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CHENNAI — In the forests of Bastar in eastern India, indigenous 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.rr
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.rr
"The setting of a minimum price has meant that middlemen and traders have to pay a fair price. Family incomes have gone up," said Ms Sushma Netam, who oversees implementation of the state programme aimed at promoting "tribal entrepreneurship".rr
Ms Netam said production had soared since the state launched its "just transition" plan, a green economy strategy set up to cushion the impact of the shift away from coal.rr
"We have more than 200 village groups in the region now, 49 haat (local market) groups and 10 processing centres," she said.rr
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.rr
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 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.rr
Under the "Van Dhan" plan, the state raised the procurement price of 52 forest products in 2019 and bought 73 per cent of all produce gathered in the state last year.rr
"Mining has been key to the economy and continues under strict norms. But our priority is now the forest," Mr Manoj Kumar Pingua, state principal secretary for forests and industries, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.rr
"We are willing to forgo millions of rupees generated from mining to protect and improve the livelihoods of forest gatherers. In mining a few make money, but in the green economy, the profit goes directly into the hands of the people."rr
'SO MUCH BETTER'rr
Chhattisgarh, which has 44 per cent 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.rr
The deforestation of land for mining has greatly impacted the livelihoods of indigenous communities, who earn up to 40 per cent of their income from forest goods.rr
Ms Revathi Bagel, 21, works at a recently revived cashew plant in Bakawand village where she and other local women prepare the nuts for dispatch to markets across the country. Previously, she travelled hundreds of miles to work as a seasonal labourer.rr
"I walk to work and get paid 8,000 Indian rupees (S$146) a month. It's so much better than going to (the western state of) Gujarat to repay an advance and toil on someone else's fields," she said by phone, as piles of cashews were unloaded.