Lantana has the notoriety as a noxious, invasive, rather aggressive weed which chokes useful plants and is capable of even ensnaring wild beasts to death.
It is, therefore, doubly rewarding if such a weed could be transformed into attractive, commodious pieces of furniture. The members of the Soliga, Korava and Palliyar tribes in M M Hills, who are precisely doing it, should therefore be commended for the effort.
Lantana is an inexpensive alternative to cane and bamboo, but is a near-match in quality. It is a hard stem not vulnerable to termites and could have the same glimmer and smooth surface if treated with varnishes. It lends itself easily to bending, twining, splicing, interlacing and nailing. It could be used to produce tea-picker’s basket, sofas, chairs, waste-bins, teapoys, book and shoe cases, computer tables and all that can be produced out of cane.
The tribals in the M M Hills who were initially trained at Dehradun by the Himalaya Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) in 2005, have been engaged in producing some exquisite products out of lantana weed for several years under the aegis of Lantana Crafts Centre.
The Centre in M M Hills has engaged around 40 members from 20 families of the Soliga tribe in Anehole and Palar villages who now make a livelihood by crafting useful products out of the weed. Operating under the aegis of NGO Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), the Centre supplies the products to outlets selling handicrafts.
It is said the British introduced the South American species Lantana camara into the Indian landscape in 1807. Having a tendency for prolific growth, it spread like a wildfire and took escarpments in Western Ghats. But little did they realise that it is more a menace than blessing. The herbivores do not eat lantana. They even do not prefer to live in areas covered by lantana because it grows so thick and dense that it becomes impenetrable. Despite many efforts to eradicate them, they still persist and pervade.
It was in 2004 that ATREE conceived a craft centre for lantana at M M Hills and for forest-dependent communities. It sent a few members of the tribe to Dehradun for training at Hesco being run by Anil Joshi. Initially, baskets woven from lantana were coarse and had a limited market. Debarking the lantana stem was laborious and time consuming. Interns from France at ATREE suggested boiling the stems to enable easy debarking and bending of stems, which made it possible to make a range of products.
Normally, a tribal artisan is able to make a good livelihood out of the crafts. Mahadeva, who is engaged in furniture making for the last eight years, earns a monthly income for Rs 6,000. Interestingly, while cane is an expensive raw material, lantana does not cost anything. It merely has to be collected from the forests. According to Narayana B, in-charge of the Centre, government bodies recognise lantana craft and provide marketing channels for the Centre’s products. A three-piece sofa set with a coffee table fetches around Rs 6,000 in the market.
Now, nearly 50 different products are made out of lantana and several of the tribals engaged in the craft say they derive nearly 80 per cent of their income from the craft. The high-heeled clientele in cities like the products for their gardens and rooftops, for, termites, rain and sunshine do not affect them.
ATREE, along with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, Lantana Craft Centre and Divya Jyoti Federation, M M Hills, organises lantana crafts mela every year at M M Hills, where the maiden centre came up. Efforts are even on to produce toys with the application of lacquer to lantana. Another NGO, Shola Trust, is similarly organising the tribals in Gudalur forest in Tamil Nadu to prepare crafts out of Lantana.