Yasmin deshe tu yo jaatah tasmin tajjoshadham hitam — says the Charaka Samhita, one of India’s oldest treatises on Ayurveda. In other words, nature is so organised that it has provided every micro-environment with the natural resources necessary for the typical health needs of the people living in that environment.
How entwined are humans with nature? For the Soliga community of Karnataka living in the Male Mahadeswara forest, the bamboo plant represents not just a way of life, but life itself. More than any other plant or tree in the forests that they consider home, the bamboo is super-critical to their environment — more than half of their income comes directly from bamboo products. In recent years, the all-pervasive spread of forest encroachments and degradation has meant that the very survival of tribes and communities such as the Soligas, who traditionally depend on minor forest produce, subsistence agriculture and woodcraft for their livelihood, is at stake.
The Soligas needed help and were lucky to find it at the Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree). With bamboo fast disappearing from its native forests, Atree researchers tried to find a substitute that the Soligas could work with. They soon zeroed in on the Lantana camara (an invasive shrub that poses a threat to native biological diversity throughout India) as a possible replacement. The choice worked very well indeed. The Soligas now manufacture and sell Lantana crafts ranging from tiny pen stands to large cots and dining tables.
The organisation’s current focus is biodiversity; it is concentrating on two biodiversity hotspots that are home to rare and endangered species: the Western Ghats (preferred residence of the lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri tahr and the lady slipper orchid) and the eastern Himalayas (neighbourhood of the red panda, golden langur and the insectivorous pitcher plant).
Research is one of Atree’s strongest weapons. Its Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing (GIS / RS) lab offers services covering assessment of threats to biodiversity, examination of the degree of protection enjoyed by ecosystems, identification of new areas of high conservation value that are not protected and development of indicators for the loss of biodiversity. “The way we look at research is unlike the way a university does. It is very linked to problems either at the policy level or at the ground level. Therefore it is very interdisciplinary,” says Atree director Gladwin Joseph.
The organisation has set up three centres to carry out in-depth research in the field of natural and social sciences. The Centre for Conservation Science is currently working with the Wildlife Institute of India to strengthen biodiversity conservation at Unesco’s world heritage biodiversity sites. The Eco-informatics Centre is creating a cyber-ecology platform — a web-enabled, publicly accessible resource for conservation and natural resource management. The Centre for Conservation, Governance and Policy aims to develop decentralised, participatory approaches to the comanagement of natural resources and to enhance civil society involvement in conservation.
Conservation education is another key area of Atree’s activities, with an emphasis on training initiatives, dissemination of information and partnerships with stakeholders such as researchers and academic, government and non-government organisations. The National Knowledge Commission has requested Atree to lead the India Biodiversity Portal (a collaborative effort between five partner institutions). The portal is conceived as a map-based interactive website focusing on the Indian subcontinent. Atree also publishes books, professional articles, reports and monographs, and newsletters. It also hosts the Khoshoo Memorial Award in the field of conservation and sustainable development, in memory of founding trustee Triloki Nath Khoshoo, one of the architects of India’s environmental policy.
Now new kinds of maps of the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary are emerging. We are also interested in a framework where they have user rights to a certain part of the forest, to co-manage it with the forest department,” says Mr Joseph.
The organisation has spent 10 years working with the Soligas. Now the organisation is also trying to boost awareness in the state administration and the public about the problems faced by native tribes, by getting them to see a landscape through the eyes of the people who have been living there for centuries. The Soliga example shows clearly the importance of conservation of nature in order to safeguard our way of life for our future and the generations yet to come.