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Wild food stories from South and Southeast Asia

Ibu Rosalina and Ibu Jeramong cutting rubung in Putussibau, Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia.

Photo: Icaro Cooke Vieira, CIFOR / Flickr.

Read these stories and reflections about wild foods, biodiversity and livelihoods from indigenous people, local communities, support groups and other organizations working with sustainability from South and Southeast Asia.

These wild food stories are part of our online campaign aiming to build awareness about the value of wild foods and forests for food security and livelihoods. We believe that amplifying various voices from the forests of Asia will help to engage the general public and support the development of food security policies that are rooted in local and traditional knowledge and inclusive collaboration.

‘Nature-rich’ food systems

Cristina Eghenter joined WWF Indonesia twenty years ago and has focused on strengthening and mainstreaming social equity, indigenous peoples’ rights, and sustainable development in conservation with a special focus on equitable natural resource governance and local and indigenous food systems. She is an honorary member of the ICCA Consortium and is active with the Working Group ICCAs Indonesia. This is her wild foods story.

The current global and industrial food system is not only a major driver of deforestation and environmental destruction, it is also nature-poor. Nowadays, 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species. The greatly reduced diversity of food crops results in the loss of resilience of agricultural ecosystems and also comes at a high cost for nutritional quality and benefits for human health. Moreover, it brings about the vanishing of local wisdom and traditional knowledge linked to agricultural and food practices.

This is in stark contrast with traditional agriculture and farming practices of local and indigenous people that exhibits high biodiversity as a salient feature. Many of the edible plants that we consume have originated from the forests and other ecosystems. They have been domesticated by the ancestors of local and indigenous farmers over time and have traveled across continents to become staple food. It was the active experiments and practices of local people that have often shaped the variety of cultivars and diversity of food plants of our planet.

This agro-biodiversity is largely a product of intense agroforestry, local enrichment and experimentation by communities. It is also the result of a very different idea of food production that embraces wild foods and natural ecosystems like forest as an integral part of the agricultural system, embedded within and reinforced by the surrounding nature. In fact, these systems have overall proven resilient and sustainable, food secure and less vulnerable to climate change and other natural disasters. Very importantly, these traditional systems, contrary to the global model of food production, have been able to conserve the key pillars of agriculture like soil fertility, local seeds and cultivars, and clean water.

In this time of COVID-19, traditional practices that are based on use of wild foods and extensive knowledge of how to use and process plants and natural resources have proven more resilient. In the Krayan Highlands, North Kalimantan, Indonesia, farmers, women and men, have ensured food security for their communities in times of restrictions and lockdown by actively maintaining diversity of varieties and species in their fields. The presence of a staggering number of forest fruit varieties that grow on the forest edges is another example of traditional food production where the wild is part of the cultivated. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers of the Krayan Highlands have intensified the use of wild plants, produced brown sugar locally and processed mountain salt from the many salt springs, following old traditions and techniques. The combination of a thriving traditional knowledge and access to the wild foods of healthy forest have guaranteed their food security and sovereignty in hard times.

The Malva Nut: Saving rural people’s lives

Sinthavong Phuangchampa is an environmentalist and a conservationist in Lao PDR. He was born in Donetalath Village, Champasak District, Champasak Province. He has been working for Global Association for People and the Environment for 4 years as a field coordinator. Mostly, he works with community and government partners. Many activities have been done to support the communities, such as raising awareness in terms of forest protection. He also facilitates farmers to do integrated farming to improve their livelihoods. He has expertise in birding, so, he sometimes contributes his knowledge to the communities and his colleagues on how to identify the birds. This is his wild foods story.

Laos sits at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, bordering Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam, with the Mekong River connecting all six and providing a lifeline for the entire basin.

The Global Association for People and the Environment (GAPE) is a non-profit organization, established in 1999 in Lao PDR. We focus on food security, environmental sustainability and preserving cultural traditions through global and local interconnections.

Approximately 70% of Lao citizens live in rural areas (Rural Population Growth, 2020). Many rural families struggle to make a living on small plots of land, with some resorting to unsustainable techniques. Deforestation along with threats to biodiversity has also created substantial negative impacts to the land and livelihoods. Consequently, many families are unable to afford nutritious food. Malnutrition is a critical issue, with stunting affecting over 30% of children under five years old.

GAPE supports vulnerable and poor communities for equitable and sustainable development through livelihood adaptation with improved food security, effective natural resources management and utilization.  We do this by assisting people in developing their own potential in an ecologically sensitive and socially just manner. We implement and coordinate community development and environmental conservation programs by facilitating people-centered learning through community based education programs, with an emphasis on ecological issues.

Many farmers rely on the natural resources including non-timber forest products (NTFPs), wildlife and aquatics for consumption and income. Each year, there are various wild species of NTFPs harvested including vegetable, fruit, rattan, rattan shoot, cardamom, Yang resin, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and Malva nuts. Certain NTFPs have similar and diverse values and usages.

Malva nuts (Scaphium affine) are known in Lao as Mak Chong. It is very popular and useful for rural people, especially the communities where I have worked within the Xepian National Protected Area including Chantor Village, which is located in the Sanamsai District of Attapeu Province.

Currently, the six minority tribes of Jru, Oy, Jeng, Brao, Ta Oy and Lao Loum Tribe live in this village. They speak two different languages: Jru and Lao. Through GAPE’s community based programs, they live in harmony with nature and their neighbors, and they have learned to control their resources and ensure they are managed sustainably and in an environmentally sensitive manner.

There are abundant Malva nut trees in their forest area and the villagers say that the Malva nut tree originally grows in the dense forest because it needs shade to help it grows quickly when it is young’.

The Malva nut tree starts blossoming in January, and the seeds are harvested in April. They trees grow to about 25-30 meters high.

“It depends on the weather conditions to make the malva nut tree blossom and give seeds well, if some year it is so drought, it affects to malva nut seeds decreased. He said that there can be more than a thousand seeds on a tree,’’ said Mr. Visien, a harvester and one of the Village Authority members.

The raw seeds are smooth and green while the dried ones are brown and have rough skin, with the size almost equal to an adult finger. The dried seeds are used in Lao traditional medicine, traditional Ayurveda Indian medicine as well as a coolant in traditional Chinese medicine. It can be used for gastrointestinal disorders and soothing throats by soaking the Malva nut into the water for 5-10 minutes, then drinking it. In addition, it is delicious food for making Laap and desserts.

Due to its diverse uses, it is collected as a major NTFP in Laos for both domestic and international markets. In 2020, villagers harvested more than two tons, which is sold for 4 USD per kilogram.

“Malva nut is very important for my community, especially myself because I can use it as food and for income generation, my family got about 200 USD from selling it. I can use this money to help the education of my children and buy essential things,” said one of the villagers.

Due to high market demand, some local people over-harvested forest products because there were no regulations to control and manage it. There were also some outside villagers who irresponsibly cut down trees to illegally harvest the nuts. But recently, entire communities have established regulations and Village Co-Management Committees (VCMC), which were facilitated by GAPE, to control and manage it sustainably. The village allows appropriate harvesting by outside villagers for a fee of 1.5 USD and the Village Authority will levy a 350 USD fine for improper forest harvesting. This money is put into the village fund and used for village administration, especially for VCMC patrolling.

Because of Malva nut’s importance, villagers say that they will protect and conserve it for the next generation by harvesting and using it sustainably.

Encounters with Bignay (Antidesma bunius)

Grant Barraquias is a graduate of BS Forestry, Major in Social Forestry from the University of the Philippines Los Banos. Currently, she is an intern for NTFP-EP Asia. With a variety of hobbies and interests, she loves reading and listening to stories and being in both the great outdoors and the warm indoors. From blue sea to blue sky, from deep sea to deep sky, a child of the Universe she is. This is her wild foods story.

’Antidesma bunius’ is a fruit tree from the family Phyllanthaceae and commonly called Bignay in the Philippines.

Photo: Johannes Pelayo

I first encountered Bignay in Los Banos, Laguna during a fieldwork class in Mt. Makiling. At that time, I did not know much about the tree since the one I saw was not fruiting yet.

My second encounter with Bignay was at home in Paranaque in Metro Manila. I opened the refrigerator and saw a small jar which had the words Bignay Jam printed on it. Being hungry, I ate the jam with bread. I would describe the jam as tarty with a sweet sour taste. It’s definitely a different taste from the usual sweet strawberry jam I was used to.

The third Bignay encounter was during a visit to a biodiversity farm in San Pablo, Laguna. They shared the story of how they would harvest fruits of Bignay from the trees they have around the farm. The Bignay fruits are then processed into a special wine. My friends and I were able to taste the wine during our visit to the place.

The fourth encounter and most recent was buying a postcard set which surprisingly featured an illustration of the Bignay fruit. Through the art, I was able to find out that Bignay is considered a native Philippine tree!

Looking back, these unexpected encounters with Bignay made me appreciate the tree even more. Discovering the variety of ways to enjoy its fruits from food to art was a unique experience I am thankful for.

The Philippines’ Lipote – Syzygium polycephaloides (C.B.Rob.) Merr.

Abigail Garrino is a research associate at the Biodiversity Research Laboratory (BRL), University of the Philippines Diliman. Her work aims to generate information on forest dynamics, restoration and conservation of the Philippines’ remaining forests. This is her wild foods story.

Most of us know of duhat that blooms and fruits during the summer time. It is so common that many of us think it’s native to the Philippines, but it’s not. Lipote, on the other hand, is a staple to the summer days of those in Isabela, Quezon and Palawan. It is a relative of duhat, but one that is found in the Philippines and only in the Philippines!

Photo: Abi Garrino

Its pink buds bloom profusely into a white cluster of flowers that eventually turn into fruits! As they ripen, the fruits exhibit a number of colors from white, mild yellow, pink, red, purple, maroon and black. Once ripe, the fruits attract a number of animals such as ants and… humans! The fruits are used to make jams and wines but they can also be eaten raw as is, or by adding a mix of salt and sugar and eating it ala #ShakeShakeFries.

Photo: Abi Garrino

Despite being endemic to the Philippines, lipote is not considered an endangered species. However, it has been included in Dr. Domingo Madulid’s list of “Rare and vanishing fruit trees and shrubs in the Philippines”. Indeed, we are lucky to have this on campus!

Memories of Nami

Marian Rica O. Lodripas is a full-time development worker based in Quezon City, Philippines. She has Bachelor’s degrees in Sociology and in Anthropology from the University of the Philippines. She was part of a five-year consortium project in Occidental Mindoro and one of the assigned project staff to assist the Mangyan IP groups in their CADT applications and community development planning. This is her wild foods story.

We trekked to an Alangan village in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro on a very hot afternoon for a mapping activity. Upon reaching the place, I felt nauseous. I decided to stay in a hut and just wait for my colleagues who went on to go to a site to get GPS coordinates. Thankfully, the village elder allowed me to rest in their house as I was not really feeling well.

I fell asleep while sitting in a corner and after a while an elder woke me up and offered me nami. She was so apologetic while explaining to me that she can only offer me boiled nami and not rice or any other snack, because food was hard to come by since it was drought season. She told me it was the only available food in her house. At my state at that time, I remember thinking that the taste of nami wasn’t that pleasant for me, or perhaps my palate was just not used to it. I was touched at her thoughtfulness and kindness because she still offered me something to eat even though times were hard. When my other colleagues came back from their trek, she also offered them nami.

Photo: Portia Villarante, AnthroWatch

I was amazed at how willingly she offered this food to us, even taking from her reserved stock despite the hard times. Later on, I learned that nami is a famine food staple for most of the Mangyan and takes days to carefully prepare and dry to thoroughly remove its toxins. Much time and preparation was done before I could eat this snack!

Many years have passed, and I may have forgotten the taste of nami, but I still remember that day so clearly. At that time, it was not only my stomach that was filled, but also my heart. The village elder’s gesture of offering me food and eating with me was food not just for my body, but also my soul.

Photo: Portia Villarante, AnthroWatch.