Nature tends to provide its own answers to questions it poses but we have to be mindful and listen.
This is the story of Harike Wildlife Sanctuary, Punjab, which has successfully turned a malicious weed into a profitable fibre. A plant that was introduced to India to beautify has become dangerous to its surroundings by suffocating the water body it inhabits, depleting oxygen and preventing sunlight from reaching other species. While the water hyacinth was being removed by the Harike Forest Department as a part of their habitat improvement activity, the removed hyacinth was left lying in heaps after removal for rotting or for making compost. But the weed was to see better days.
In 2011, an initiative to popularize and promote handicraft products created from Water Hyacinth with the involvement of local communities in the villages around the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary was undertaken by WWF- India on a pilot scale. A dialogue with village women was initiated to motivate them towards creating handicrafts out of the extracted weed. These women were then trained in the craft by WWF India. Women groups were then motivated to hold a mini-exhibition during the World Wetlands Day 2013 conducted by the Department of Forest and Wildlife at a district level.
The two villages selected for the project Churian and Sudhian are in close proximity to the sanctuary. This also makes the transport of raw materials cheap and feasible. The women of the villages were already well-versed with knitting, embroidery and similar crafts and therefore showed special interest in learning this new skill. The panchayats of the two villages also were very supportive of the endeavour.
The women have now formed a self-help group and have started creating handicrafts using the fibre from hyacinths for sale. Baljinder Kaur, who is part of the group, enjoys working with water hyacinth; she says, “it is a very soft as raw material and becomes hardy and strong when it’s finished as a product”. Baljinder is also the cashier of the group. Being part of the group for her, she says, is “both responsibility and excitement”. The women also went to Keoladeo National Park to train other women who are part of WWF –India’s Water School Programme in Bharatpur. For many it was the first time they travelled far from home. The women feel empowered because they can now contribute to their family income. They are getting out of their home spaces and engaging with each other as well as the market. Enabling women leads to change at many levels in profound ways.
This arrangement has the managers of the wildlife sanctuary also happy because the handicraft sales can now pay for extraction of the weed. The local communities no longer feel alienated from the park and share a strong bond with it not just as a provider of livelihood but also respect ecological values of the wetland.
Living up to the WWF’s mission to live within the limits of the natural environment, find sustainable methods for progress and promote conservation of natural habitats, this story shows us that innovative thinking can help us devise methods for conservation without compromising the needs of communities.