Sapindus emarginatus). One study estimated that income from the sale of NWFP in Andhra Pradesh constitutes anywhere from 10 to 55 percent of total household income. In comparison to Orissa, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, all with large tribal populations, tribal households from Andhra Pradesh accrue a very high proportion of their income from the sale of NWFPs (Burman, 1990). From an economic perspective, NWFPs play a central role in the livelihood strategies of tribal households in Vishakapatnam district as well as in the entire Eastern Ghats region. Tewari (1989) estimated that in Andhra Pradesh, 10 to 55 percent of income of tribal households comes directly from the sale of NWFPs and this dependence increases markedly as a tribal household becomes more marginalized.

Dependence on forests and common property resources increases as a household becomes economically marginalized. Ramamani (1988), in a study of tribal economy in Srikakulam District in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, disaggregated tribal dependence on forests. The more marginal a tribal household, the greater is the proportion of its income from forests. Data indicated that sub-marginal and marginal tribal households accrue 35 to 36 percent of their income from forest produce. As poverty increases, women become more prominent in ensuring the survival of households by assuming greater responsibility to provide resources from forests and common lands. The importance of NWFPs for the very poor tribal households has been well documented by other studies as well (Hedge et al., 1996; Godoy et al., 1995). In Andhra Pradesh, the poor obtain 84 percent of their fuel supplies from common property resources, and are employed for 139 days to collect products from common property resources (Jodha, 1992). "....The inextricable link between land resources and rural livelihoods, along with increasing role of women as household providers in declining rural economies, stresses the need to consider the gendered terms of access and control of the resource base, particularly in ecologically vulnerable regions" (Thomas-Slayter and Rocheleau, 1995).

The economic significance of the time and energy spent by women in collecting and processing NWFPs is enormous considering their substantial contributions to the income of tribal households in Andhra Pradesh. The next section gives a detailed account of forest-based activities in four tribal panchayats of Vishakapatnam district and illustrates the forest dependence of tribals. Qualitative data on the nature of forest-based activities will be provided and then quantitative data from two preliminary studies of tribal household income flows are presented.

Previous PageTop Of PageTable Of ContentsNext Page