1. How did your journey begin? - What drew you to conservation work and when did you start?
After completing my college education, I embarked on my journey with an NGO in Mandla district. Following a year of service in Seoni, I transitioned to Balaghat in 2000. During this time, I engaged in networking with voluntary organizations across the Mahakaushal region, fostering a continuous learning process. Over the span of eight years, I worked on various issues spanning Mandla, Balaghat, Dindori, Seoni, and Chhindwara districts, culminating in the establishment of the Community Development Center (CDC) in 2003.
Despite the presence of a tribal population and abundant natural resources, rural tribal communities grapple with challenges related to education, health, and livelihood. Upon the inception of the CDC, it was unanimously decided to prioritize environmental issues, spurred by growing concerns over deforestation in the region.
2. When reflecting on your work from the past decade, could you share some milestones and accomplishments you've achieved?
We initially focused on addressing the issue of malnutrition, gradually expanding our efforts to encompass livelihood improvement and conservation initiatives. Several noteworthy achievements have emerged from these endeavors:
Team Building: Recognizing the multifaceted nature of conservation and the significance of local biodiversity, we have cultivated a dedicated team of individuals from the community. Equipped with a deep understanding of conservation issues and potential interventions, they are instrumental in implementing effective programs.
Conservation Livelihood Integration: In our landscape, the integration of conservation and livelihood is paramount, especially considering the forest-dependent livelihoods of tribal communities. We have collaborated with over 1000 families across approximately 35 villages, reducing their dependency on forests through various livelihood interventions. These small-scale initiatives serve as promising models, emphasizing community participation in conservation efforts.
Land-Based Livelihood: Promoting land-based livelihoods, particularly horticulture crops like ginger, turmeric, potato, and vegetables, has significantly improved community livelihoods. This approach has notably mitigated human-wildlife conflicts and crop damages. Tuber crops, with their ease of cultivation and extended shelf life, have provided favorable returns, while innovative techniques such as rain shelters have bolstered vegetable production and consumption within families.
Food Security & Indigenous Seeds: Addressing food security concerns among local rural communities remains a priority. The decline in millet production and the shift towards paddy seeds have adversely affected food security. To counter this trend, we have undertaken efforts to conserve indigenous seeds, collaborating with communities to preserve endangered rice varieties and employ the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methodology with indigenous paddy seeds. This initiative has yielded tangible results, with successful conservation of 10 distinct species. Additionally, we are actively engaged in collecting and conserving vegetable seeds to further enhance food security initiatives.
3. In hindsight, looking at the trajectory of your life and career, can you identify pivotal moments or signs that guided you toward your current purpose? Was there a particular turning point that crystallized your direction?
Observing the challenging living conditions of tribes in forest hamlets and the negative impacts of displacement fueled my active involvement in this work. Climate change and conservation actions have disproportionately affected the poor. Recognizing this, we prioritize working closely with local communities. They play a crucial role in preserving biodiversity, as conservation involves both people and ecosystems. External interference has significantly disrupted local tribes, impacting their livelihoods and cultures. Our approach integrates these concerns to ensure the coexistence of conservation and communities.
4. What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
Enhancing the skills and capabilities of team members has empowered the community. Seeing tangible improvements in the conditions of tribal children, including their nutrition, education, and health, brings immense satisfaction. Additionally, witnessing the community's positive embrace of conservation efforts is equally gratifying.
5. In the realm of conservation research and academia, what has remained a constant since you began, and what is the most rapidly evolving aspect?
Conservation efforts have been initiated, but local community participation remains minimal. Research and conservation education are severely lacking, contributing to a notable deficit in landscape awareness and education. Moreover, unchecked developmental activities are being undertaken without proper impact assessment, posing a significant threat to local biodiversity.
6. What advice would you offer to aspiring young conservationists?
Each individual brings their unique perspectives and work experiences to the table. From what I understand, the key lies in fostering strong connections with the community. Our actions are tailored to local circumstances, with our capacity limited and replication of every intervention unfeasible. However, the community often holds valuable insights and solutions, from which we can learn a great deal.
7. Do you uphold the concept of maintaining the 'Jugalbandi'* of people and nature in the Central Indian landscape? If so, how does your work or your organization's work reflect this?
JUGALBANDI is a remarkable initiative, showcasing commendable dedication and effort in its organization. I strongly advocate for its continuity, emphasizing that its purpose should extend beyond information exchange alone. There are opportunities to engage with communities throughout the landscape through this platform. Our goal is to expand JUGALBANDI's reach to the community.
8. Is there anything else you would like to share with us, such as a new initiative, an outstanding student, or an intriguing field experience?
Covid-19 has significantly impacted the community, with many facing livelihood challenges, particularly women and children. It's crucial that we prioritize addressing their needs. Additionally, we should consider sharing the stories of the farmers we've collaborated with over the years. These stories have the potential to inspire others in the landscape.