Plant prospects

The stubborn juliflora, which grows mostly in drylands and wastelands, is now invading arable areas. One still speculates about the repercussions

By S Rajendran
Published: Sunday 31 December 1995

Plant prospects

Judicious usage: the legs of t (Credit: S Rajendran)IN KILLUKULAVAIPATTI village in the drought prone Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, M Thangappa - a 45 -year old marginal farmer - earns his livelihood from the thorny, bushy plant, Prosopis juliflora, popularly called Kattukaruvel. Like him, many subsistence farmers and landless labourers use juliflora not only as fuelwood, but also as other means of livelihood.

In the countryside, varieties of plants have been flourishing. Of these, Lantana camera and P juliflora have been found to be very beneficial, while others like "congress grass" are known to have adverse effects on the environment. P juliflora, a sturdy thorny plant which resembles black babul, but has a lesser canopy, is spreading rapidly not only on wastelands, but also on the arable lands.

Two decades ago, this plant was unknown to many parts ofIndia. Now it grows widely on wetlands, drylands, hillocks, road#es and even on home-steads. Mookaish Udayar of Killukottai village informed that "one of our villagers brought the seed from Trichydistrict and pr6pagated it, as it was rare in our areas."

According to Udayar, uprooting this plant is difficult as its roots reach deep down into the soil, and has large thorns. if the plant is chopped off without being uprooted completely, it spreads much faster. In rain-starved drylands which often remain fallow for years, juliflora grows into a forest, says R Palanichamy, a dryland farmer of Sengipatti village in Thanjavur.

For the poor villager, juliflora is a goldmine. He easily earns upto Rs 5,000 annually by using several parts of the plant. Juliflora wood is sold by villagers in nearby urban centres or to the local firewood dealer.

Juliflora charcoal sells like hot cakes at tea stalls and laundry shops. Some tea shop owners buy and store it even up to six months to avoid shortages. Shanmugam Chettiar, a tea stall owner in Keeranur town of Pudukottai, pays Rs 3 per kg for juliflora charcoal. The price doubles during monsoon. Normally, one kg banyan Wood charcoal fetches Rs 2 per kg_. B6t juliflora charcoal has higher energy content than banyan wood charcoal which burns off quickly like cotton. Besides, juliflora charcoal emits less smoke and causes no physical irritation.

During the beginning of the agricultural season, farmers clear all juliflora trees from their fields which they occassionally sell as charcoal. Therefore, juliflora firewood and charcoal supply is high during this season.

Juliflora seeds serve as good feed for livestock, including pigs. Although all species of livestock eat the seeds, sheep and goat prefer it most. However, some farmers feel that the seeds spread faster through the grazing ofsheep and goat. It often happens that juliflora seeds in sheep's manure germinate immediately after rainfall.

The wood from the plant is used for making stools and benches. Mature juliflora trunks can also be used for making agricultural implements like hoe and yoke. The wood is not attacked by white termites.

I Seshadri Naidu, project officer with an NGo based in Kadri in Ananthapur district, Andhra Pradesh, says, "There is nothing wrong in planting this sturdy plant on wastelands and hillocks." In fact, the NGo distributed 400 kg of juliflora seeds to various farmers and undertook sowing seeds on few barren hillocks three years back. Around 8,100 ha were covered, of which, 50.63 ha was wastelands. According to Naidu, 0.405 ha ofjuliflora plot yields 25 torme offirewood fetching Rs 20,000 a year. A kg ofjuliflora seed is sold at Rs 40.

Dryland farmers prefer to leave the land uncultivated to make way for juliflora, anticipating a thick growth. But in Pudukottai, where juliflora plants are grown on bunds and catchment areas, the water holding capacity of the tanks has been considerably reduced, observe farmers.

Rampant commercialisation and smoke-free energy sources are now reaching the villages. But still, juliflora serves as the single largest source of fire-wood in rural India. A study on social forestry programmes conducted by the Bharathidasan University, Trichy, indicates that in villages, more than 60 per cent of the households use 80 per cent of total fuel from juliflora alone. This study further notes that juliflora has been obtained mainly from village commons.

Although it is believed that juliflora can change saline soil into cultivable soil, K Samiayyan, senior scientist, Soil and Water Management Research Institute, Thanjavur, says that scientific research on both controlled and uncon- trolled juliflora cultivation should be undertaken to assess its effects.

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