Inclusive conservation

  • December 1, 2023
Inclusive conservation

Rohini Chaturvedi on her tireless work on consensus building for conservation work from the grassroots up

My heart has always been with grassroots movements and with ensuring people’s rights are recognised.

Rohini Chaturvedi

Rohini Chaturvedi finished her PhD at a difficult time for many students – in the midst of the global economic crisis of the early 2010s. But through a combination of hard work, initiative and serendipity she has found an impressive way to extend the work she did at Cambridge to promote conservation efforts in India.

Rohini’s PhD explored how a complex, federated country like India negotiates environment and development choices in policymaking so that she could understand better what the key factors were for promoting conservation. Her research involved a longitudinal study of how coalition politics and the federal government system impacts forestry policy, with a focus on the kind of trade-offs that occur between strong conservation interests and the political impetus for fast economic growth.

On finishing her PhD Rohini [2007], like many, took a while to find work. Eventually, she got a post-doctoral position at the Centre for Science and Policy to work on an Economic and Social Research Council project on understanding how to get evidence to translate into policy and practice. “It was a difficult and sobering time,” she says.

She was frustrated by the delay associated with getting her work published, particularly since she felt it was very relevant to debates at the time as it challenged received ideas about how governments should do environmental policy, advising against the traditional centrist, top-down approach.  She decided therefore to organise her own research dissemination tour, with the World Resources Institute, a think tank which works on environmental policy, high on the list. So when she was in the US for a conference, she dropped by the WRI’s office.

At the time it was setting up an office in India and its new CEO was visiting.  She spoke to him briefly over coffee and he said they should meet up in India. He needed someone who could move quickly to set up their forest and land restoration programme. “I threw my hat in the ring,” says Rohini. She got the job. 

Relationship building

It was a challenging role, particularly given the number of environmental programmes in India and the need to fit into the WRI’s global mandate, but it gave Rohini the opportunity to meet with a wide range of people and to test new ideas and craft the WRI’s strategy on forestry work in India. It also gave her experience negotiating all the politics associated with being part of a huge global organisation. A lot of her role was about politics and diplomacy, she says. “I spent most of my time building relationships and giving people the sense that we were not taking away from anyone, but adding something,” she states.

At the time, landscape restoration was just emerging as a term. People assumed that it meant taking over land and excluding local and indigenous people. Rohini had to convey that the WRI’s approach was different, with people at its heart. “My heart has always been with grassroots movements and with ensuring people’s rights are recognised,” she says.

She worked with three different communities of practice: the development community, the conservation community and the rights-based community. At the time each community was siloed. “There was no cross-pollination,” says Rohini, “which was part of the reason why the conversations were not translating into meaningful action.”

Mapping land use

She was able to harness the WRI’s technology expertise, use that to scale up activities and make them more inclusive as well as contextually relevant by bringing in more people from across the three communities of practice. Through collaboration, consensus building and working with a large number of organisations, she led the WRI India team in creating the first publicly accessible, interactive restoration opportunities atlas of its kind for India, just after the Paris Agreement on climate mitigation was made and to support India’s implementation of its commitments to the Agreement. 

The atlas was used to help work out, through more large-scale participatory work, a plan for action on the ground.  A large district was identified as a pilot for the work where a wide range of local stakeholders  collaborated with WRI understand land use changes and solutions to address land and forest degradation. The planning process emphasised innovation and inclusion, with the team experimenting with new approaches that linked global technologies to local stakeholders. In one such experiment, WRI India conducted a Mapathon in which representatives from the district, including those who had never used computers, were paired with young tech savvy people to analyse remote sensed images for understanding land use change. 

Recognising that secure tenure is vital for successful restoration and conservation, Rohini led the WRI India team in the development of a platform  that demonstrated  how complex, seemingly intractable conflicts of land ownership could be resolved using legal evidence.  The platform called MapTenture had the potential to support more than 1.5 million indigenous/tribal households in central India. Thanks to a generous and supportive donor, and technical input from leading experts WRI India could bring together maps, remote sensing images and gazette notifications on one platform.

“We wanted to look at whether we could trace the history of the land back to see if it qualified as forest or non-forest because it had often been double counted,” says Rohini. “It was a phenomenal effort. We engaged with government people and they were shocked that this was possible, but that was only due to the technology and having people who could think outside the box as well as our donor.”

The project spanned 2015-2018. Continued advocacy of the issue by political champions made it a priority for the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 2019 and it set up an inter-departmental taskforce to make recommendations on how to resolve disputes between forestry and revenue departments. The taskforce included heads of different government departments and two non-government experts, including Rohini. Shortly after the taskforce submitted its recommendations to the Chief Minister, however, the state government fell and the work was put on the back burner. But there are new elections underway and Rohini is cautiously optimistic.

Consultancy work

At the end of 2018  Rohini stepped back from the WRI as she felt she had fulfilled her role of designing strategic direction for its forestry work in India and putting it and the relevant partnerships in place. She returned to consulting, including strategic consulting for large programmes and philanthrophic donors.  

Rohini is currently the strategy lead for  Forest, People, Climate, a global collaborative of philanthropic donors and civil society organisations seeking to halt and reverse tropical deforestation while delivering just, sustainable development.

In the last year nine interconnected strategic frameworks have been created, including three regional ones (Brazilian Amazon, Congo Basin and Indonesia), through a decentralised process that has involved at least 600 people and a process of approval by regional boards. “It represents a significant shift in how philanthropy does strategy, based on asking the question what will it take to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030,” says Rohini.

In addition, she has been engaging with international organisations about what is happening in India, but says she is very conscious that funding is shrinking. She has also been working with social movements and smaller NGOs to help them hone their demands and clarify the arguments for more funding. Despite the global political picture and the difficulties of reaching  ambitious global targets, Rohini is optimistic and excited  by what she sees happening on the ground. What keeps her awake at night is that all that grassroots activity will not be backed by donor action. “It’s so amazing to see the level of collective energy out there,” she says. “What is missing, though, is a sense of radical empathy. To make progress fast we need trust-based philanthropy, but that is in short supply.”

The Gates Cambridge village

Personally, Rohini’s life has come full circle. She returned from Cambridge to Delhi and then to Pune, where she grew up. She is now transitioning to living in rural Madhya Pradesh. She says it is a ‘remarkable’ transition from living in busy cities and keeps her grounded.

Looking back, she says that her PhD helped her tremendously in the path she has taken since, taught her to be humble in the face of all that we do not know and fuelled her curiosity. “I go into situations always asking more questions and with the confidence and freedom to say if I don’t know something, which I never had before,” she says. “And I met so many different people at Cambridge. That was pivotal for me.” 

In large part that includes the Gates Cambridge network, which supported her when she was seeking work after graduation, including allowing her continuing access to the Gates Cambridge room.  “It’s not just the PhD per se, but the village that comes with it,” she says.



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