Spectrum: Crafting a weed into a wonder

Women artisans of Lokkere Lantana Karakushala Sangha engaged in furniture making.

The plant that threatens to put the forest ecosystem at risk has become the primary source of our livelihood,” exclaimed Jadiyappa, who was busy scraping a Lantana camara stick with a sharp knife. A variety of furniture — stools, chairs, tables, bookshelves, sofa sets, cots — at different stages of making was scattered across the Lantana Craft Centre in Male Mahadeshwara Hills (MM Hills). Artisans of the Soliga community were shaping the plant species that has invaded much of India’s habitats into simple, elegant furniture pieces.

Jadiyappa, a farm labourer turned master craftsman, echoed the feelings of several Soliga families spread across 10 hamlets in and around MM Hills. They started seeing lantana in a new light in 2004 when they got exposure to making furniture from this invasive shrub, which was introduced as an ornamental plant in India by the British in 1807. It was Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, ATREE in short, that envisioned the utility of lantana after taking a cue from one such effort in Uttarakhand.

Sustainable alternative

Lantana furniture
Lantana furniture

Soligas are the indigenous people of this region who traditionally depended on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and subsistence farming to eke out a living. Their access to forest resources got restricted over time due to various reasons such as poor rainfall and government regulations. Hence they were forced to work as daily wage labourers. Realising 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 on 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. 

Murali Manohar, an entrepreneur in the hospitality sector, has furnished his three resorts entirely with lantana products. “It’s been over six years now. I gave them designs based on our requirements and they have delivered good quality stuff. From wardrobe to side tables, dining table set and key racks, it’s lantana everywhere. These customised products enhance the ambience of the place. Though these pieces are functional, some tourists don’t like the cots as they are not very comfortable. When I narrate the story behind these products, they comply and appreciate the effort. Many have even placed orders with the artisans,” he says. 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
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,” says B Narayanan of ATREE who has been coordinating the activities of lantana craftwork. Last year, they made a transaction of around Rs 10 lakh. These artisans manage their business independently. Narayanan feels that the activity can be scaled up if a dedicated team trains, motivates, encourages innovation and helps the artisans expand their market.

For Mahadevi and her husband, 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 Krishnan, 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,” says Narayanan. Jadiyappa hopes that 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. One such collaborative effort was coordinated by Junglescapes, a non-profit organisation, working in the Bandipur region. Unlike the MM Hills model, here lantana craft was introduced to complement the ecological restoration efforts by removing lantana scientifically. While 30% of the removed lantana is used to make craft items, the remaining 70% is given to villagers for firewood.

Spreading the concept

Elephant statue is the latest in the range of designs made by Soliga artisans
Elephant statue is the latest in the range of designs made by Soliga artisans

The Lokkere Lantana Karakushala Sangha, formed in 2014, has 10 female and two male members. “They were trained by the MM Hills artisans and have developed good proficiency. The innovative designs they visualise reflect their creative talent. The activity has boosted their confidence. We mostly make souvenirs like key stands which are popular among tourists who visit Bandipur,” says Ramesh Venkataraman of Junglescapes. They also make chairs, multipurpose bins and teapoys. Ramesh says that the Forest Department is supportive of the effort and has used lantana products in its offices and other facilities in Bandipur.

As per estimates, over 60% of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is covered with lantana, affecting the biodiversity seriously. Clearing one acre of land with moderate Lanatana density takes 30 human days. A scientific method called cut root-stock method has been found to be useful to stop the revival of this species which is known for its strong capability of regrowth.

Innovations like these not only bring about a balance in the local ecosystem but also help improve the livelihoods of people at the grassroots.

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