Women from Sambhuvanipalem village making plantable pots made from cow and elephant dung at the handicrafts workshop at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.
| Photo Credit: V RAJU

It’s a sultry morning. Amidst the calls of resident birds echoing from the thick greenery at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre (EGBC) at PM Palem, K Lakshmi sits under the shade of a tree and mixes and moulds a tub of sterilised cow dung with other organic materials such as natural fibres, paper pulp and coir. Beside her, Chandrakala quickly pours the mixture into pot-shaped moulds one after the other. These pots are then dried thoroughly under the sun for a couple of days before they are ready to be kept on the racks of Vana Sampada, a souvenir store at the centre.

The store is a part of the Forest Produce Processing Unit of EGBC, an initiative of the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department and brainchild of Visakhapatnam District Forest Officer Anant Shankar. It is a new and evolving hub of all things sustainable and has recently introduced a smart way to add value to cow and elephant dung by turning them into biodegradable and compostable pots.

Here, three women from the tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem, a village close to the EGBC and located within the Kambalakonda Wildlife Sanctuary, are being trained to make these biodegrable pots and other handicrafts. Plastic plant pots or covers are often used – to bring plants home from nurseries – and then thrown away. While these pots are convenient and easily available, they contribute significantly to plastic pollution. The biodegradable pots from Vana Sampada are a sustainable alternative to plastic pots and also enrich the soil, promoting healthier plant growth. “The objective is to empower the tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem and train them to make sustainable products by involving different art techniques,” says Sri Chakra Pranav, coordinator of EGBC.

Women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem arranging the artefacts made by them at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.

Women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem arranging the artefacts made by them at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.
| Photo Credit:
Nivedita Ganguly

The idea of using animal dung, particularly from cows and elephants, leverages the nutrient-rich properties of these materials when they decompose.

Both cow dung and elephant dung are renewable resources found in the Sambhuvanipalem village; elephant dung comes from the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park. They are rich in organic matter and essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are beneficial for plant growth. The fibrous nature of elephant dung provides excellent structure and aeration, making it an ideal material for pot-making.

Women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem arranging the artefacts made by them at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.

Women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem arranging the artefacts made by them at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.
| Photo Credit:
Nivedita Ganguly

The pots by the women have also opened new avenues for utilising organic waste in the tribal community of Shambhuvanipalem, turning a potential problem into a profitable solution. “Working with Nature’s waste has been a rewarding experience,” Lakshmi shares. “It’s amazing to see how something often discarded can be transformed into a product that supports life.” The women make the pots in three sizes. “We get the cow dung from our village and then get going with the process which takes about 10 days to complete,” says Nokalakshmi and adds: “This is the first time we ventured out to learn a new craft; it is exciting to see that things that are easily available at our village, like coconut shells, can be transformed into something so creative.”

A woman from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem showing papier mache mask made by her at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.

A woman from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem showing papier mache mask made by her at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.
| Photo Credit:
Nivedita Ganguly

While biodegradable plant pots is one of the products of the processing unit, the women are also making an array of products like papier mache masks, coconut shell candles, tie and dye fabric earrings, scrunchies and cloth bags with block prints. “We plan to rope in more women from the village and eventually start a cooperative society,” says Pranav.

Women from Sambhuvanipalem village making papier mache masks at the handicrafts workshop at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam..

Women from Sambhuvanipalem village making papier mache masks at the handicrafts workshop at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam..
| Photo Credit:
V Raju

The Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre’s store showcases their work, offering visitors a chance to purchase these unique items and support the artisans’ endeavours. Each purchase is a step towards supporting and promoting eco-friendly practices.

Recently, the Visakhapatnam Forest Division partnered with Amazon India under the Karigar programme, with an aim to enhance the visibility and aid revenue generation of these forest products crafted by tribal artisans. Visakhapatnam-based Kamal Welfare Foundation supported the venture by donating machines for the unit.

Beekeeping training

In the coming days, villagers from Sambhuvanipalem tribal community will also be trained in beekeeping practices with the help of Krishi Vignan Kendra. “We are planning to organise the training with Indian native bees instead of European bees that most others use. These bees source honey from the forest and also help in pollination in the area,” adds Pranav. Forest based honey has high market value and can support the communities in Sambhuvanipalem.

Papier mache masks made by the women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem displayed at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.  

Papier mache masks made by the women from tribal community of Sambhuvanipalem displayed at the Vana Sampada souvenir and craft store at Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre in Visakhapatnam.  
| Photo Credit:
Nivedita Ganguly

Future plans

Spread over 30 acres, the Eastern Ghats Biodiversity Centre houses an orchidarium, a nature interpretation centre detailing the ecosystems of the Eastern Ghats, trekking trails, nursery among other attractions. In addition to this, DFO Anant Shankar has prepared a proposal for a scientific museum along with a herbarium and specimen collection centre to be added at EGBC.

While plans are afoot to bring the spotlight on this unique centre through various activities, the forest department is battling some challenges with growth of invasive species like the Australian Babul. “It is an exotic species and grows extensively through seed dispersal. These seeds remain dormant until favourable conditions arrive. Once they get enough moisture and other requirements, they sprout quickly,” says Yagnapathy Adari, research scientist of Kambalakonda Wildlife Sanctuary. Removing these species and raising endangered flora of the Eastern Ghats is one of the other ambitious plans of the department.



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