Parvathi Nagarajan is quiet and unassuming. But she is an achiever. The first woman graduate in her village in Tamil Nadu, she comes from a family of traditional healers. Over and above the knowledge she gained through structured education, she has a fund of knowledge about locally available medicinal plants and their uses. That’s why the Pichandikulam Forest Organization, an environmental body in the Auroville bio-region on the coast of the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, sought her help.
The organization, dedicated to preserving and restoring Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (TDEF) in the State, recognized Parvathi’s potential. She rose to the occasion, and her total commitment to the cause for the past 18 years has made a difference in the Kaluveli bio-region. This young woman was sensitized to the need to use nature’s bounties sustainably so that future generations too can benefit from them. Since then, she has been a torch-bearer for the cause of conservation and has inspired many women to be the same.
Parvathi could not only identify locally available medicinal plants, but knew how to use them as well. A bonus was her ability to communicate in English, not a common achievement among women in her part of Tamil Nadu.
She started work in Nadukuppam, K.N Palayam and Vandipalayam villages in Villupuram District, which has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest population below the poverty line, placed at the bottom of the Human Poverty Index with the lowest Gender Development Index among Tamil Nadu’s districts. Parvathi focused on traditional herbal practices and community and animal health and environment conservation, besides women empowerment.
Over 800 species of plants are indigenous to the grasslands, wastelands and forests in the Kaluveli area. Parvathi realized that the bio-region had suffered considerable loss of forest cover. Medicinal plants and traditional knowledge both needed to be restored. Traditional customs like sacred groves and practices like water conservation and dry-land agriculture had to be reinstated. Being a complex of tanks which drain into the wetlands, it was important that conservation efforts encompassed the entire region. She concentrated on preventing over-exploitation of forest lands by village communities and on regeneration of traditional knowledge and skills. Joining hands with the Sustainable Livelihood Institute (SLI), Parvathi started regular ‘Herbs for Health’ classes for women of the area, and began motivating them. These women now tour the villages, making people aware about plants and their healing properties, as well as local health traditions.
Making a business of it
It was soon recognized that in order to sustain the movement, the socio-economic status of women needed to be uplifted. Therefore, skill development programmes were taken up and women were given training to set up herb gardens, test and prepare herbal remedies, cosmetics and organic foods, and start businesses to market these products.
The Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions was a support from 1995 to 1998 mainly through the Pichandikulam Forest Organization. The European Commission was just as helpful between 1999 and 2002, followed by QSA from 2002 to 2017. Sustainable Enterprise Development in the Auroville Bio-Region (SEDAB, Government of Tamil Nadu) offered support from 2013 to 2016. The funding is utilised primarily for capacity building to improve the skills of the women in building their enterprises sustainably, for infrastructure development, forest conservation and exposure visits.
Many community women’s enterprises have been set up through the Sustainable Enterprise Development in the Auroville Bio-Region (SEDAB-TNSRLM) project. Most are based on local knowledge and resources, creating income through producing and selling local, eco-friendly items such as herbal medicine and food.
This has provided a livelihood to the women and added to household incomes. The products are primarily for the local market and are priced affordably. The proceeds are equitably shared among team members. Several small companies owned by the women have now been registered and a brand image is being built up. Parvathi herself runs a herbal shop in the village.
Further, a vacant patch of land was sown with nursery seedlings and it is now a major source of medicinal plant material for commercial use. This has provided a livelihood to the women and added to household incomes. The products are primarily for the local market and are priced affordably. The proceeds are equitably shared among team members. Several small companies owned by the women have now been registered and a brand image is being built up. Parvathi herself runs a herbal shop in the village.
Further, a vacant patch of land was sown with nursery seedlings and it is now a major source of medicinal plant material for commercial use.
The journey continues
Backed by the Pichandikulam Forest Organization and SLI, the women seek to empower each other. Efforts are continuously made to include as many women as possible in the campaign, so that more Self Help Groups (SHGs) are formed. Parvathi takes classes for new SHGs and also motivates women to train others. Around 60 women are direct beneficiaries of the project and about 10,000 people in about 300 villages have benefitted from the documentation and revival of traditional medicinal knowledge, organization of health camps, herbal medicine training, etc. To ensure that the legacy continues, an eco club has been set up in a local High School to involve young children in the knowledge base.
The enterprise model has expanded to the districts of Vellore, Salem, Dharmapuri, Virudhinagar and Dindigul over the last two years. Sustainable collection of local herbs and propagation of those species is being done by women throughout the bio-region.
The journey that began with one determined young woman 18 years ago has covered a great distance. There are still many miles to go, but the goal seems achievable.
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