You might have spotted Lantana camara plants with brightly-coloured flowers in nooks and corners of urban cityscapes. However, inside the pristine forests of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, these very plants were a threat.
When Dr Maya Mahajan was pursuing her PhD research in the forested lands of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, she discovered how different species of invasive forest weeds are completely destroying the natural vegetation. The rich botanical biodiversity of the region was particularly threatened by the uncontrolled growth of Lantana camara. The loss of valuable plants, in turn, was affecting the livelihood of local tribals which is dependent on forest products. Biological or chemical control of the weed was not environmentally sustainable. Hence, the forest department resorted to mechanical removal of the plants by using trained elephants – which was again a slow and elaborately expensive affair.
No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank
Dr Maya Mahajan was aware of the increasing demand for eco-friendly furniture. After detailed experimentation, she engaged the tribal people to turn these Lantana weeds into beautiful, and highly durable furniture. Since 2015, due to the efforts of Dr Mahajan and her research assistants Aravind R and Ramkumar, Lantana furniture has gained popularity in the urban market, which is, in turn, is generating good revenue for the aboriginal communities of forested areas in Tamil Nadu.
Local communities were sceptical about Lantana eco-friendly furniture
Born to social worker parents in Maharashtra, Maya had grown up watching her family actively helping the underprivileged people with food, clothing and funds for building houses. Due to her exposure to the masses, she always nurtured the desire to help them live better.
“Through my research project on the forest product harvesting, I have had close interaction with the tribal inhabitants of Siruvani, Mudumalai, Wayanad and Silent Valley. I shared a good rapport with the communities. Yet when I approached them with the proposal of making furniture from Lantana, they were reluctant, doubting its feasibility,” said Maya