Melghat villagers make money out of lantana weed

  • The authorities at the Melghat Tiger Reserve are working with two NGOs and villagers to use the branches of lantana weed to make furniture.
  • This activity is helping the forest department to get rid of the weed, while the villagers have an income from the use of the biomass.
  • Enthused by the income, young people are opting to stay back in the villages rather than migrating to cities for employment.

For 23 year old Priya Sunderlal Mawaskar, living near Maharashtra’s Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR), ramuniya has just been a stubborn, wild weed, strewn with orange, purple and white inflorescence and growing all over the place. Ramuniya is the local name for Lantana camara, identified to among world’s worst weeds. It is known to completely invade the forests and choke the growth of indigenous species of grass and shrubs that are otherwise food for the herbivores.

“Till recently, no one really cared and the weeds were randomly uprooted and thrown out, so that they do not grow denser. Who could imagine that this plant that we threw away is actually fetching us a livelihood today!” exclaimed Mawaskar.

Lantana camara, a native of Central and South America, was introduced as an ornamental plant at the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, Kolkata, in 1807.  Today, this fast-spreading invasive weed has taken over most of India’s wildlife habitats, decreasing their biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its recent World Heritage Outlook 2 report has ranked invasive species as one of the most significant current threats to the forests of the natural heritage sites in India. Lantana chokes the natural biological diversity of the forest.

Lantana used as a hedge plant. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Training in the lantana craft

While various state forest departments across the country have been deploying local communities living in and around the protected areas to remove lantana, the MTR administration is also training the local inhabitants on how to innovatively use its sturdy wood and branches to create “lantana craft”.

The project started about two and half months ago, with financial assistance from the IUCN and implemented by two NGOs – the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati (NCSA) and Satpuda Foundation (SF) in collaboration with state forest department. So far, it has trained about 80 persons from seven out of 38 buffer villages of the MTR in making beds, chairs, bookshelves and numerous other daily utility articles out of lantana wood.

Women from Melghat’s buffer villages take part in the training programme. Photo from NCSA and SF.

“The training has given me a new lease of life,” said 28-year-old Anil Tandilkar from Nanduri village, fringing the reserve. A newly trained artisan, he added, “In the past one month, I have earned Rs. 6000 through lantana furniture.”

“The basic objective behind the exercise is to eventually decrease biotic pressures in the tiger habitat, by reducing the dependence of local communities on forest resources,” said Nishikant Kale, president, NCSA. The livelihood and income generated through lantana are sustainable as there is no dearth of this invasive weed in the area.

The furniture from lantana wood largely resembles those made from bamboo or cane, but is more durable. Simultaneously, the cost to the former is also less, as unlike bamboo or cane which the villagers have to purchase, lantana is available for free, he said. Hence, the market demand for the product is also picking up, he added.

An artisan with his lantana furniture. Photo from NCSA and SF.

The villagers have so far undergone three training programmes, in which up to 30 % of the participants were women. But getting them to participate in the project was not easy. It was an arduous task for Ashok. G. Athawale, field assistant (NCSA) and his team going from village to village, holding meetings with villagers and spreading awareness on how the training can supplement their family income.

Youngsters are interested

“It was difficult to convince them initially, that such a useless wild weed can actually fetch financial returns for them”, he said. But their efforts finally worked and a sizeable section of their trainees includes the unemployed educated youth from the villages.

Ramlal Jamunkar, sarpanch of Tarubanda, a buffer village of Melghat, could not have been happier. “Youth from our villages are migrating in large numbers to Mumbai and Pune in search of work. However, the training seems to be holding them back for good,” he said. “It feels good to see our sons and daughters work and earn in their villages,” added the village head.

For Priya Mawaskar and her group from Nanduri village, a typical day begins at 7 in the morning. They first go to the nearby forest periphery to collect the wood – its size depending on the items to be made. The bigger furniture such as beds, double sofas require choosing taller plants, they explain. The wood is then scraped to remove the thorns and rough surface and bent to suit the required product. “Lantana wood retain their pliability only for a day, after which they harden and break off when bent. So, it is important to shape them on the very same day they are picked,” she explained.

Going to the forest to collect lantana wood. Photo from NCSA and SF.

In order to give a boost to the marketing of their products, efforts are on to secure them free of cost stalls at the prominent tourist centres in MTR, according to Kale. Further, the craftsmen are also getting ready to participate in the upcoming Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai in February, where they are collectively hoping to do good business.

The project has thus created a win-win situation for the local communities and the forest department, according to M. Srinivasa Reddy, field director, Melghat Tiger Reserve. The training while adding value to forest conservation, has also created a successful consumption pattern for the otherwise wild weed in the local villages. Lantana spreads so aggressively that there is nothing better if villagers are enthused to uproot them in their own interest to enhance their income generation.

Lantana artisans at work. Photo from NCSA and SF.

However, along with income generation, the villagers are also entrusted with the responsibility of complete removal of the weed from the area. “As a part of the training, they have been taught not to just cut the plant but pull out the bushes by their deep tap root system, so that they do not sprout again,” said Abhijit Dutta, assistant director (conservation), Satpuda Foundation. Further, the uprooted plant is kept upside down, to keep away the roots from touching the soil, so that they do not regenerate. “The whole idea of the project is to conserve the forest and its biodiversity, while linking livelihood options of the local communities living around this unique tiger habitat,” said Dutta.

Lantana is destroying biodiversity

Melghat, meaning the meeting of valleys, along with adjoining tiger reserve complexes spreads across an area of above 2000 square kilometres, in the Amravati district of Maharashtra. One of the oldest tiger reserves in India, it is known to presently have 44 tigers. The strategic location of the reserve, along the borders of the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, makes it an important corridor that maintains the contiguity of the larger Central Indian Satpuda-Maikal landscape, sprawling across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.

Income from lantana furniture is encouraging the young people to stay back in the village. Photo from NCSA and SF.

Sub-tropical dry deciduous forests, mostly teak, clothe the rugged terrains of Satpuda hills, intersected by the Tapti and Purna River systems. The tiger habitat also harbours the endangered gaur, wild dogs, caracal, sloth bears, leopards and a large diversity of birds.

“However, nearly 30% of such rich biodiverse forests of Melghat have got invaded by lantana,” said Kishor Rithe, president of the Satpuda Foundation, who is also a member of the Maharashtra State Wildlife Board and has worked in the Satpuda landscape for the past 27 years. Its impenetrable thickets impoverish the soil in the area, by keeping away native species, whose litters can otherwise enrich soil with its humus content.

Lantana also fuels forest fires. The dried up bushes increase the risk of converting ground fires into canopy fires, where even trees can get affected, Rithe noted. By turning lantana into an economic good the project has been able to turn the weeds into wealth.

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