Why we got involved with Mahua.
We are living in a moment of a huge environmental crisis. The way ahead continues to be debated and discussed. At the same time, several concrete measures are also being advocated.
One among them is connected to forests. The last remaining forests around the world are still sites of hope, provided we protect them at the very minimum or, preferably regenerate them with as much biodiversity as possible.
There are several studies that demonstrate the interconnectedness of communities living in the proximity, (or in) forests and the health of the forests themselves. These are mostly indigenous people who have historical connections with forests. Over centuries the forests have been used by them judiciously - developing complex knowledge systems, harnessing the resources sustainably. Even when exchanging goods and resources with non-forest-based people, they have managed to nourish the health of the forests.
These knowledge systems could have become powerful aids to a more sustainable transition to modernity, had modern societies respected and developed a healthier relation with indigenous communities. Maybe the benefits of modernity would not necessarily have come at the cost of such drastic environmental destruction.
Unfortunately, modern societies around the world have abused both; the communities and the forests themselves. It is only now, at the brink of an immediate environmental collapse, that the history of forest communities are being revisited.
India is one of the few countries in the world that still has biodiversity hotspots and ancient forests, along with plantations and more recently regenerated eco systems. It still has a sizable indigenous population (85 million officially, with a contested claim of a 100).
One of the several forest products that the government has recognized as a source of livelihood for many of these communities (several on the brink of poverty) is the collection and trade of the mahua flower.
How we see Mahua's future.
Unlike other forest produce however (like tendu leaves, bamboo, honey, and wild foods), mahua comes burdened with a colonial legacy that has a conflicted history with it. Like in many other colonized societies, authorities were more interested in restricting local consumption of indigenous spirits and generating revenue from the sale of industrial -scale production. In addition, in India, the traditional attitudes of dominant communities have been anti-alcohol consumption. The combined effects of this meant that there were no strong local associations or organizational systems that developed, which could have acted as a foundation for a modern economy around mahua, led by indigenous communities.
Any sustainable business around mahua has to recognize this conflicted history and work through it:
- Mahua alcohol needs to be given respect and recognition in the world of spirits and liquors. Its inverted social status in India needs to be given a makeover.
- It needs to be introduced to the world because of its huge environmental value. Mahua trees grow and flower best in bio-diverse wild forests, using very little water and by nourishing the soil, helping other species thrive.
- It needs to be recognized as a key player for regenerating forests by working closely with indigenous communities who have preserved its legacy by producing and consuming it against all odds.
- Modern business practices connected to mahua must start by helping indigenous communities who are economically dependent on the collection and local sales of mahua flowers to develop their own companies for the distillation and sales of local mahua liquor.
- Partnerships at global, regional, and local levels must always be focused on developing and strengthening the organizational structures of indigenous communities in the capacity relevant to the context – as distillers, collectors or traders at the village or district level.
- Companies, cooperatives, and other initiatives owned and managed by indigenous communities operating at global and national scales must be an important goal for those working with mahua in any capacity.
What is MAH?
Mah is an alcoholic drink made from mahua flowers in France, using flowers imported from India. It is made using techniques that are local to mahua making in India but complemented by those practiced by experts making similar spirits in France. It positions itself as a tribute to mahua. It introduces the mahua story – including its potential for environmental regeneration by working with indigenous communities – to like-minded people around the world.
By popularizing the drink and the story globally, it also aims at changing its status back in India.
Mah is an Indo-French collaboration, registered in France. It is also a partner with Bastar Botanics private limited in India, through a joint venture –Bastar Spirits.
Bastar Spirits seeks to develop a strong organizational base for the development of a local economy around mahua liquor. This includes making mahua, archiving techniques of making mahua in the region and developing a system of business practices for members of the local indigenous communities.
Mah in France seeks to engage with environmental discourses around the world aimed at spotlighting similar initiatives globally. The interconnectedness of forests, indigenous communities and the development of local, regional and global markets for sustainable modern economies, are its main themes for engagement.
The drink itself is located within this discourse. The market and the community of like-minded environmental enthusiasts and partitioners overlap at several junctures but can also remain independent of each other.
We are confident that the community of environmentally conscious people is a growing one and many of them will like and relate to the drink and its story.