Dr. Maya Mahajan, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Amrita School of Engineering, Coimbatore, initiated a new sustainable development project. She has been working with tribal communities of Singampathy, Sarkarporathy and Kalkotipathy to make furniture from the forest weed, Lantana and thereby helping them create a sustainable livelihood in the modern world.
Lantana Camera is an exotic weed which has a South American origin. It was brought to India as an ornamental plant for gardens. But now it is growing freely in the wild. In the Indian ecosystem, Lantana has no natural enemy. Thus it grows freely and poses a serious threat to the biodiversity. It is difficult to remove which makes it absolutely lethal to local flora and fauna. Uprooting is difficult and expensive equipment is needed. Usage of chemical controls tends to harm the surrounding plants and biological controls come with their own set of problems. The Lantana has a striking resemblance to bamboo and this is what gave Dr. Mahajan the idea to make furniture from this weed, instead of bamboo and cane.
"The tribal communities have their own particular way of life. It is very different from your way of living or mine. Which makes it very difficult for people like us to be able to effectively convince them to do anything. They had previously been subjected to training programs where people would come in for a short while, do some training and then leave. Leaving the tribal community with no support. So, the tribal people had that bad blood. They weren’t very cooperative in the beginning. The funding was another major problem because it’s not easy raising money for these biodiversity and sustainable living projects. With government funds, too! You have to apply and then just wait for a couple of years," said Dr. Mahajan.
Dr. Mahajan was also successful in convincing the tribal people to switch back to organic farming, rather than using chemical fertilizers. She said that it was hard to convince them to use green litter and cow dung instead of the chemicals that brought them high yield.
She also said that it was necessary to do awareness drives to educate urban dwellers to consume more organic produce as an incentive for farmers. "A lot more awareness is required by urban-dwellers. People go to malls and buy expensive clothes to put on their bodies. But when it comes to fruits and vegetables, even a Rs 2-3 hike is too much. The problem is when organic farming is done in large tracts of lands, it’s not more expensive than regular farming. But currently, as it is done in small tracts, in small pockets, and it is slightly more expensive. We are so used to eating chemical food because it doesn’t have an immediate impact anywhere except your pocket. But in the long run, organic food is better than chemical food. The funny thing is most organic food grown in India is exported because there is so little demand here. Abroad, they can get better prices, so they prefer to send it there."