The Association of People with Disability, with the support of Atree and SVP has introduced the Lantana Furniture making training programme on its campus. Ten youth with disability (YwD) are undergoing the rigorous 10 days course as part of the Livelihood programme.
The plant that threatens to put the forest ecosystem at risk shall one day become the primary source of these YwD's livelihood. Innovations like these not only bring about a balance in the local ecosystem but also help improve the livelihoods of people at the grass-root.
Native to South America, Lantana Camara was brought to India by the British as ornamental plants. Forest officials in different parts of the country have watched helplessly as the invasive plant has spread, and efforts to contain it have gone largely in vain. Lantana grows at a ferocious rate and removing it has its own challenges. Forest departments spend significant effort and money to remove these invasive species.
Thanks to the initiative by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment ( ATREE) these invasive plants will soon invade the houses, hotels, apartments, parks and gardens and decorate them as furniture. The Bandipur National Park which is affected by Lantana, which hinders the growth of other native vegetation that deer and elephant feed on will thus be saved to some extent.
Atree will provide technical support and other craft skill and knowledge. Soliga tribal from MM Hills have been trained to make furniture and this has helped them to supplement their income who depend on daily wages and income from the crops during monsoon. This training not only helped them to remain in the forest which is innate to them.
Realizing the need for developing sustainable alternatives for these forest-dependent people, a team of researchers at ATREE, who were studying the ecology of MM Hills, perceived lantana as a substitute for bamboo and cane, and stressed skill development and capacity building to create different products from the plant. The trust not only facilitated the training of a team of Soliga people but also helped them develop market linkages.
Every month, the artisans spend a week in the forests collecting the stems of matured lantana (over six-years-old). The sticks are then boiled and the bark is peeled off. This raw material is sufficient for a month’s work. One big armchair requires one bundle of the stem, weighing around 30 kg. This product costs around Rs 1,500.
The artisans earn around Rs 300 per day from this activity and the monthly income is around Rs 6,000.
Initially, they tried weaving baskets, but it didn’t click among consumers. Gradually, they began making different types of furniture which caught the imagination of people. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, the tag of being an eco-friendly alternative to wooden furniture has made lantana products sought after in offices and resorts.
Lantana furniture comes with the label of being low-cost, durable, resistant to termite and bedbugs. All these factors, coupled with the advantages of easy maintenance (a coat of varnish paint once a year) and aesthetic appeal, have increased the demand for this type of furniture. The artisans are proud that they have not got any complaints regarding the quality of the products so far.
Soliga artisans of MM Hills
In the last 15 years, ATREE has facilitated the training of over 200 families in this region. Both male and female members of the Soliga community engage in the two-month training and develop their skills at furniture making. Of them, 20 are continuing the work now. Many families fail to make the best use of the training mainly due to the lack of accessibility leading to transportation and marketing challenges.
For many this activity has brought relief from the ordeal of working in far-off coffee estates for six months every year, leaving their children to the care of elderly people at home. For some it has given respite from the uncertainty that surrounded daily wage labour – in terms of both work availability and income. The artisans acknowledge the advantages of the flexibility of working hours, not having to get exposed to hot sun or heavy rain, and most importantly, self-respect and creative satisfaction this occupation offers.
To ensure the sustainability of the enterprise, a collective of Soliga craftspeople has been formed. It runs the Lantana Craft Centre at MM Hills, with support from ATREE. The artisans make customised products, over 30 types, and the orders are generally placed directly with the artisans. The craftspeople also participate in different exhibitions to popularise the concept and create awareness about its significance. A recent development is the use of lantana statues in public spaces like parks. Right now, Soliga artisans are making elephant statues on a bulk order. They also make customised toys and home decor items from lantana.
Though there is no comprehensive study yet about the impact of this effort on the forest ecosystem, the artisans have noticed the change locally. While the plants were available in abundance on the fringes of the forest earlier, now they have to go more than three kilometres inside the forest to collect the ‘resource’. Though it is not possible to destroy the species completely, here’s a way we can contain its spread and manage it in a better way. Hopethat once a patch of forest is cleared of lantana, friendly species will reclaim the space before lantana sprouts again.
The success of this experiment has made the concept spread among the forest-dependent communities in parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. ATREE and the Soligas train those who are interested in the craft.
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