Published: 01st February 2021
How this bamboo research centre has revitalised the way of life in Wayanad
At Uravu Indigenous Science and Technology Study Centre, bamboo has grown to become a way of life. We find out how they promote indigenous knowledge around the plant
Bamboo happened to Wayanad. One of Kerala's aspirational districts, the region is home to tribal communities that have used the unique variety of grass in every possible way. And as it happens with grass, it grew far and wide to find a space for itself within many industries and corners of the state. So by the time Uravu Indigenous Science and Technology Study Centre decided to take a closer look at the plant 25 years ago, the hills were already teeming with it.
In 1996, farmer suicides had grown increasingly common in the district due to a fast depleting economy. At this time, 6 friends from different parts of the state decided to come together, led by a teacher named Sreelatha Sivaraj and her husband Sivaraj T. Their intention was to understand the problems faced by the farmers and help them deal with it. The organisation initially started with the motive of promoting, supporting and facilitating activities around traditional knowledge systems.
Tony Paul, CEO of Uravu says, "It was a time when more than 500 NGOs were registered in Wayanad. There were widespread efforts being made to support the people there. It was understood that the traditional economy needed to be modernised and given impetus. That was the motive with which Uravu got started. They wanted to empower the village economy through the protection and promotion of traditional and indigenous knowledge systems. Initially, bamboo was only one among these traditional knowledge systems."
From the very beginning, veterans of the bamboo sector, including experts like senior scientist Dr KK Seethalakshmi from Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) were a part of their network and supported the efforts. Tony says, "The bamboo industry in India is pretty much at an infant stage even today. We are definitely the pioneers. From 1996, we got permanently tied to bamboo. It set off an explorations of all sorts in every possible specie of Bamboo that was growing around Kerala.”
He continues, “Over time, it became a place where people would come to know more about it. My wife Henna Paul and I were two people who joined in this way. When the organisation was going through a crisis in 2017, we joined to help resurrect it at the time, but we have been here ever since. I guess you can say bamboo happened to us too! Today, Uravu has become a synonym for bamboo.”
Behind the bamboo
At Uravu, bamboo is understood as a multifaceted development tool. Due to a range of properties, it is considered one of the most sustainable materials available on earth, often dubbed ‘the renewable wood’. Thanks to the immense strength in its composition, fast regeneration rate and active properties that fight soil erosion, it can play a role in building and binding almost anything. In Tony’s words, it can be used in everything from “from the cradle to the coffin.”
At the research centre, it is used in construction, furniture, as a plastic alternative, kitchenware, energy sources like charcoal and the bamboo shoot is an important element in South East Asian cuisine. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants with some species that can grow up to one foot long a say. They absorb 30 per cent more Carbon Dioxide and release 30 per cent more of Oxygen into the atmosphere as compared to other plants.
BAMBOO BASICS: The Uravu campus is home to South India’s
largest bamboo nursery
The Uravu campus is home to South India’s largest bamboo nursery with over 58 species, out of the 150 that exist in India today. At the centre, people from the indigenous communities are encouraged to develop their knowledge and to help add to what has already been understood about bamboo.
In Wayanad, you would find the institution if you spot the sprawling plantations that it is home to. It is here that their livelihood support programme was introduced. “This is where we invest most of our energy,” says Tony, “We have formed units similar to Kudumbashree groups which are composed mostly of women. They are trained in making bamboo products and supported to find employment.” The organisation’s support comes through 5 layers. With the help of their in-house designers, they develop products. Everything from raw material, design, marketing and technical support is offered within the same platform.
Tricks of the trade
While Uravu was initially designed as a study and research centre, their role has been continuously changing. And in recent years, the curve has been tilting towards education. “What we learned through our interventions was that there were not enough of a young population that was getting involved in the sector. So we do hands-on training for school students and architecture groups. To this day, it is one of the most important work that we do.”
Students from institutions such as NIFT, IITs, IISER and various others flock to Uravu each year in search of experiential learning about bamboo. They also frequently associate with developmental agencies like the UNDP, tourist organisations and corporate schools in the area. The idea is to promote a sustainable brand of education. One of their most renowned one-day workshops are called ‘Small Alternatives That Matter’ which stems from everything that bamboo has taught them.
PLANT BASED: The plant has a number of properties
“Bamboo is often called an ‘arrogant’ material because it can be challenging to grow,” he says. “Despite its potential, uses and beauty, it can be challenging. You don't have many places where you can see what the material's possibilities are, learn different techniques or how to make use of it. There are very few spaces where this is possible. From the the student perspective, we take industrial visits and internships.”
What is offered are custom-made programmes. If you want to try your hand on bamboo for a single day, you can visit Uravu to do that. Here, those who are interested will be provided the material and be assisted through it. For example, if you want to develop something out of bamboo or learn the different techniques offered or the bending process from an architectural standpoint, you get exactly the period of time that is necessary to learn it. Uravu offers different options based on people’s preferences and their own workflow. This can be for any period of time from a day to a month or even 6 months.