Haeavily laden fig trees with branches bent earthwards carrying weighty fruit wait in inevitability as rumbling thunder, hauling rain in its wake, rolls in towards the Murree Hills from the Pir Panjal mountains of Azad Kashmir, to damage the free bounty they offer. This being Ramazan, the price of fresh fruit is — thanks to the un-Islamic greed of profiteers — going through the roof. Yet, these wild fig fruit offerings, considered a luxury in many parts of the world, remain un-harvested and unappreciated. Soon, they will fall wasted to the ground, while the people who could feast on them to their hearts’ content complain about the inflated price of fruit in the bazaar instead. This happens every year as people aren’t prepared to make the small effort involved in the process.
Figs grow in the wild in abundance right across the upland northern regions of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir where, for a variety of reasons, the indigenous communities and the shrinking number of subsistence farmers blindly overlook a fruit which could, if handled properly, go a long way towards their nutritional and economic salvation. These farmers are still fighting against many odds, managing to eke out a bare existence on ever-shrinking land parcels which, as they are repeatedly inherited and sub-divided, are basically no longer a viable agricultural proposition.
Packed full of vitamins, minerals and other health-giving nutrients, wild figs, irrespective of them being smaller in size than their cultivate cousins in other parts of the world, are a seriously marketable commodity in their fresh, dried or processed form and it is difficult to understand why no one has yet taken up their harvesting and marketing on a commercial basis. A fig-based industry — which could consist of turning them in to highly desirable jams, jellies and other such condiments — would be of great financial benefit to all concerned. Even though the fresh fruit is only available for harvesting in the three to four-month summer to autumn transition period, fig-based ventures still make commercial sense. Any small, localised processing units set up could extend their operating period by taking onboard the processing of other seasonal, orchard-grown fruits along with this one.
NGOs operating throughout these localities could also take up the sensible step of training village and mountain women in the simple art of hygienic jam-making. In areas where fruit cannot be naturally sundried — owing to the high humidity and rainfall of the summer monsoon — the women could be introduced to solar fruit drying as a way of both subsidising household food requirements and of earning an otherwise unattainable income. It is perplexing that no one has yet exhibited the common sense to instigate such sensible programmes instead of the perpetual ‘sew and embroider’ scenario.
With the climate change forecast set to wreak havoc on agriculture throughout the country in the very near future, all avenues of food production for an ever-expanding population must be given serious consideration and the sustainable harvesting of wild food — figs being a prime example — should be given attention. After all, the adverse effects of weather change are already being experienced by commercial growers in most regions of the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2013.
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