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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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Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

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It's not how much we give
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