The thorny bush Lantana camara, with its attractive pink, yellow, and orange flowerlets, covers vast areas of forest understory, fallow lands, and hedges in the hilly mountains fringing the southern end of Karnataka state, India. These upland areas are also home to several marginalized cultural groups (‘scheduled tribes’, or ‘indigenous people’) as well as a diversity of wildlife – elephants, tigers, bears, gaur, three kinds of deer, monkeys, boars, wild dogs, leopards. On our recent scoping trip to the Biligiri Ranganaswamy Hills some four hour south of Bangalore, we discovered that there were at least three ways one could talk about the lantana situation, each following familiar tropes: as a story of invasion, of dispossession, or of creative redemption.
The first story could be titled Lantana Invades Tiger Reserves. Lantana is after all a species from the Americas, a ‘transformer species’ that substantially changes the condition and form of an ecosystem. Our eyes were opened by the omnipresence of the plant throughout the BR Hills, which is a wildlife sanctuary. Dense thickets formed the forest understory wherever we went. Biologists worry that there is too little recruitment of canopy trees among the lantana, meaning that natural forest regeneration is interrupted, and that few wildlife benefit from the thorny thickets.
The second story could be titled The Backstory of the Invasion: Dispossession and Fire-bans. This telling shifts the focus from lantana’s enthusiastic growth and ecological impacts, to the context allowing for invasion. It might start with the British introduction of lantana as an ornamental in 1807 (1). Then, in the case of the BR Hills, we would learn that the Soliga people who live there blame the spread of lantana on the absence of fire. The Wildlife Sanctuary was declared in 1974. At that time the Soliga were banned from practicing shifting cultivation, moved into settlements in fixed enclaves within and around the reserve, and no longer allowed to manage the forest (for hunting, for yam collection) with fire. This is the period during which lantana spread so comprehensively. To this day, Forest Department officials will not hear of proposals by Soliga leaders (nor ecological researchers) to try reintroducing fire into certain landscape patches to see the effects (2). Instead, we saw the ironic sight of crews of Soliga labourers hired to hack back the lantana in a 20m strip on either side of the game drive tracks so that safari tourists stand a chance of seeing wildlife.
A third story is titled Lantana Empowers Communities, and this title comes directly from a brochure (see picture) produced by Ramesh Kannan, our former collaborator who sadly passed away abruptly late last year not long after our Kununurra field trip. His work (3) has shown that different ethnic communities have used lantana for livelihood activities like basketry for many decades. More recently, innovations in debarking the thorny stems have even made possible a niche furniture industry, substituting lantana for rattan.
The challenge, of course, is that the three stories are intertwined; they are all true. Our next step will be to think creatively about possibilities and aspirations for landscape transformations towards the future. In closing, many thanks to our collaborators Nitin Rai and C. Madegowda from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (better known as ATREE) for making this field visit possible and teaching us so much.
(1) Kannan, R, CM Shackleton & R Uma Shaanker (2013) Reconstructing the history of introduction and spread of the invasive species, Lantana, at three spatial scales in India. Biological Invasions 15 (6):1287-1302.
(2) Kannan, R, CM Shackleton & R Uma Shaanker (2013) Playing with the forest: invasive alien plants, policy and protected areas in India. Current Science 104 (9):1159-1165.
(3) Kannan, R, CM Shackleton & R Uma Shaanker (2014) Invasive alien species as drivers in socio-ecological systems: local adaptations towards use of Lantana in southern India. Environment, Development and Sustainability 16:649-669.