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Rohini Nilekani and Kamaljit Bawa: How to Grow ATREE in the Era of Climate Change

Strategic Philanthropy | Climate & Biodiversity | Apr 20, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Professor Kamaljit Bawa at Indiaspora Climate Summit on April 20th. They discussed the urgency of climate science and ATREE’s work.

Out of all of the areas that I fund, I have come to the realisation that my environmental portfolio is perhaps the most critical as we look forward into the future. More people are beginning to understand that the economy, which drives so many of us and certainly drives many governments, is only a subset of the ecology. We can see now that if we are going to build a development model that drains away our natural capital, we will be facing a very bleak future. So I think there’s a strategic imperative for prioritising environmental issues, especially when combined with climate change related challenges. Apart from that, I have also felt an increasing love for nature itself and a desire to get younger people to understand how interconnected we all are. It’s a joyful journey of discovery which can lead you to understand so many things about yourself and change in the process. For me, in terms of my personal, moral, and strategic dimensions, my environmental portfolio including ATREE is not only very important but also very joyful for me.

As Professor Kamaljit Bawa mentions, ATREE works in three primary areas – biodiversity, water, and climate change. They focus on generating knowledge to address our pressing environmental issues, including climate change; feeding that knowledge into policy design for example with their new Center for Policy Research and Design; and thirdly, applying this knowledge to transform action on the ground. They are also building India’s Human Resources to tackle important environmental issues, with a world class interdisciplinary doctoral program in Conservation and Sustainability Studies. The pandemic has forced us to recognise that many of our problems arise because we have disrupted our interaction with the natural world, and climate change is going to compound many of these problems, warns Professor Bawa.
I’ve always believed that in the continuum of Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar i.e. society, markets and the state, we must strengthen the Samaaj first. When we have a strong, healthy, and diverse society with good institutions and good leadership, we are more likely to build our resilience. It’s more important than ever before to build up that societal muscle so people can participate and have the agency to solve their local problems in context, especially when we consider the kind of future challenges that climate change will bring us. Of course, we must hold the state and markets accountable for helping to resolve those larger complex problems as well. We need them to stop creating so many negative externalities which have a huge societal cost. But in order for that to happen, we need a strong society that can challenge both the state and the markets. It’s crucial for citizens to understand that crises like future pandemics or climate change are going to impact us globally, but also locally and personally. So if we get more people to see this and participate in however small a way that they can, over time we will see a shift in the conversation around development.

A lot of my work is focused on involving people, especially young people, as citizens to come together to solve their own problems. This is why the work at ATREE interests me because they are looking at nature-based solutions, conservation-based livelihoods, and wide grassroots participation in creating positive change. Some of ATREE’s solutions embody this idea of creating localised solutions to problems. For example, their Lantana project was a solution for the invasive Lantana species that have overtaken India’s southern forests. ATREE helps local communities living in and around those forests to harvest the Lantana and then to sequester it as furniture and other kinds of products. We always see a lot of creativity when you involve local people and help them to innovate their way out of problems.

Another ambitious project for ATREE is the national mission on biodiversity and human well-being, which focuses on mainstreaming biodiversity in the economic development process and demonstrating the efficacy of nature-based solutions, says Professor Bawa. Nature-based solutions with respect to climate change are extremely critical because they have the potential to restore forests, agricultural systems, agro biodiversity as well as sequestering carbon. They have tremendous co-benefits, according to Professor Bawa, and one of the goals of the mission is that every citizen of India will be able to participate not only in the conservation of biodiversity, but will also benefit socially and economically.
Innovators and organisations in India right now are looking to create impact at scale, through innovation and collaboration, in order to create digital public goods that would be beneficial to the environment sector as well as others. We are at a critical point, because if we cannot get India right, we cannot get the world right whether it is about public health issues, biodiversity conservation issues, or it is anything else. India will soon make up one-fifth of the world’s population so getting things right in terms of justice, equity, and the environment is going to be hugely important for the whole world.

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