Snehakunja: Preserving biodiversity through empowerment of tribals in Western Ghats of Karnataka

Snehakunja: Preserving biodiversity through empowerment of tribals in Western Ghats of Karnataka

Snehakunja: Preserving biodiversity through empowerment of tribals in Western Ghats of Karnataka 30 stades

For ages, women in Kalagade-Kanchigadde, a remote village in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, had been making organic Kokum juice concentrate from the ripe fruit of Garcinia indica, a native tree of the Western Ghats. But these women did not know how to market the juice despite its high demand in southern and western India. 

Nestled amid thick forest cover, the village is home to 430 members of the Sidhi ethnic community, which harvest and collect the Kokum fruit. The skills of these would have remained confined to the village if NGO Senhakunja Trust had not stepped in.

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In 2014, Snehakunja trained them in the processing and marketing of the product.

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Today, the tribal women sell 1,000 litres of the concentrate during the two-month season that lasts from May to July, earning sizable profits.

“The resource was available and the women knew how to prepare the juice concentrate. But they had no idea about market trends, packaging, labelling or pricing,” says Dr Narasimha Hegde, Secretary of Snehakunja Trust, which has been working with the indigenous people since 1976.

As part of training, Snehakunja took the women to shops, supermarkets and processing units to learn about different Kokum brands, quality, price, and customer preferences.

After the training, the women were enthused and established their self-help group called Matrabhoomi and began selling Kokum juice concentrate under the Kaanbaglu brand name. A 750 ml bottle of Kokum concentrate is priced at Rs290.

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A tribal member of the Matrabhoomi SHG involved in primary processing of Kokum at   Kalagade-Kanchigadde village. Pic: Snehakunja Trust 30stades
A tribal member of the Matrabhoomi SHG involved in primary processing of Kokum at Kalagade-Kanchigadde village. Pic: Snehakunja Trust

“We were unaware of the marketing channels, packaging and labelling skills. The training filled our knowledge gaps. Now we have learned to observe the flowering time, flower shape, colour and are careful about harvesting and processing,” says Nagaveni, a member of the SHG from Kalagadde.

The SHG supplies the Kokum juice to shops, small scale processing units, hotels and restaurants in their area. They are also using the butter from Kokum seeds to make soaps.

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Biodiversity conservation while empowering indigenous people

Like Sidhis in the Kalagade-Kanchigadde village, around 1 lakh indigenous groups across 18 states have been able to adopt sustainable livelihoods and incomes, thanks to the trust.

Snehakunja’s approach is to create livelihood opportunities that empower the indigenous people while using natural resources sustainably. 

It has worked with the local communities to protect and restore the sensitive wetland and coastal ecosystems in the Western Ghats and coastal Karnataka. The Western Ghats is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a hotspot of biological diversity. Among the vast variety of flora and fauna, many are found only in India.

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It has restored 375 hectares of mangroves and freshwater swamps and evergreen forests which act as carbon sinks and reduce the impact of climate change. 

For its work, Snehakunja was awarded the prestigious Equator Prize for 2021.

“All our activities are related to forest and climate change. Our focus has been on the restoration and preservation of wetland forests on a participatory basis. We have restored critically endangered freshwater swamps in the Central Western Ghats and now we are restoring mangroves and coastal ecosystems,” says Hegde.

Myristica fatua stilt root from Western Ghats. The ancient Myristica swamps are an endangered ecosystem which possess a very high potential to store carbon. Pic: Snehakunja Trust 30 stades
Myristica fatua stilt root from Western Ghats. The ancient Myristica swamps are an endangered ecosystem which possess a very high potential to store carbon. Snehakunj has been working towards their preservation. Pic: Snehakunja Trust

He says Snehakunja makes an assessment of what species the locals want to cultivate in their farmlands and then trains them accordingly. 

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“We assess the locally available species. Those that are over-exploited, we work on their preservation. We advise the communities to procure the abundant ones, add value and help in their marketing,” he says.

For instance, if amla and bhringraj are available in plenty, Snehakunja trains the women to make hair oil and package the product which the trust markets and also uses it in its Ayurveda hospital in Kasarkod.

Processing forest produce

Snehakunja has set up processing units in around 125 villages. These processing units serve as a point of contact where villagers can bring in their produce and process it using the equipment that is provided.

A common facility centre has been established in Vanalli village which has dryers and other packing and labelling equipment. The Parna Western Ghats FPO runs the common facility centre and is helping the locals with market linkages.

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“While the profit margins are not high, the common facility centre supports the locals in selling their products. It is located in the village and the locals do not have to travel long distances to market their produce,” he says.

In association with its partner, India Foundation for Humanistic Development, Snehakunja has set up some 65 Farmer Producer Organisations in 18 states that are providing sustainable livelihoods and incomes to around 1 lakh beneficiaries.

The FPO members are engaged in activities such as animal husbandry, bee-keeping, organic farming, poultry, goat and sheep rearing. 

Beekeeping training session. Pic: Snehakunja Trust 30 stades
Beekeeping training session. Pic: Snehakunja Trust

“We set up FPOs as part of our integrated approach to support the locals and conserve biodiversity. We can’t lecture the locals and tell them to conserve, we have to involve them in the entire process and provide solutions to their problems and assist in training and marketing,” he says.

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Hegde says the promotion of products is mainly through word of mouth as Snehakunja is not selling online or to stores. They have an outlet in Vanalli village in Uttara Kannada district as well as in the Snehakunja headquarters in Kasarkod where the products are sold.

“We also link the SHGs to farmer producer organisations so there can be inter-exchange of goods,” he says.

“Our assessment in some villages of the Western Ghats where we have worked with the local community shows that their income has risen 15-20 percent.”

Dr Hegde says the volumes are small but for these remotely located communities the activities have provided new skills and opened new avenues of income and markets to which they had no access earlier.

Women power

Dr Hegde says today there are 320 women’s self-help groups across Karnataka, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh that provide financial assistance to members and help them with micro-enterprises in areas of organic farming, growing spices, herbs and medicinal plants, fisheries and other activities.

Also Read: How mushroom farming is increasing incomes for women in Jharkhand

The SHGs train women members in managing their enterprises, in processing and value addition to the products and their packaging. They help the members access loans and welfare schemes of the government, and assist in market linkages and value chain development, says Dr Hegde.

An SHG member peeling fruit for processing. Pic: Snehakunja Trust 30stades
An SHG member peeling fruit for processing. Pic: Snehakunja Trust

The women are trained to keep accounts, the procedure of acquiring loans, and maintaining minutes of meetings. 

Many women have started home-based enterprises using their savings in self-help groups.

They have also undergone Income Generation Training Programmes such as beekeeping, jackfruit papad making, Kokum juice preparation, prawn chutney powder and pickle making, preparation of hair oils from medicinal herbs such as amlaneem, bhringraj and growing commercial crops like turmeric, areca nut, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg and many others.

Also Read: Tendu leaves cushion tribals from economic deprivation during COVID-19

Snehakunja – A doctor’s journey from Maharashtra to Karnataka

The journey towards empowerment of the tribal communities and ecological preservation began in 1976 when Dr Kusuma Sorab left Mumbai for the peaceful Kasakod village in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka to provide health services to the village communities.

She set up the Snehakunja Trust, an ashram of refuge for the poor and marginalised. Under the trust, she also established the Vivekananda Arogya Dhama for providing health services to the people.

Meeting with members of women SHGs. Pic: Snehakunja Trust 30stades
Meeting with members of women SHGs. Pic: Snehakunja Trust

Over time, Dr Kusuma saw that the locals had no sustainable means of income and were dependent on forest produce. So, she created an action plan focusing on health, rural development and environmental protection.

She trained young women to establish self-help groups to become self-reliant. She also organised the local communities to protect the environment.

Even after Dr Kusuma passed away in an accident, Snehakunja continued its vast array of activities.

These include creating self-help groups, providing health care through traditional Ayurveda, encouraging the locals to pursue organic farming, constituting village forest committees for co-management of forests with support from the Forest Department.

The journey that began with a doctor has now enriched the lives of lakhs of people while protecting the environment.

(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)

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