Artisans associated with basketry are unaware that the precious raw material that they use is disappearing fast from their surrounding environment. One of the most common material that they use is Tamarix aphylla, which is found along watercourses in arid zones, in river beds, and also on the coastal areas.
Senior officials associated with the Sindh social forestry department at Mayani Forest range, Hyderabad district, said they had seen long trees and small shrubs of this species in the riverine forest.
“Now you may see scattered plants in the river bed, from where the artisans collect this raw material to continue their work,” said Alisher Hajano, managing the forest nursery. “Though, it is a flowering plant, nobody knows how to collect its seed for using in nurseries for conservation of this valuable species.”
Hajano said that the seeds of the tree were spread by wind like some other wild plants. “It germinates wherever it falls near water bodies. Since the plant is disappearing from its natural habitats, we cannot see its specific groves in any area,” he said.
The tree is often used as a wind breaker and fire barrier in dryer regions in Australia and the United States. In some regions of the world, it is even considered an invasive species.
However, here in Pakistan, where it is a native, Tamarix is getting neglected and is not as abundant as it used to be some decades ago.
Nature conservationists believe that long ago conscious forest department officials used to grow this specific forest specie as a windbreaker, and also for soil conservation and sand dune fixation in artificial forests.
This does not happen anymore. Concepts of forest conservation are not the same now, and as a result, Sindh lost a lot of forested areas, which has affected artisans and communities that relied on various trees like the Tamarix for subsistence.
Ramzan Mallah, a community activist from Chotiari reservoir said once the area was a natural habitat of this forest specie (Tamarix aphylla). “Large clusters of the wild shrubs are all lost now as the patches where these species grew went under the reservoir,” he added.
Only a few plants have survived here and there around small water bodies in various neighbourhoods.
“But even those face extinction as the Tamarix is also used for construction by the communities for their makeshift houses and for weaving baskets,” Mallah lamented.
The situation is the same at larger water bodies as well as the coastal areas of the province, where this shrub is being cut for various purposes.
Traditional artisans, who collect stock of this plant to continue their ancestral work, weaving small and larger baskets, have also realised the depletion of these plants in the neighbourhood.
Yaroo Kehal, weaving sticks of Tamarix for small sized baskets at the River Indus stream near Hala Old, Matiari district, said they have to travel long distances now to collect live shrubs for the purpose.
Talking about the small baskets that he was weaving, he said it was not only the season of mango, there was also demand from jamon and phalsa farmers and traders, who used the baskets to stock the fruits.
Shahryar Bhanbhro, a local activist said almost all people, men, women and younger children adopt basketry as a profession.
Artisans from traditional families, who have been associated with this work for generations, all pointed out that the wild shrub was disappearing from their environment, and procuring raw material was increasingly becoming a problem.
However, they continue to use the shrub to extend their businesses. Each male and female can weave dozens of small baskets for clients to run this business without any concept of sustainability in general.
Thus, the exploitation of the Tamarix continues, and there have been no efforts from the provincial forest department or the community people themselves to save the shrub from extinction.
The need is for the government to spread awareness among artisans, and if needed to even provide alternative livelihood options so the wild shrub can be rehabilitated and the areas reforested.
There is no denying the fact that the baskets made by these artisans are an integral part of the fruit and vegetable markets. However, there is a need to promote sustainable use of the baskets, as well as a need to adopt sustainable methods of using the existing raw material resources.
The prices of these basketry products depend on its size, which starts from Rs50 to Rs100-150 and Rs500.
On a visit to the thin stream of the River Indus, near Hala Old, one may find many artisans who have set up an open gallery to display a variety of baskets, woven by this specific plant growing at the river bed.
These people are aware of the ups and downs of the river and prefer to stay near so they can continue their traditional work, which is their sole source of income.
According to them, they do not have a specific place or permanent village where they may live and work. It is a wide river bed near the embankment, where they can live and work for whole the year.
Whenever they see the change in water flow and fear flooding, they move with raw material towards the embankment. In fact, occasionally some rowdy elements create disturbances for them, which they ignore to continue with their work.
Shakeel Abro, director Sindh Indigenous and Traditional Crafts Company (Sitco) said they have tried to mobilise these artisan communities, especially those have been engaged in basketry products by using Tamarix plants, to get unorganised. “Some families are like nomadic tribes, traveling from one water body to another for finding raw material to continue work.”
The reason they have turned nomadic was the fast depleting raw material along water bodies.
Abro said they have apprised the chamber of commerce industries about the importance of handicrafts, which have been an important part of the country's economy.
There are many unorganised clusters of artisans of this specific work residing near the river, canals and wetlands across the province where entire families play their role in traditional work. They collect raw material from water bodies for weaving sticks of this shrubs to prepare baskets.
But now, the depletion of raw material might disturb these people, who have depended solely on this craft for livelihood through generations. Presently, they collect it free of cost from water bodies, but later they may pay for it in case of wiping out of the Tamarix groves.
The writer is a staff member