Vetiver, The New Eco Mantra

By TheHindu on 29 Apr 2016

Vetiver, known for its fragrance, is the latest in combating soil erosion. K. Pradeep finds out more about the ‘magical’ properties of the plant from P. Haridas, coordinator, India Vetiver Network

You have a problem of soil from your property crossing over to your neighbour’s compound and both of you cannot do a thing about it because your compound lies lower than his? So what CAN you do? Plant vetiver trees along the border and that will be the end of your problem. Don’t believe it? Well that is what they are going to discuss, among other things, at the first National Workshop on Vetiver System for Environmental Protection and Natural Disaster Management to be held at Hotel Sarovaram from February 21-23.

Till the late eighties Vetiver (Vettiveria zyzanioides), also known as ‘ramacham,’ ‘lavancha’ or ‘khus,’ was popularly used only in magic and medicine. It is also used in perfumeswoven into mats, baskets, fans and screens. But a small group of traditional farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu knew much more about this miracle plant. They knew about the potential of vetiver as a soil conservation plant, its potential not fully explored.

This workshop aims to develop a network in the country to disseminate Vetiver Grass Technology (VGT).

Miracle plant

It was in 1987, that two agricultural scientists of World Bank, Richard Grimshaw and John Greenfield, on a mission to tackle soil erosion on a war footing stumbled on this miracle plant. During their visits to different states of India, they chanced upon the solution in a sleepy village near Gundalpet in Karnataka. The villagers were growing vetiver to guard against soil erosion for centuries. It reduced rainfall runoff and recharged groundwater.

The two scientists were stunned when they found that the roots of the plant went vertically deep into the ground, had an amazing tensile strength and could improve the sheer strength of the soil tremendously. They also found that Tamil labourers in the sugarcane plantations in West Indies had the same solution.

“These revelations caught the attention of the world. It was found that in almost all the erstwhile British colonies that employed Tamil workers this Vetiver System was in place. Though in our country there was an initial thrust it could not be sustained. It was effectively scuttled by lobbies that were doing the job of tackling soil erosion till then. Today, while the world has made giant strides in using Vetiver System for soil and water conservation, land rehabilitation, infra-structure stabilisation, pollution control and many other uses, we have lagged far behind,” says P. Haridas, coordinator, India Vetiver Network and one of the three scientists from India to receive the Vetiver Network International certificate for his work in tea plantations.

In tea plantations

Of late, through the efforts of India Vetiver Network, some work has been made. Vetiver hedges have been established in tea plantations of Tata Tea in South India, it has been experimented with in water treatment and a minimal use in railway projects. “In some tea plantations, like in Munnar and Annamalais, hedges have replaced the stone revetments. The experiments have been successful. The cost of planting these hedges is 30 per cent less than constructing revetments. Another advantage is that mulching of the pruned plant will halt the growth of weeds for at least three years. This cannot be used in rubber, coffee or spice plantations as vetiver needs sunshine to grow.”

Perhaps, what should be of immense interest to city folks is the propensity of vetiver to purify water and help in waster water treatment.

“This plant is capable of absorbing heavy metals from contaminated soil. It absorbs nitrate and phosphate from water bodies where algal growth is common. Using this plant for this purpose is easy too. Being hydrophyte it does not require a separate medium to grow in water. The only arrangement required is to enable the plants to survive. For this floats are made out of cut pieces of bamboo or even PVC pipes. A perforated sheet fixed on it will help in anchoring the plants. The plants must be left to grow and regular trimming must be done. The quality of water will improve by halting growth of algae and eliminating other toxic substances. This system can be tried out in our rivers and canals.”

The State can possibly try out the Vetiver System in stabilisation and protection of infra-structure, like roads, railways and building sites. This is proven to be effective, efficient and low cost when compared to the hard engineering alternatives using cement, rock and steel.

“The first serious work using this technology for highway stabilisation was done in Malaysia. Now hedges are planted on slopes of roads and railroads in various parts of the world. In China, it is widely used for slope stabilisation in railway network and express highways. In fact, the vetiver protected roads survived the onslaught of Hurricane Mitch in El Salvador. We tried it along the Konkan railway. But unfortunately the variety they got was not the one ideally suited. There are around 23 varieties and the right one must be chosen.”

Vetiver is grown on a fairly large scale at Chavakad and Punnayurkulam in Thrissur district. They cultivate it along the sea coast. “For the growers it is a sort of cash crop. If they can, simultaneously, plant the variety without fragrance it will be an environmental gain.”

The vetiver networks around the world come out with new uses for this plant. It is used in landscaping, paper making, reinforcing bricks, pest control, invasion of other tough grasses and even handicrafts. This first-ever workshop in the country may provide a launching pad for environmental protection.