| In times of a sharpening man-versus-nature debate, they stand out as the most unlikely environmentalists. Armed with the humble keria lacca or lac insects, nearly 21,000 small farmers, mostly tribals, are almost maniacally saving the Palash tree, a vital cog in the bio-diversity of Vindhyachal and Satpura ranges of Madhya Pradesh. |
The insect is released on carefully-pruned branches of Palash, Ber and Kusum, which, after sapping, releases the resin that gets deposited on the branches. These branches are then sold to processors, who then export the lac.
With natural resins back in vogue as a key material for computer and electronic chips and other components, the huge windfall from exports has prompted lac farming at a huge scale. "As an environmental movement to save trees, it's one up on chipko because it offers solid profits," says Dr. Moni Thomas, a scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (JNKVV) and the brain behind the idea.
During his posting in Shahdol district in 1995, Dr. Thomas was aghast at the mindless felling of Palash tree for firewood. His protestations that Palash's falling foliage offered humus for soil fertility while its roots fixed nitrogen in soil and prevented erosion fell on deaf ears.
A 90-year-old Kurmi farmer, Ram Manohar Patel, offered a solution. He told the scientist that in the erstwhile Rewa State, lac farming was a popular economic activity and that felling tree was punishable by whipping. But use of chemical resins had slowed down the pace of farming. With help from the university and the Indian Lac Research Institute, Ranchi, Dr Thomas set about reviving the practice of the yore. After some initial hiccups, Madhav Singh, a Gond tribal, managed a profit of Rs 6,000 in July 2000, only to be raised to Rs 97,000 three months later. That triggered a movement.
The Madhya Bharat Lac Producers' Federation has spread from three districts in 2004 to eight with a turnover of Rs 61 lakh till 2006. Meanwhile, the MP Minor Forest Produce Federation along with the state Government and JNKVV has launched a programme to cover 23 more districts, involving nearly 21,000 farmers. The state produces 4,250 metric tonne (mt) of lac annually from 21 lakh trees.
Recently, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan set a target of covering one lakh more trees till July 2007. Next stop for these entrepreneurs-an annual turnover of 10,000 mt by 2010 and earning carbon credits for their unique endeavour. Who says green can't earn greenbacks?