At the edge of the precipice

At the edge of the precipice

At the edge of the precipice

Dismal prospects: Its beautiful manifestations have charmed many across generations. But today, rattan faces a bleak future, writes Narasimha Hegde

Rattan is a spiny climbing palm with some 600 species in existence globally, though many are mainly confined to Southeast Asia. Known for its strength, durability, elasticity and lightness, rattan is one of the most important Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) in international trade. It is estimated that more than 700 million people trade or use rattan for a variety of purposes — furniture, walking sticks, umbrella handles, baskets, matting, hats, sporting goods,  ropes and birdcages.

About 75-80 per cent of the world’s rattan originates from Indonesia. Rattan plays an important role in the life of Indonesian people, especially in Kalimantan, where a sophisticated system developed by the indigenous people of the Dayak community has been in existence for centuries.

However, rattan resources, throughout their natural range in the tropical forests of Asia and Africa, are declining due to over-exploitation and shrinking forest area, various technical, economic and policy constraints, and the long gestation period of the palm itself.

Rattan in Western Ghats
In Western Ghats, more than 30 different traditional articles of rattan have been recorded and the overall annual income of a family involved in rattan cultivation is around Rs 32,000. In Gersoppa, 135- metre long rattan has been found, which might be a record in itself! But all is not well.

From the time when rattan resources were cultivated in great quantities to the point where they are under constant threat, rattan resources have witnessed a huge downfall in the State. “We lost our rattan resources due to inappropriate harvesting techniques. Moreover, unchecked felling of immature rattan in the forest by the furniture industries is also adding to the woes,” rues Bellu Gowda from Kodnagadde village in Uttara Kannada district.

“Over the last 25 years, many artisans who used to earn their living by creating rattan artefacts, have been forced to look towards other sources of income due to fast depleting rattan resources. In fact, only five per cent of the total amount remains in the forest now.

We requested village forest committees (VFC) and the Forest Department to establish rattan plantation in our area and even promised our full support for the same, but no action has been taken so far,” says Ganapu Gowda from Kelase-Kudragod village.

The above mentioned villagers belong to Khare Vokkaliga community (an ethnic group), whose members are known to use rattan sticks with silver coating in temples. These sticks are believed to be holy and capable of warding off evil spirits. Priests carry rattan sticks while attending religious functions, especially during the deity worship in farms and sacred groves during Deepavali.

According to a study conducted by Life Trust in Sirsi, deforestation, degradation and forest fragmentation due to anthropogenic activities have been threatening the rattan resources in 15 villages of Uttara Kannada district. Moreover, the skills involved in transforming rattan into charming artefacts are also on the verge of disappearance. Even at the global level, at least 117 species are threatened in the wild.

Repair measures
Apart from this, poor forest management strategies and consequent depletion of the stock, especially of desired species have posed a serious threat to the rattan industry, resulting in declining exports and the closure of several operations. Given its economic, ecological and socio-cultural importance to a large number of people in the world, there is an urgent need to ensure a sustainable supply of rattan.
 
Promoting sustainable management of the resource through development of rattan plantations and addressing the problems of unscientific harvesting and poor management are essential.

Fortunately, there are some initiatives working towards rattan conservation at the local level. Take Muregar village, for instance. Here local people and VFC have taken steps for sustainable management of the endangered palm.

 These low-cost but high-impact activities need to be encouraged and replicated everywhere. Regular supply of resources and thus, product, market development and formation of effective business partnerships will also go a long way in repairing the damage. Institutional support structures and government-private sector coordination must be strengthened.

Technology adoption and skill development should be imparted in order to meet international standards. Training farmers in the post-harvest treatments for rattan, including seasoning, oil curing, bleaching, deglazing to remove the silicified epidermis, fumigation and protection from insects and fungi are necessary so as to increase its market value.

Rattan is more than just a means of livelihood; it is also an important part of the local culture. Venkatraman Hegde, president of VFC in Gonsar village puts it aptly, “Rattan cannot be substituted by any other material.” It’s time we worked towards conserving this precious element of our culture.

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