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Borderless natural assets can only be managed and restored through collaborative efforts – interview with Saurav Malhotra

This interview is part of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series with key experts in forest governance. It was developed in the context of the NewGo! project which aims to provide scientific knowledge on lessons learned from initiatives related to zero deforestation, forest restoration, and sustainable forest finance. The project sets the ground for the EFI Governance Programme.

Tell us a bit about who you are.

I am the Co-Founder and Designer of the Rural Futures innovation at the Balipara Foundation. Rural Futures integrates ecological gains with upward socio-economic mobility of forest-fringe communities across the Eastern Himalayan region. Through Rural Futures, we mobilise forest-fringe communities (esp. youth) to engage in the complete value-chain of ecosystem restoration. The natural capital that is sustainably derived from restored habitats is utilised by communities to deliver universal basic assets – locally and autonomously. I am an Acumen Fellow of the 2021 cohort.

What is forest governance?

It really is the entirety of managing a forest – from its preservation, to propagation and most importantly – valuation and sustainable use. Ideally led by the people who live in it!

Why is governance needed?

The Eastern Himalayas lie at the centre of South Asia and East Asia, connecting two of the world’s largest economies: India and China. The strategic value of this region cannot be overstated, from its centrality as a water source for India, China and Southeast Asia, to its importance as a global biodiversity hotspot. 

The region is endowed with rich natural capital which remains largely untapped and underleveraged, viewed either as an impediment to economic growth through a developmentalist lens, or else viewed as a battleground for increasingly embattled, endangered endemic species. Both views obscure the aspirations and rich cultures of the region’s indigenous and local communities, most of whom still depend heavily on the region’s natural capital for their livelihoods, albeit at a largely subsistence level.

Today, the region lies on the brink of crisis as rising temperatures in the mountains have caused glaciers to melt, creating volatility in water access and adding further stresses to an already geopolitically tense area. Over a quarter of the land in the region is degraded – the result of rampant deforestation and severe flooding. Despite shared interests for development and economic growth opportunities, the region remains divided by geopolitical interests. As a result, communities have few livelihood opportunities and many look for better socioeconomic mobility by migrating from the region.

In India’s North-eastern states, this migration has led to escalating inter-community tensions and the rise of ethnonationalism. In an unfortunate situation spurred by economic desperation and conflict, a story similar to the tragedy of the commons has emerged and much of the region’s rich natural capital has been severely depleted by rampant deforestation and overexploitation. In turn, this has led to some of the highest rates of human-elephant conflicts in the world, with hundreds dying annually during elephant incursions and attacks.   

Despite this dire outlook, the action opportunities for this region are immense. At the confluence of 2 billion people, it has a young and ambitious demographic and its rich cultural diversity supply a plethora of rich perspectives and traditional knowledge yet to be tapped by scientists and policymakers to guide the development of sustainable livelihood opportunities.

In addition, in spite of the depletion of its natural capital, the region is still home to 12,000 species of flora and fauna and new species are being discovered every year. A quarter of India’s carbon stock lies in this region and despite the heavy deforestation these forests are a vital resource as India’s largest cumulative carbon sink. The preservation of this biodiversity and restoration of land will be impossible without systems for bottom-up/community-led multi-stakeholder systems of governance that are equitable and just.

What makes governance “good”?

Saurav Malhotra

The future visualized through the Rural Futures innovation begins in the Eastern Himalayas, but is, at its heart, a global vision. It is a creative reimagining of economy, transitioning away from value generation through ecological destruction to deriving value through natural asset regeneration and ecological preservation. Vitally, it seeks to rebuild fractured relationships between natural capital and labour capital, rebuilding cooperation by forging global alliances to preserve and enrich global natural assets in the face of borderless environmental issues. 

The reintegration of economy, society and ecology represents humanity’s best chance at saving the natural world. Revaluing forests as community wealth assets is one of the many tools to achieve this, but the creation of holistic ecological civilizations will ultimately recognize not just the ecosystems service value of forests, but crucially the labour value involved in managing and regenerating forests. In doing so, an ecologically-centred economy emerges in which economic value is created through ecologically restorative activity.

Imagine a future of community governed forests: self-reliant and egalitarian, where every member has equal access to essential basics needed not just for survival but for social and economic wellbeing. Their economy may not exist at the level of sophistication of our financial economy, but agroforestry and agroecology practices have shortened supply chains and reduced dependency on outside systems for food security. These food systems are resilient, drawn from a diverse gene pool of seeds and sown to mimic the natural diversity of an ecosystem. Robust social and civic institutions enable them to effectively and participatorily manage their pool of natural capital to create access to and deliver universal basic assets and services in an equitable manner to all the members of a community. Good governance  must also promote partnerships across sectors and disciplines – towards common goals. One such co-creation partnership that we have embarked on with the Impulse NGO Network – through which we are battling human trafficking through restoration of ecosystems and creating sustainable ecological livelihoods. It is incredible how diverse developmental sector innovations can come together for greater impact – for communities and ecology! 

As a result of local delivery chains for food and basic social assets and services, communities achieve complete self-sufficiency. Where developmentalism fosters dependence on external markets, subjecting incomes within communities to the whims of markets that exist beyond their control. Alternatively, socioeconomic mobility through localized alternative businesses and natural capital enhancement strengthens local economies and markets. Through interdependence and building collaborations to effectively regenerate natural capital across borders, these local economies afford communities a level of self-sufficiency and resiliency against the worst market shocks – even more likely to increase in the coming years, as markets cope with fluctuating natural conditions. 

In this future, forests are valued not just for the commodity values they represent when consumed, but for their sustained long-term value. Community labour in managing these natural assets no longer remains obscured, but these value flows are mainstreamed and remunerated, giving them income elasticity that is directly pegged to the health and enrichment of natural assets surrounding them. In this civilization, there is inherent value in maintaining forests, to add to community asset values as opposed to seeing value only in the conversion of habitats and natural resources into tradeable commodities via ecological destruction.

Such a society would go far beyond the limited perspective of circularity, to eliminate waste at its root via a transition to a participatory degrowth model, focused on durability, repair, lower consumption, defragmented supply chains, ecological restoration and a conceptualization of quality of life no longer defined by the ability of an individual to consume more. The indigenous concept of sumaq kawsay or buen vivir in Ecuador might be its closest approximation, in its search for harmonious interdependency between people, landscapes and wildlife, cooperative collaborative growth and human well-being are embedded within the well-being of the collective. It is only through collaborative, cooperative efforts that borderless natural assets can effectively be managed and restored to create seamless habitats for endemic flora and fauna.

Rural Futures is the primary driving action strategy for achieving immediate change on the ground among communities. By delivering a real tangible economic incentive to orient themselves towards habitat restoration, Rural Futures creates opportunities for communities to achieve socioeconomic mobility in a non-destructive manner – thus also closing the rift that exists between our market institutions and the carrying capacity of natural capital. Agroecology and agroforestry serves to both eliminate food insecurity, while diversifying agriculture-based income streams and creating both economic and genetic-based resiliency among local cropping systems. In the long-term, the Rural Futures vision of building natural capital driven alternate livelihoods and businesses and using natural capital to deliver Universal Basic Assets creates a self-reinforcing cycle, enabling communities to build up robust civic and social institutions for localized planning, resource development and allocation. 

What are the challenges with governance today in the light of what you said in the previous question?

For the abovementioned action strategies to be effective, there is a need for a deeper web of support – action strategies in themselves, but which call for support beyond local, immediate, on-the-ground action. There is need for action at the policy level, at the broader national and international level, to effect these transitions in a meaningful and importantly, in a scalable way.

What are the positive changes that you have seen happening in the context of forest governance?

The fantastic restoration work that has happened in the past two decades has shown that some of the world’s greatest forests can only thrive if the indigenous communities living within them are empowered to sustainably manage and restore them and that this has led to a shift from single species and symptomatic conservation efforts to systems thinking for habitats – including emphasis on governance of these ‘new’ and restored habitats.

Please provide an example of a success story/case study.

In early 2019, as a part of the Balipara Foundation’s Rural Futures innovation,  a youth group led an initiative to restore indigenous agroforestry practices across 350 households in the community of the Baligaon Miri Village (in Assam, India). The youth group collectively and democratically formed committees to take care of the entire value chain of the process – from planting, to harvesting, to selling in the local markets – and sparked a revival of their own ancestral knowledge. It is this practice, that ensured food security for the community during the COVID-19 onslaught in 2020 and continues to do so now. The youth group is now a registered not-for-profit organisation and will continue to work towards restoration of the ecology of their surroundings – for socio-economic mobility of their community. You can read more about this initiative here – COVID-19 warriors: How Assam’s Mishings brought agroforestry back into practice.

Read the other interviews in the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series:

We need to align the different interests related to forests to regulate conflicts and maximise synergies – interview with Georg Winkel

Stakeholder participation in forest governance is key for sustainable forest management – interview with Eva Müller

Community participation makes for better forest governance in Ethiopia – interview with Tefera Mengistu

Curbing forest loss with and for the local communities in Uganda – interview with Rose Kobusinge

Projects in Sub-Saharan Africa provide evidence of a successful circular bioeconomy – interview with Darren Lapp

Involving and remunerating local communities to save the Amazon – Interview with Johan Wittkamper

Expansive approaches to inclusivity and participation are key for good governance in Rwanda – interview with Bernadette Arakwiye

Forest governance in Ghana should function with transparency and accountability – interview with Mustapha Seidu

Brazil offers many lessons to all those interested in making forest governance more effective – interview with Thais Linhares-Juvenal


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