Invasive weed gives tribals job security

Coimbatore: Three years ago, M Kannammal, 32, of Seengapathi, a tribal settlement in Boluvampatti forest range, would search frantically for a job as a daily wage worker to make ends meet. On many days, she was unable to earn a single rupee. But now, she has a stable monthly income by making furniture using Lantana camara, an invasive plant species.

Kannammal, along with 80 other tribals from the settlement, was trained through a skill development programme which taught them to make dolls and furniture using lantana stems and twigs. Residents gather the raw material from forests and make sofas, chairs, tables, shelves and other furniture items, besides marketing them.

“Earlier, I would only get an income if I found a job, or else I had to be idle. But now, as I have learned a skill, I feel safe as it will come in handy for me,” said Kannammal. “If we learn a skill, we can use it any time we want,” added S Malaravan, 30, another resident of the settlement, who enrolled in the course two weeks ago.

Residents said if they collected lantana for a week, they would have enough raw material to make furniture for a month. “We can sell a furniture set comprising a sofa, two chairs and a teapoy for around Rs 12,000,” said Kannammal, adding that the same furniture set made with cane would cost twice as much.

Residents were first exposed to making dolls and chairs from lantana through a project funded by science for equity, empowerment and development (SEED) under the department of science and technology in 2015. The programme was facilitated by the Center for Sustainable Future, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham.

The centre has now helped residents start the ‘Siruvani Lantana Craft Center’, a partnership firm with those who have been trained in furniture making, said Maya Mahajan, an associate professor from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, who coordinates the project. The use of lantana to make furniture was a win-win situation as the plant is an invasive species which has been creating ecological problems in the Western Ghats, she said.

Six months ago, under the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham started a 60-day certification course in making lantana furniture. While the project was begun to empower tribals, now they are also looking to reach others, said Mahajan. “We are also trying to replicate the programme in other parts of the country,” she said.

While Seengapathi residents started off with a few models of furniture, now they improvise designs and also take customised orders. “Now that the residents know how to make furniture, the next step is to expand their customer base,” added Mahajan.