If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.
While a large part of the world is busy uprooting forests for agriculture, there’s a new movement aimed at boosting the ancient art of foraging – one that could end by leaving farming in the dust.
About 1.5 billion of the globe’s citizens have traditionally enjoyed their own version of a teddy bears’ picnic, harvesting in the wilds what are called the seven F’s: food, fibre, fuel, fodder (for livestock), fertilizer, farmaceuticals and fun.
While many see this forest economy as an obsolete leftover from the hunting and gathering era, there’s a growing sense that it’s key to poverty reduction and environmental protection in the short run – and a potential replacement for agriculture in the long run.
Ironically, it’s a unit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that’s providing the most impetus for this forest foray, in its arresting but modest journal called Non-Wood News.
In Canada, reports the most recent issue, two projects on this front are under way near Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Chapleau, in northeastern Ontario. Federal government staff are exploring the possibility of creating employment in both wild food harvesting (blueberry picking, for example) and prospecting for medicines (like fireweed for skin care or yew bark to fight cancer.)
Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, forest-based gathering activities have long been central to folk culture, and are commonly associated with popular resistance to governments and corporations.
The term “tree-huggers,” the insult frequently hurled at environmentalists, was first used for women villagers in northern India who hugged trees to protect their forest and woodland livelihoods from being axed by outside commercial interests. In most green histories, this 1974 action is recognized as the beginning of our era’s “environmentalism of the poor.”
The Indian tree-hugging protest reveals two aspects of the forest economy that remain central today.
First, forest-based work is usually taken up by women, indigenous or lower-caste people, or farm labourers who’ve been sidelined in the economy and society.
The forest is an equal-opportunity employer and asks no questions about birth, race, gender, educational qualifications, income or credit-worthiness. Minimal investment is required. Someone with a basket can pick berries or mushrooms, haul out grasses or leaves for roofing and mats, or find bright seeds for handicraft jewellery. The forest is the poor entrepreneur’s workplace or commons: add labour and stir.
Secondly, the forest is indivisible: it is a place of beauty, awe and spirituality, a place where air is cooled and water is cleaned, a place where food for families and their livestock can be found when no other foods are available, a place where money can be made when people are between jobs in a seasonally employed workforce, and a place of childhood memories of roaming.
The combination of these two factors turns forests into political hot spots when loggers, miners and oil and gas interests move to occupy hinterlands long assumed to belong in the commons, to the community.
The economic value of the goods from multiple-use forests – managed as a grocery, pharmacy, hardware, craft and clothing store without walls – is, according to Non-Wood News founder Cherukat Chandrasekharan, $120 billion a year.
That’s comparable to the yearly revenues loggers or miners take from short-term and non-renewable uses of the same forest area. But the dispersed people who gather in the forests are no match for resource cor-porations when it comes to lobbying governments.
As a consequence, the forest has been losing ground in the global South at a rate of approximately 2 per cent a year since the 1950s. Well over half the planet’s original forest cover has been lost, naturalist E.O. Wilson estimates in his best attempt at a hopeful book, The Future Of Life.
Though forest economies are second nature in the global South, they aren’t in the North, so one of the values of Non-Wood News is its simple listing of all the foods and superfoods available in wild forests, which are usually depicted as unproductive in terms of food for humans.
Eat dessert first: forests are the home of maple syrup, the most complex honeys, with rich antioxidants and antibacterial properties, chewing gum (from the chicle tree – whence Chicklets) of Central America. Healthy fats and protein come from a range of nuts, including pine and Brazil nuts.
Most of the spices that obsessed European explorers during the 1400s and 1500s are forest plants. Blueberries, raspberries and the latest hit, açai berries from Brazil, score high on nutrient value, as do mushrooms. Salad greens come from sorrel, spring leaves of willow, fiddleheads. In Malawi, 37 different species of leafy vegetables come from the forest.
Probably because tree roots bring up trace minerals from the deep, forests are also home to many folk medicines used regularly by almost 80 per cent of the world’s population.
Ginseng comes from the forest, as does India’s multi-purpose neem and Australia’s tea tree oil. So does yerba matte, the earthy, mineral-packed tea from the Amazon, and Asia’s Moringa oleifera leaf, known in the Philippines as the “miracle vegetable,” a one-stop cure for vitamin A, C, potassium, calcium, iron and protein deficiencies.
By making food access a walk in the woods, foragers help us reimagine both food and forests. In CBC broadcaster David Cayley’s words, we must integrate forest and community again in our minds and maybe hearts, and understand that we are not out of the woods yet in terms of green issues, but only starting to get back in.