Success story of a “lac Culture” cooperative

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Saraikela-Kharsawan is home to many host trees that can be used for lac Culture. The crop, once a very lucrative source of income, is now in decline,” Manas Das, a Jamshedpur-based NGO Technology Resource Communication and Service Centre, says. The state, which could produce up to a million tonnes of lac each year, produced just 9800 tonnes on average between 2003 and 2010. “The monsoons were a time when the farmers infested trees with lac bugs. However, the area lost its status in 2008 as a promising lac-producing region. Das says that this was due to the establishment of a lac cooperative in Ichagarh Block, Saraikela-Kharswan District, Jharkhand. The cooperative opened the way for lac farmers in the area at a time when the outlook was grim. Locals called it “Birsa Mundra Lah Utpadan Samiti” (Birsa Morda Lac Producers Cooperative Society). It has worked to make lac farming more profitable. Private traders and middlemen controlled the marketing and distribution of lac, forcing farmers to sell their products at a loss. The farmers began to realize that they had to form an organization.

Jharkhand’s farmers have relied on lac farming for their livelihood since long. Lac is a resin that is widely used in the preparation of many products, including cosmetics and ammunition. It can be grown on a variety of trees, but mainly fruit-bearing or shady trees such as Ber, Kusum and Palash. Jharkhand, which produces more than half of the nation’s lac, is the largest producer.

In response to concerns about production and procurement, the lac Culture cooperative was established in 2011. It was formally registered under the Cooperative Act (1935). It was intended to improve the production system, and make the cooperative a business enterprise. The cooperative would be owned, managed, and controlled according to democratic principles. The cooperative was to serve the needs of its own members, and not just stand for profit or help the non-members.Membership in the cooperative was voluntary and was open to all. Many of the members have lac host-trees on their private lands, and many showed an interest in joining. The fee for membership was only Rs 100. With just over 100 members at its inception, the cooperative has now doubled its membership to include a dozen district gram panchayats. The way it was

Just before the monsoons, the forest department distributed saplings from lac host-trees to farmers interested in lac Culture. The branches were not engorged with lac Culture. “The farmers would infest the trees with bugs but only a few hundred grams of lac. A tree can produce about 10kg. Jagabandhu Mahato is a member of the cooperative. “Unbearable heat in March/April, followed by poor monsoon made the resin melt, killing brood lac.” Due to the use of outdated methods for growing the crop, farmers often suffered losses. He adds that many felt there was an insect or tree problem, while others blamed the climate. The heat can be unbearable in March and April. The excessive heat causes the resin to melt, which kills the small insects. Arup Banerjee is another farmer-member of the cooperative. Farmers believed that the decrease in production was caused by climatic conditions unfavourable to lac crop. Its production is affected by water shortage and frost.

The brood lac was imported from Thailand because traders were reluctant to buy the product directly from local producers. Das, whose NGO TRCSC was instrumental in the promotion and development of the lac cooperative, says that semi-processed milk was imported in large quantities by big players in 2008.

TRCSC has studied the role of speculative players, who buy lac Culture at very low prices when the produce is on the market. This is the main reason for the industry’s decline. According to the study, when there is less availability on the market or no crop arrives at all, manufacturers-export units must buy lac from stockholders at their prices. The finished products become too costly for both domestic and international consumers. Price fluctuations of 10-20% are not a problem for overseas industries that employ lac in industrial formulations. However, there were times when the price fluctuations could reach 400-500% depending on who was stockholding the raw material. This made supplies unstable, and overseas consumers lost interest.

The result was that the farmers lost interest in lac production. Stockholders caused artificial shortages, just like with any commodity. “Developing new lac-based products can reduce domestic lac consumption, currently at 20-50 percent. This can avoid excessive dependence on foreign markets,” Das says.

The cooperative taught farmers better cultivation techniques, such as fumigation, pruning and transplanting lac broods. Oraon says that an attempt was made to make Kathgora village a brood lac Culture village. This is a place where seed production can be offered to farmers interested in the area. Both Kusumi (and Rangeeni) lac insect strains are prevalent in the region. The first is preferred, especially when it is grown on Palash trees. It is also less susceptible to parasite attacks. However, the latter produces good yield and has been promoted in this area.

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