This Professor Is Helping Tribals In Making Eco-Friendly Furniture From Harmful Forest Weeds

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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

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Most of them were complaining about other non-profit organisations who trained them in various skills in the past with the promise of employment but left with no fruitful results. It took Maya a lot of time and effort to convince the tribal villagers.

“We are basically creating wealth out of waste”

The unexpected success of the first batch of furniture was enough to attract more people, mostly tribal women, who eagerly volunteered. Professional furniture-makers were engaged to train them. Through meticulous research, the team had devised an intricate process of turning the undesired forest weed into furniture. Firstly, the villagers collect matured Lantana plants from the forest. The branches and stems are boiled and the barks peeled. This helps to smoothen the texture and increase flexibility.

Next, these are shaped and put together into exquisite chairs, tables, sofa sets etc, which appear similar to cane or wood furniture, but have certain advantages over them.

First and foremost, Lantana furniture is completely eco-friendly with zero chemicals being used in its manufacture. Being an invasive forest weed, Lantana has certain chemical compounds that render it resistant to all kinds of pests. Hence, Lantana furniture is more durable than bamboo or wood, which are prone to termite attack, especially in tropical climate. Moreover, since the raw material is free, the furniture is highly cost-effective for the consumer.

The villagers are also trained to make ornaments and toys from the Lantana twigs. Indirectly, this entire project is saving a biodiversity-rich zone from losing its biological wealth, while helping to sustain the aboriginal communities at the same time.

 

Tribal women are the prime beneficiaries

“95% of our workers are tribal women who previously had no source of regular income. This project is very convenient for them as they can continue the work in their own homes while attending to their children and taking care of household chores,” Maya explains.

Till now, the project has predominantly been funded by the Ministry of Environment. Word of mouth and social media has played the biggest role in the marketing process. But, the team, headed by Maya, plans to launch it soon as a full-scale business and popularise the unique products through e-commerce sites.

The furniture project has been adopted by some of the villages like Singhampathy, Kalkotipathy and Sarkarporathy, where the first batch of upskilled workers now train upcoming batches. In fact, the training has also facilitated a few youngsters to find better jobs. Recently, the Lantana furniture making has been recognised as a certified skill-training course and the proud founder wishes to replicate this project in different parts of the country.

Maya Mahajan has been awarded the International Women Achiever Award at the 2018 International Women’s Meet held in Chennai. A video created by Maya and her students at Amrita University, Coimbatore, explains the details about Lantana furniture making.

The organic farming initiative

However, the villagers in Sadivayal and adjoining hamlets did not take much interest in this project as they were traditionally agriculturists with fertile lands. However, frequent elephant raids in the fields and water scarcity were posing serious threats to their livelihood. Maya, an established botanist, introduced organic farming in these villages. She has trained them to cultivate mushroom, turmeric, rice, chilly, pulses and vegetables, which are not prone to be attacked by wild elephant groups. The villagers were overjoyed to find their production to be doubled using completely chemical-free methods. Maya has collaborated with some NGOs to train the villagers in making bio fertilisers and biopesticides. Presently, the crops are marketed locally, but the spirited professor is trying her best to connect these farmers with the urban market.

If you wish to know more about Lantana furniture, you can reach out to Maya Mahajan via mail: [email protected] or call her at 9489518865.

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A Group Of Karnataka Women Pushes Alcoholic, Abusive Husbands & Social Stigma Aside, Earns Through Recycling Workshop

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At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.

No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank

Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.

Hosa Belaku – a new dawn

“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive. 

“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.

Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017.

At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli. 

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The gritty women of Hosa Belaku

At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.

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Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku

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Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.

If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.

Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives

The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.

The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.

At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.

True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.

Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.

The only solace

How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.

The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.

“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.

“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.

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It's not how much we give
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