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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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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