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Green friends with benefits are helping restore NE forest cover

By Mukut Das | Sep 12, 2022

The Balipara Foundation Is Making Ecological Intervention Economically Productive, Roping In Communities For Conservation

The loss of old-growth forests is tough to recover but one NGO in Assam is trying to marry the needs of biodiversity and livelihood.

Between 2001 and 2020, Assam lost 269,000 hectares of tree cover and the loss is being reflected in increasing human-animal conflicts and temperature variations. The Balipara Foundation, created by social entrepreneur Ranjit Barthakur, began its journey of patching up the scars of deforestation in 2017. It has restored green cover in about 2,500 hectares and plans to cover another 3,500 hectares by the year-end. By 2030, the plan is to green 100,000 hectares across the northeast.

The NGO, which stresses agroforestry to uplift the economy along with restoration of forestry, has engaged around 16,000 people from the Bodo and Mising communities in Assam’s Udalguri and Sonitpur districts. The foundation has taken restoration to upper Assam’s Jorhat, Lakhimpur and Dibrugarh districts. Agroforestry entails growing of trees and shrubs around crops, and includes traditional and modern land use management.

Sonitpur lost 17,400 hectares of tree cover followed by Dibrugarh (7,060 hectares), Lakhimpur (5,540), Udalguri (5,450) and Jorhat (5,180) from 2001 to 2020 as per the Global Forest Watch data.

Joanna Dawson from Mumbai, who has been working as anthropological visioner for the foundation for the last four years, said the organisation is primarily working in Assam, but has started forest restoration work in neighbouring Nagaland and Meghalaya too.

It also plans to take its work from rural to urban settings – to Kamrup (Metro) district in the west where Guwahati is located, which has lost over 1,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 to 2020. In the last couple of months, more than 300 matured trees were felled for construction of flyovers and roads while around 2,500 have been marked by the National Highways Authority of India for felling to broaden NH-37 in the city.

Dawson said the model of forest restoration is called “Rural Futures”, an attempt to reconcile human and biodiversity needs. “A scalable, localised action framework for natural capital regeneration, it visualises communities as the primary stewards of habitat restoration and management. Through habitat-mediated incomes, communities achieve greater socioeconomic mobility, generating a self-sustaining loop of sustainable incomes and businesses for forest-fringe communities,” she said. “The objective is to create a future with a regenerative, cooperative natural capital-based economy.”

Encouraging “naturenomics” is the primary objective. “Naturenomics simply refers to the interdependence of ecology and economy. It is the recognition that nature underpins the economy and that linear, extractive, ecology-destroying growth has depleted its natural capital and pushed us to the extreme limits of key planetary boundaries,” said Dawson. “Our work applies the principle of naturenomics to rural economies, analysing how economic structures have created perverse incentives that force communities to exploit forest and soil resources to survive.”

Simultaneously, she said, the organisation helps communities transition to organic agroforestry that is designed to replenish the soil, while optimising the value of land through sustainable crop intensification. “Further sustainable businesses through bamboo, mushrooms and tourism enhance natural capital values, enabling communities to access and deliver universal basic assets and services such as healthcare, education, renewable energy and access to water. The agroforestry model we use also requires less investment in inputs like fertiliser and this enhances good income,” she said.

Pabitra Mili of Baligaon Miri Green village got involved by working with Balipara Foundation to mobilise his community to adopt agroforestry in 2019. By the next year, he and his team of young people had begun their own nursery business, including an independent floral nursery, set up homestays and formed their own NGO to continue driving the agroforestry and restoration work.

Biman Mili from Baligaon, who has been working on agroforestry and forest restoration, is currently employed by the Balipara Foundation as agroforestry lead after having been part of the Rural Futures programme in Baligaon village for the last couple of years.

Biman was indirectly associated with the foundation from its inception and officially became a part of it in 2020. A team of 10 members under his leadership is working on agroforestry and forest restoration in Baligaon. They have also worked in the tourism sector. “We visit the areas where we can carry out agroforestry and forest restoration work. We motivate people,” Biman said.

His group cultivates ginger, turmeric, drumstick and mushroom. “We earn Rs 4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh from ginger and turmeric cultivation yearly and around Rs 12 lakh from mushroom cultivation. Five self-help groups are also engaged with us in mushroom cultivation. Moreover, we have a nursery where we grow plants. Last year, we earned Rs 7 lakh by selling 1 lakh plants, which include trees with good timber value and fruit trees,” he said.

Barthakur pioneered the concepts of “Naturenomics” and “Rural Futures” with a view to inspiring community-based conservation and livelihoods in the eastern Himalayas.

“The communities who have worked with us have seen a good alternative for earning without harming the forest. This has freed them not only to continue protecting and restoring forests, but also for the young people to connect with traditional indigenous ecological knowledge and see how rewilding forests and agroforestry can be a viable career path,” Dawson said.

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