Tribes find Covid-19 cures in forests

A few weeks ago, Mr Mukteshwar Kalo, a member of the Kondh tribe in eastern India, suddenly came down with a fever, cough and aches.

In most most places, these symptoms would be enough to raise fears of Covid-19, but the 58-year-old, who lives in Surupa village in Odisha, was not worried.

His wife treated him with remedies made from plants in a nearby forest: A drink with the leaves of the night-flowering gangasiuli jasmine to get rid of his fever and pains and a solution of extract of patragaja, or air plant, for his cough.

"The leaves, roots and other resources collected from our forests cured me in less than a week," said Mr Kalo.

As India continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, health experts and environmentalists say the climate-resilient, nature-based lifestyles of many indigenous communities are helping protect them from the virus and its economic impact.

The same practices that keep the villagers' climate-heating emissions low and provide them with food also prevent them from catching and spreading the virus, said Mr Y. Giri Rao, executive director of Vasundhara, an Odisha-based conservation nonprofit.

Preserving forests, protecting wildlife and managing natural resources wisely help keep indigenous people healthy, he said.

"The tribes in the region have been conserving their native biodiversity for generations through their community-led practices," Mr Rao said.

"This is paying off during these tough times of global pandemic, in terms of food, medicinal and livelihood security."

With more than nine million reported Covid-19 cases, according to health ministry data, India is the second-worst affected country behind the United States.

Odisha alone has had more than 320,000 confirmed cases.

But Mr Bhimsen Kisan, head of the local government body for Surupa and a dozen other villages, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that there has been no known cases in any of those villages.

If local people do get sick, their symptoms are mild and do not last more than a few days, so there has been no need for anyone to get tested for the virus, he said.

Dr Debananda Sahoo, assistant professor of general medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bhubaneswar, said the natural diets of many indigenous villagers strengthen their immune systems, key to keeping the virus at bay.

Wild, organic fruits and vegetables have high levels of vitamin C and vitamin E, Dr Sahoo noted.

"Wide varieties of tubers, wild fruits, leaves, roots and mushrooms gathered from the forests and regularly consumed by the indigenous communities are rich in nutrients and antioxidants," he said.

"Most importantly, they are free from chemical fertilisers and pesticides, thus very pure and effective."

Ms Hirabati Kalo, a 45-year-old mother of three in Surupa village, said villagers use the flowers of the mahua to make a solution with antiseptic qualities and take two spoonfuls each day in a bid to keep the virus away.

They also spray the solution along the entry and exit points of the village and outside their homes.

Several villages in Chhattisgarh state have found other ways to use mahua flowers to ward off the virus, including making them into alcohol for natural hand sanitisers, said Mr Anubhav Shori, an indigenous rights activist in Mankeshri village.

In Godrapara, another village in Odisha with no reported Covid-19 cases, 75-year-old folk-healer Chamara Kisan is certain his community's harmonious relationship with nature has kept them safe since the pandemic began.

One of his favourite treatments for viral fevers, coughs and colds is to boil the leaves of a local herbaceous plant called bhui neem, commonly known as "king of bitters", to form a concentrate that is drunk twice a day.

A spoon of powdered bark of ashwagandha, also called Indian ginseng, stirred into a cup of warm milk acts as an analgesic, reduces inflammation and builds immunity, he said.

And when giloy shrub branches are ground and boiled with water, the solution helps clear congestion and chest infections, Mr Kisan added.

"We take care of the forests and forests look after us - what is there to worry about Covid-19?" he asked.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

"We take care of the forests and forests look after us - what is there to worry about Covid-19?" - 75-year-old folk-healer Chamara Kisan

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