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Keshav Khanna

IWB Blogger

Maya Mahajan Assembles Her Weed Furniture Business In Sync With Tribal Life

  • IWB Post
  •  December 6, 2017

What do you think of when you read the words “Sustainable Living”? For most of us, it means not leaving the water running when brushing our teeth or turning off the lights when not in use. But sustainable living means a lot more than just that. Go to a forest near your city, and you’ll see the local tribal communities living the sustainable life. For them, sustainable living means living in peace and equity with the forest around them. For them, the forest is their home.

It’s really a shame then that most so called “Sustainable Development” projects and agencies either ignore the tribals or see them as a threat. People in tribal areas are the farthest from being a threat to the forests. They are co-existing with them.

Meet Maya Mahajan, who completed her Ph.D. in 2000 and started working in Siruvani forest with a focus on invasive alien weeds on native flora and ecology. Ms. Mahajan doesn’t see the tribal communities as being a danger to the forest, but an asset. She has been working with tribal communities of Singampathy, Sarkarporathy and Kalkotipathy hamlets helping them create a sustainable livelihood in the modern world. Presently, Maya is working as Associate Professor for Sustainable Future at Amrita University, Coimbatore.

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These hamlets had a presence of something called Lantana Camera. A weed that grows in the wild and destroys the local vegetation. It is difficult to remove which makes it absolutely lethal to local flora and fauna. Where others saw a problem, Maya saw an opportunity. See, Lantana is striking in its resemblance to bamboo. But considering it’s a weed, it costs nearly nothing. Which makes it perfect for being used in furniture in place of bamboo and cane.

Maya educated the tribal people not just on how to make furniture out of Lantana but also helped them market it. She’s also involved in educating tribal farmers about organic farming. Helping them increase their yield while maintaining their lifestyles.

Over a phone conversation, she tells us what drives her. The joy on the faces of the tribal people, whom she admires greatly. Believing there’s a lot we city dwellers can learn from them.

Could you educate our readers about Lantana Camara?

Maya: Lantana Camara 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. The thing is in the context of the Indian ecosystem, Lantana has no natural enemy. So, it runs amok and destroys forests. It poses a serious threat to our biodiversity.

Tell us something about the background of your research.

Maya: I began my research working on exotic weed that causes harm to the local biodiversity. Weeds like Lantana Camara. I realized how difficult it is to control when weeds like these grow wild. Their uprooting is difficult and expensive equipment is needed. You can use chemical controls, but that tends to harm the plants around. And biological controls come with their own set of problems.

I also realized that to fix this problem the Forest Department employed local communities, tribals in particular.  So, I also realized the need for occupying these people as well. Because conservation projects often forget the people dependent on these forests. We tend to see them as threats. But they have been living in harmony with the forest for all these years! They needed to be provided with livelihoods as well.

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What were some of the difficulties you faced not just raising funds but also with the tribal community?

Maya: 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.

How did you come about the process of making furniture with Lantana?

Maya: Well we had seen the process of making furniture with bamboo and cane. Lantana is very similar, only much stronger. So, we adopted that process to Lantana. For instance, we had to boil the Lantana so it would become flexible enough to be used. This is what is done with bamboo and cane.

What was or is your strategy to market said products?

Maya: So far, we haven’t engaged in much marketing. But we did conduct 3 exhibitions at the university that I teach in. And we saw a huge demand for Lantana furniture. From parents, students, my colleagues. The product is just so good! It looks exactly like cane or bamboo furniture, but it is half the cost of them. In fact, the demand was so high that we couldn’t even meet the orders from the exhibition! I doubt marketing would be a real challenge.

Many farmers were perhaps already using cow dung and goat manure before chemical fertilizers. How did you convince them to go back to their old methods? What according to you are the benefits of organic farming over regular farming?

Maya: When we went to train the tribal communities. We realized that they were already engaged with some other training program. That program was providing them with free kits that included seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. They were told to use that kit if they wanted to improve their yield. These farmers were only using these products because they were free. They weren’t seeking them out actively.

So, we told them not to use the free products, which you can imagine was not easy. What I decided was to give away seeds for free myself. I told them about the problems of using pesticides willy-nilly. I told them if there were any fall in yield I’d pay them out of my own pocket. Gradually, we were able to convince them to use organic methods of growth.

Now at this point, we had to be immensely vigilant to monitor their activities. But thankfully we didn’t face any problems.

To my surprise, yield was double! And since they have green litter and cow dung available in plenty, we didn’t have to spend money purchasing all of that. Everything was natural.

What were some of the crops that you grew?

Maya: We grew Black Gram, groundnut, and turmeric. It was 3 different villages, so we had the flexibility to grow different crops.

Do you think there need to be awareness drives to educate urban dwellers to consume more organic produce as an incentive for farmers?

Maya: Absolutely. A lot more awareness is required my urban-dwellers. People would go to malls and buy expensive clothes to put on their body. 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 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.

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Talk about the concept of sustainable living in the context of some of the tribal families you’ve worked with.

Maya: If we could see the way they live life, we’d see how much we can learn from them. When I went initially, they had elephant attacks. So, they didn’t want to go to the forest to harvest Lantana, because they didn’t want to disturb the elephants. In fact, at many points of time, I felt like I was imposing my ideology on them. That is why I decided to take it slow.

Other than the chemical fertilizer issue, I don’t think I taught them much. But they taught me a lot. The way they live is much more sustainable than not just us city dwellers but also some of these agencies that go to “educate” them.

I am dying to get my hands on some durable Lantana furniture. Maya’s desire to respect the tribal people enough to not rush the business pace is absolutely admirable. However, when Lantana does come to the market, I’ll be the first one to buy it.

We should find a lot of sense in what Maya says about urban dwellers bargaining for vegetables while paying top dollar for wares in a mall. The food we eat should concern us. The people who grow it should too. That is why we encourage everyone to give organic food a try. Let’s remember, we are what we eat.

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