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Lac in deadly heat: the climate connection

Investigating lessons from a lac cultivation pilot in the Baiga village of Chichrangpur

The lakshagriha (or “house of lac”) of the Mahabharata was a palace built from lac in the forest village of Varnavrata. It was conceived as a scheme by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, to murder his rival cousins, the Pandavas, in their sleep. Deep in the night, the lakshagriha would be set on fire, burning them alive.

While the Pandavas escaped, lac’s relationship with heat continues to plague tribal cultivators. Lac is a resin secreted by insects (Kerria lacca) that breed on kusum, palash, and ber trees. The crimson-coloured resin is highly flammable and is used in ammunition, bangles, perfumes, and more. In a warming world, increasing temperatures across the central Indian landscape have created conditions for a modern-day lakshagriha. Instead of erupting in flames, however, the resinous lac is slowly melting.

Starting in December last year, Earth Focus piloted a lac cultivation programme with four farmers in the Baiga village of Chichrangpur. Perched on a hill by the Banjar river, Chichrangpur is the site of Earth Focus’s nature-based livelihood interventions. Highlighted for its conservation potential in restoring vast tracts of forest land, lac cultivation is considered to be a profitable and sustainable livelihood option. 

The lac scheme ran successfully for the first few months, from December to February, until early March when all the insects died. I spoke to Kishan Puri, the programme manager, to understand how lac is cultivated and why the pilot might have failed.

“The process began with 20 kilograms of brood lac,” he tells me, “which we acquired from a lac farmer in Chhattisgarh.” These are lac bearing sticks cut to six-inches, containing the larvae of lac insects. There are two varieties of lac insect – kusumi, which infests kusum trees, and rangeeni, which usually settles on palash and ber trees. 

Since Earth Focus had purchased the kusumi strain, the brood lac was tied with string onto soft branches of kusum trees, and one ber tree as an experiment. After two days, the insects started crawling on the host trees, and within a month, they had properly attached. By late February, lac production had begun.“Close to Holi (8th March), it became unbearably hot,” Kishan bhaiya relates. By the second week of March, all of the lac insects had perished.

Stages of lac cultivation in Chichrangpur (Credit: Kishan Puri)

The failure of the lac crop could be connected with severe heat induced by anthropogenic climate change. This March was India’s hottest in 122 years, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). The country recorded 280 heat wave days across 16 states in 2022, the most in the decade, of which five states accounted for 54% of the heatwaves – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana. Madhya Pradesh, specifically, recorded 38 heatwave days, endangering lives and livelihoods in the landlocked state. The shifting climate has already contributed to declining forest produce across Central India, with harmful consequences for income stability and community health. 
Lac is both economically and environmentally significant. According to the most recent statistical report by the Indian Institute of Natural Gums and Resins (IINRG), the total export value of lac and its products was ₹405.51 crores in 2019-20. India is the largest producer of lac in the world, and lac cultivation employs 3-4 million people annually. Additionally, the lac ecosystem is associated with a number of tree flora, macro fauna, and soil microorganisms, which have become endangered in areas where lac culture has been abandoned. Promoting lac cultivation can restore degraded habitats and conserve associated biodiversity.

Lac insect ecosystem (Credit: Yercaud Elango, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the IINRG’s March newsletter, Director K.K. Sharma writes: “Mono-cropping, pesticides and higher temperatures associated with climate change all pose problems for lac insect populations.” Abiotic stressors such as temperature, rainfall, and salinity, as well as biotic stressors such as pests, can significantly impact lac production. Of the two lac strains, kusumi and rangeeni, the latter is more susceptible to heat stress. A 2014 study in Jharkhand on the effect of weather parameters on rangeeni crop showed that “maximum temperature had a significantly negative […] correlation with lac production during the critical crop period (March and April) of development.” Similar studies for the kusumi strain haven’t been conducted yet.

I spoke to two farmers whose lac harvests had also failed in early March. Basant Rahangdale, from Barghat village in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district, cited heat as a significant factor in its failure. He also, however, mentioned that “prakriti mein santulan banaye rakhne ke liye” (to maintain ecological balance), the insects die naturally every 10-12 years. Mandavi Charama from Kanker district in Chhattisgarh indicated unseasonal rainfall and severe heat as key factors. Their perspectives corroborate and complicate the association between high heat and dying lac.
The impacts of climate change, particularly rainfall and heat stress, on lac cultivation in central India warrant urgent and in-depth study. In a landscape where heat waves will become ever more fierce and frequent, and the monsoons more erratic, we must consider the conditions in which lac is failing and find ways to insure tribal cultivators against a warming future.