Meet the man on a mission to save the wild berries of Maharashtra

He moved from Nashik to Pune for an MBA in 2009, but ended up becoming an expert on Maharashtra’s berries. Pravin Thete, 37, has spent six years documenting 54 species of wild berry tree (of the family Rhamnaceae). He’s also worked to encourage local communities to plant more such trees in the state.

“Coming from a farming family, I was interested in protecting the environment,” Thete says. So while studying for his MBA, he volunteered with local environmental organisations. In 2012, he stopped pursuing business management and joined the Centre for Environment Education, an NGO supported by the union environment ministry, as a project officer. He spent the next three years documenting plant diversity in Maharashtra.

Just the wild varieties of mango in the state’s Western Ghats taught him how diverse India’s vegetation is, he says. “I found some that tasted like honey. Some tasted a bit sour, some like apples.”

While on this project, he met a farmer in Baner, Pune, who offered him a local berry. “The flavour took me right back to childhood.” But it was a berry he’d never tasted before, and he became intrigued.

Local farmers talked to him about how the number of such berry trees was falling rapidly. Orchard land itself was giving way to urban construction. In city markets, the demand for berries was falling. “People are not aware of the variety, taste or benefits of these fruits. So sales fell and the farmers stopped growing them,” Thete says.

He decided to research berries as he had mangoes, by first documenting the variety. The kharki bor stood out for its sweetness, the khobari bor for its coconuty flavour. “Some berries were as tasteless as an apple,” he laughs.

“It is widely accepted that the ber or Indian jujube is very rich in vitamins. We need to talk a lot more about these berries to make people aware of an important food that should be part of their diet,” Thete says.

Instead, the disappearance of the fruit is erasing cultural elements in areas where it was once a key part of landscapes, diets and economies. “For example, one of the biggest events in Baner village is the annual February mela. During that season, there were no harvests to fund the fair, so they would sell wild berries that ripened at the time and have enough for the event. Now they make do with whatever they save from other seasons,” Thete says.

Along with documentation, Thete has been spearheading plantation drives in the state. “The government actually helps a lot as they have the kind of space and machinery to do large-scale plantations. Wherever I am trying to document a fruit variety or trying to grow, I engage the local community and the municipal body members or panchayat members too.”

Before the pandemic, Thete averaged 600 saplings a year. In 2018, he planted 3,000 saplings at a government nursery near Savitribai Phule Pune University, from where they were sold or distributed.

There is a long way to go, he says. “There has to be an intervention at the policy level to recognise the importance of our wild fruits, but even that will not be enough to encourage farmers to grow these trees unless they see profits. Till then, the government will have to use its resources to plant and promote these trees.”

It is ironic, he adds, that people are willing to pay so much for avocado and kale, but pay no attention to what is so close by. “We need to change this mindset. Perhaps it is time to replace the saying about apples and say that a berry a day keeps the doctor away,” he says.

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Anjali Singh

Anjali Singh Born on 15 Jun 2001 an Indian author and activist from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh. Live in New Delhi