On Forest Foods, a Festival and Community Empowerment

Written by Jenne de Beer1

Time for rest and discussion after a successful foraging trip in the vicinity of Mount Pinatubo

To many indigenous communities in Asia, traditional activities such as the gathering of forest foods, hunting and fishing, are vital adjuncts to farming and together, together forming an integrated system of resource utilization, catering to elementary subsistence needs. Forest foods can be a key emergency food buffer during times of famine or seasonal scarcity. But even in less challenging times, these foods, in the form of side dishes and snacks, are able to provide valuable nutritional supplements to cultivated staples.

In fact, the nutritional value of forest food is in no way inferior to that of farm crops. On the contrary, recent research findings increasingly point to the superior health benefits of wild gathered foods. Another undeniable forte of wild gathered food is the much greater variation in taste. Furthermore, forest foods are usually free – an important consideration for families with limited cash for purchases

However, where in the past the forest could be considered a good provider, in many locations destructive developments have led to a collapse of the food’s resource base. In addition, mainstream society often looks down on the consumption of wild gathered food, perceiving the practice as a sign of backwardness.

On site preparation of wild banana juice, a most refreshing drink.

On the other hand, ‘modern’ processed and comparatively nutrient poor items have gradually entered tribal areas and have become significant staples of day-to-day diets. Meanwhile, the role of wild gathered foods is commonly underreported, if not outright ignored by development organizations and government agencies alike. This notwithstanding the fact, that currently “food security” (in the context of “poverty alleviation”) is a regularly featured item on the international development agenda.

Finally, in and outside of forestry circles, recognition of the importance of non-timber forest products has increased considerably over the last two decades or so, though primarily in terms of the income generating potential for forest dependent communities. But also in this context, attention for subsistence aspects – including those that are nutrition related – is still lagging far behind.

CASE: The Aeta of the Philippines

In the Philippines, the different indigenous peoples with a hunter gatherer background, collectively referred to as ‘Negritos’ represent the country’s most ancient civilization. Few in numbers overall, small pockets are scattered over much of the country. Their distinctive cultures and forest related way of life is little appreciated in mainstream society and they have long since been marginalized, pushed aside and taken advantage off – even as compared to other indigenous peoples.

These ethnic groups, among which number the Aeta of Eastern Luzon, have an exceptionally strong relationship with the forest and many cultural traits reflect this relationship. Furthermore, their societies are highly egalitarian and decision making is traditionally inclusive.

Chanting the dururo, thanking all for coming to the festival from far away.

Even today foods from the forest are much appreciated by the Aeta. Items include: leaf and root vegetables (the former including various species of ferns, the latter e.g. Dioscorea esculenta and several other Dioscorea), fruits and blossoms (both e.g. derived from wild banana, Musa sp.), palm heart (‘uwud’ a generic term referring to a range of palms), as well as mushrooms, bush meat (wild boar in particular), fish, crabs and other aquatic animals.

Indeed, forest foods, though nowadays a minor component volume-wise, are a healthy and enjoyable part of the Aeta diet. And, in their case, the relevant knowledge base is still largely intact, while some of the skills involved in hunting or gathering also serve as pronounced identity markers. However, in light of persistent erosive cultural pressures and in order to invigorate the food tradition, ‘affirmative’ counteraction is warranted. One action, along these lines, took place earlier this year in the province of Tarlac and in the framework of a larger ‘Negrito cultural revival and empowerment initiative’.

During a series of informal ‘mam-eh’ (sharing) sessions taking place around campfires or at forest picnics, an upcoming cultural revival festival was discussed. Aeta women and men, members of the local NGO KAKAI and the author participated in these discussions. It became apparent that the Aeta involved were very excited to share their knowledge about forest foods and it was soon decided to let the festival revolve around the subject. From there it was a short walk, and on April 28th, 2010, the first ever ‘Aeta Forest Foods Festival’ took place.

Over four hundred participants joined in the event, the vast majority Aeta from Tarlac, with a contingent of Aeta and Agta from four other provinces. At the festival, to which participants had brought ample specialty food items from the forests and swiddens in their respective areas, a ‘gather, cook and taste’ session of traditional foods took central stage. The session opened with the lightening of a cooking fire – both women and men using their respective traditional implements – and with offerings to ‘Anito’, environment spirits.

Sharp shooting with bow and arrow – it is a key part of the Aeta way of life.

Apart from food preparation and actual tasting, recipes, rituals and information with respect to the ingredients were shared. In addition, survival skills, such as trap making, archery and techniques of sustainable yam digging, were demonstrated and many of the participants engaged in story telling dancing and singing, much of it related to the food served.

The festival was followed by a one-day ‘multi-sector development forum’. The forum, with Aeta leaders in charge and top echelon government officials involved, aimed at providing a platform for sharing the communities’ aspirations and concerns. The open dialogue largely focused on developments affecting the security of the Aeta’s ancestral domains and the natural resources therein. It was noticeable that outside guests were able to gain new appreciation for a special cultural heritage, which is inextricably linked to their forests.


In light of the enthusiastic response of participants during and after the event, it could be argued that, in combination with the intensive preparatory process, it did help invigorate the Aeta’s food tradition and it visibly fostered greater pride in related skills, knowledge and customs. (See www.youtube.com.)

It also appears, considering how the activity resonated with officials, media and others, that a better understanding and more respect by outsiders for the rich cultural heritage of the Aeta (and of which forest foods are an integral part), was another remarkable achievement.


1Article written by Jenne de Beer, the 2009-2011 ISE Darrell Posey Field Fellow and former Executive Director of the NTFP Exchange Programme for South & Southeast Asia. Reproduced with permission from the CFA Newsletter,  No.54 September 2011 ISSN 1750-6417


BEER, J. H. de and McDERMOTT, M. J. 1996. The Economic Value of Non-Timber Forest Products in Southeast Asia (2nd revised edition). N.C. IUCN, Amsterdam.

DOUNIAS, E., SELZNER, A., KOIZUMI, M. and LEVANG, P. 2007. From sago to rice. From forest to town: the consequences of sedentarization for the nutritional ecology of Punan former hunter-gatherers of Borneo. In: Food &Nutrition Bulletin, Vol. 28, no 2 (supplement). The United Nations University.


2nd ISE Eastern-European Ethnobiology Workshop in Hungary: “Methodologies and methods in ethnobiology”

Contributed by ISE members Anna Varga and Zsolt Molnár

The 2nd Eastern-European Ethnobiology Workshop was held at Királyrét in the heart of the Börzsöny Mountains, Hungary, between 13-16th October, 2011 (scientific committee: Andrea Pieroni, Ingvar Svanberg, Łukasz Łuczaj, Renata Sõukand, and Zsolt Molnár; local organizing committe: Anna Varga and Zsolt Molnár).

At the 1st EEE Workshop in Padise (Estonia) in 2010 we decided to develop a research network and to have workshops each year, and in Hungary in 2011. The 37 participants arrived from 11 countries: Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Turkey. The goal of the 2nd Workshop was not just to bring together ethnobiologists to share the latest and planned ethnobiological research in the region, but aslo to discuss questions regarding methodologies and methods.

On the first day each participant introduced her or his research work. Topics of the presentations were diverse, and included ethnobotany, ethnoecology (vegetation), ethnozoology, ethnomedicine, historical studies and use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in nature conservation. On the second day we discussed methodological questions from theoretical and practical aspects. We also had a role-playing exercise that allowed participants to experience being a native informant or a researcher, respectively, through “interviews” on edible oils. This exercise showed how diverse our interviewing practices are. In the afternoon we visited the Kacár Farm where we saw an example of ethnobiology education through a traditional farming experience. On the morning of the third day we had a brain-storming session on the use of historical data in ethnobiology, ethnobiology in education, and future prospects on joint research. Finally, part of the group went on a canoe trip on the old and blue Danube.

In the evenings we had time to get to know the culture of the participants’ countries through traditional music, food and drink, and short ethno-movies. Additionally, we had 2 workshop trips: before the conference we visited the Hortobágy salt steppe (puszta), where we experienced the deep ethnobiological knowledge of herdsmen and enjoyed the migrating cranes, and after the conference we discovered some ethnobiology in Budapest, by visiting the Hungarian Ethnographical Museum and a big food market where we tasted different mineral waters from a natural spring in the middle of the capital.

As organizers we can say it was a great pleasure to organize this workshop in Hungary!