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ECOWATCH

`Are you giving me a loan?'

While researchers and non-governmental organisations cry themselves hoarse about the lantana problem, a little village in Tamil Nadu has found a use for it that also brings them some money. PANKAJ SEKHSARIA writes.

PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

IN mid-February earlier this year, I spent a few days with members of the Madurai-based Covenant Centre for Development (CCD), a NGO that works largely with local communities on initiatives linked to enterprise and conservation. The work is diverse and wide-ranging. It includes, among others, the formation of women's self help groups, cultivation and marketing of medicinal plants; promotion of traditional medicinal practices, coir making and tamarind processing and marketing. The group began work more than a decade ago with runaway children that they encountered on the streets of Madurai. A little investigation revealed that these children belonged to migrant labour, that was was constantly on the move because livelihood and employment oppurtunities in rural areas were fast eroding. This is where the NGO's work on livelihoods, employment generation and conservation was born. This piece, however, is not about the CCD or the range of interesting work that they do.

It is particularly about the little hamlet of VS Kottai in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu. This hamlet along with 12 others in the region has actually created a livelihood possibility by using lantana, a weed that has become a scourge of forests around the country. The plant, native to South America, was introduced into the country for ornamental purposes many years ago. Over time, it has proliferated across the country, severely impacting local flora and the birds and animals that depend on it. This is a plant for which few uses have been found, and a lot of thought, discussion and energy in recent times has gone into finding a solution for the problem.

No such problems for the Korava community of VS Kottai that I was visiting that day. The moment I reached this small nondescript hamlet, along with members of CCD, a small group of about eight elderly men and women gathered around us. Parthasarthy, my guide on this field visit, was my only link to the people around me. In the entire crowd, me included, he was the only guy who knew English and Tamil. He was my window to the people in the village and, almost immediately, I realised that he was a window for the villagers as well. The first thing he did was to explain to the assembled members that I was a researcher and a freelance writer and had come to learn more about their work with lantana. That was a good start. Almost immediately, however, a few lost interest and sauntered off. It was evident that outsiders like me visited them dime a dozen. To those who stayed back I put some of my questions. The gist of the very interesting information that I managed to gather was this.

This community has traditionally made baskets and other such items using bamboo gathered from nearby forests for many generations. Some said for four generations; others disagreed, saying that it was even longer. The forests were then thick, much closer and bamboo was easily available. With time, however, things began to change. For one, there was large-scale loss of forest cover, as has been seen across the country. Not only did the forests retreat, even access to bamboo inside became more difficult with more proactive protection by the Forest Department.

There were no such problems with lantana, though. It was easily available and there was so much of it that nobody knew what to do with it. This is the time, around two decades or so ago, that the move to lantana began. There was a broad consensus on this, though there were some disagreements over the details.

So, for the last two decades, while the rest of the country, academics and foresters; researchers and NGOs alike have been crying themselves hoarse about the lantana problem and the urgent need to find a solution, here was this little village that had happily gone along, not just found a use, but also one that was making them money.

There was other interesting information. Baskets made of lantana, I was told, were as good as those made from materials like bamboo and if used carefully would last upto four years. The raw material too, came free, and so the cost of the lantana baskets was at least 40 per cent cheaper than the bamboo ones. This was really impressive and a great example of local innovation and enterprise.


There clearly are a number of lessons and solutions, here, for a host of problems that we might be seeking to deal with.

For those wondering about the loan, here is what that was about. As mentioned earlier, a couple of those gathered, had sauntered off the moment Sarthy introduced me and the purpose of my visit. Of those who stayed on, some answered enthusiastically, some sat quietly and listened and there were a couple of old women who grew progressively fidgety.

The discussion, it would seem, had gone on long enough. This is when one of these old women butted in a with a question that I understood only when Sarthy turned to me with it. "This is all okay," she said, "but are you giving me a loan?"

Obviously, I thought to myself, the lady had not understood the purpose of my visit. While we were driving back, however, some things started to fall in place. It was clear to the old lady, I realised, that my visit of a few minutes one afternoon was of no interest and certainly no use to her. Obviously there were many like me who had come earlier. They would either have asked the same questions as I did or made the promises that she clearly knew about.

What the researchers did with the information they gathered we will never know. How many promises of loans, hope and prosperity were never fulfilled, also we will never know! It was also an important indicator to me of the role and the image that people like us have created for ourselves!

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