Shifting away from coal mining, Chhattisgarh state experiments with developing forestry flora

For decades, mining has eaten into the forests of mineral-rich Chhattisgarh. But as the state moves away from opening coal mines, authorities have introduced measures to boost output of forest goods – from tamarind to cashew nuts and medicinal seeds.

In the forests of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, women have been busy plucking the tan-coloured fruits of the tamarind tree – a tangy staple of Indian cooking that earned them rare profits this year thanks to a bumper harvest. The setting of a minimum price has meant that middlemen and traders have to pay a fair price. Family incomes have gone up. Over the last eight months, 3,741 tonnes of tamarind have been collected in Bastar, the district’s biggest-ever tamarind harvest.

The landlocked state has launched its “just transition” plan, a green economy strategy set up to cushion the impact of the shift away from coal. While India pushes to expand coal mining to meet its energy needs, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced the state would move away from opening new coal mines in 2019 to help reduce emissions and protect forests.

Chhattisgarh has India’s second-largest coal reserves and significant deposits of iron ore, limestone and bauxite, but it remains one of the nation’s poorest states, with more than 40% of its population living below the poverty line.

Under the “Van Dhan” plan, the state raised the procurement price of 52 forest products in 2019 and bought 73% of all produce gathered in the state last year.

“Mining has been key to the economy and continues under strict norms. But our priority is now the forest,” Manoj Kumar Pingua, state principal secretary for forests and industries, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Chhattisgarh, which has 44% of its territory covered by forest, is now looking to build an organised industry around non-timber forest products, which it says would benefit about 1.7 million families working as gatherers. The deforestation of land for mining has greatly impacted the livelihoods of indigenous communities, who earn up to 40% of their income from forest goods.

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