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BIBHAB KUMAR TALUKDAR

India,

Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar is leading a new, integrated conservation movement to address topics like ecosystem goods and services, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. His organization, Aaranyak, promotes alliances between diverse groups from local villages to civil society to government so that each player can help shape environmental policy and begin seeing conservation within larger economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Aaranyak focuses on biological “hot-spot” areas, regardless of political boundaries, and provides relevant data and research on the threats to unique ecosystems and endangered species, the correlation between man-made destruction and subsequent flash floods or shrinking green cover, and even the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies to enhance conviction against crime on wildlife and forests.

This profile below was prepared when Bibhab Kumar Talukdar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar is leading a new, integrated conservation movement to address topics like ecosystem goods and services, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. His organization, Aaranyak, promotes alliances between diverse groups from local villages to civil society to government so that each player can help shape environmental policy and begin seeing conservation within larger economic, political, social, and cultural spheres. Aaranyak focuses on biological “hot-spot” areas, regardless of political boundaries, and provides relevant data and research on the threats to unique ecosystems and endangered species, the correlation between man-made destruction and subsequent flash floods or shrinking green cover, and even the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies to enhance conviction against crime on wildlife and forests.




THE NEW IDEA

Bibhab promotes a research-based conservation and ecological security movement that brings together public outreach, government advocacy, and partnerships with related actors in the civil sector. Primarily working in the Eastern Himalayas of northeast India, Bibhab’s organization, Aaranyak, meaning “All About Forests” identifies biological “hot-spots” that often fall across political or geographic boundaries. Using innovative research techniques and well-coordinated outreach campaigns, Bibhab works to illustrate the direct effects of climate change, global warming, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and local cultural diversity on such areas. The aim is to make recommendations and demonstrate strategic ways to involve the government and civil society in biodiversity conservation.

Bibhab has long recognized the profound relationship between human suffering and ecological destruction: A degraded environment offers few natural resources for further economic development, while poverty often leads to higher pollution and rapacious exploitation of natural wealth. However, few in the region—be they everyday citizens or government officials—are aware of the distinctly human costs of environmental destruction. Bibhab emphasizes the deep connections between the region’s ecology and its local population, and relies on community participation to deliver conservation messages. Early on, he knew that half the solution lay in simply making people aware of environmental degradation. Whereas the state’s conservation programs are neither intelligible nor appealing to ordinary people, Bibhab focuses on hard data, using facts, figures, and graphics to present seemingly abstract problems in real terms.

Much of the inaction on the part of both the public and the government can be traced to our inability to see the daily effects of ecological degradation. To counter the resulting lack of urgency, Bibhab uniquely employs geographical information system (GIS) technology to tangibly illustrate the need for action. For instance, by taking two satellite photographs of an area at an interval of five to seven years, he is able to show the rate of green cover destruction. Communities and policy-makers are then considerably more inclined to contribute to damage control and regeneration efforts, making them key players in Aaranyak’s participatory system. Within a few years, Aaranyak presents the community with another photograph showing what they have accomplished. This long-term strategy establishes an incentive for the participants to continue their efforts, and makes it a sustained process. By combining the data with participatory research initiatives and capacity-building programs, Bibhab powerfully illustrates the correlations between man-made destruction and flash floods, shrinking green cover, and its impact on rainfall, agriculture and other forest resources.




THE PROBLEM

Scientists and other experts around the world widely regard the Eastern Himalayas, spanning across Nepal, Bhutan and India, as a biodiversity-rich hotspot in acute need of a comprehensive conservation plan. In the last half-century or so, globalization and changes in the region’s economic structure have introduced new pressures to the previously sustainable lifestyles of the area’s inhabitants, leading to greater mobility amongst local populations. Attracted to the region’s rich supply of natural resources, large populations from elsewhere in India have migrated to the area, worsening the situation as indigenous groups are left increasingly marginalized. Today, the combined force of land tenure issues, rising market demands for local resources, and a rapidly increasing population has produced severe socio-ecological conflicts.

The rise in population and economic pressures has given way to a corresponding increase in environmental threats to the region, including rampant grazing by growing herds of domestic livestock, an unsustainable trade in alpine plants, growing political unrest, and more chronic threats, such as the frequent cutting of trees for fuel, fodder, and timber. Further market demand for illegal wildlife products has led to widespread poaching, bringing many of the region’s large mammals, including tigers, snow leopards, and elephants to the brink of extinction. In response to the region’s economic down-turn, many farmers are abandoning long-held practices involving shifting cultivation, leading them to clear forests without allowing adequate fallow periods for regeneration. As these environmental threats mount, the subsequent increase in landslides and flash floods have resulted in further environmental degradation, as well as economic and human losses.

While there exist numerous national policies governing forest management, India lacks a clear policy approach and overall conservation framework, leaving regulation largely in the hands of state and community authorities. With 70 percent of India’s Eastern Himalayas under private and community control, the resulting lack of local enforcement, combined with the erosion of traditional institutions, has made access to these forests nearly unrestricted. Moreover, because of the extension of ecosystems across international and state boundaries, close cooperation between countries and state governments is essential for effective conservation. However, despite the active presence of government institutions and citizen organizations (COs) in the region, their lack of coordination and limited capacity to implement biodiversity programs often means that even “protected” parks exist only in name.

In addition to rising economic pressures and ineffective government management, the lack of reliable scientific information concerning the region’s ecosystems severely impedes the design and implementation of appropriate strategies and conservation policies. Much of the Eastern Himalayas remain biologically unknown, resulting in poor baseline data, inadequate species inventories and distribution records, and limited documentation. In the absence of reliable data, development projects and even environmental policies may lead to unintentional habitat destruction.




THE STRATEGY

Bibhab’s strategy is straightforward: Help communities see and understand the consequences of environmental destruction, and then give them a role in developing sound environmental policy. Bibhab designed an approach that begins with educating the users of these ecosystems about ecological security and its implications for their livelihoods. Careful research, coupled with illustrative imaging and satellite photos raises public awareness about environmental destruction as well as confidence in scientific findings. His organization, Aaranyak, works with communities over a wide range of activities including research, planning, implementation, monitoring, policy development, education and awareness, capacity building, and environmental legislation. Aaranyak then joins forces with COs, government, and individuals, to work towards sustainable conservation solutions.

Using geo-spatial technology applications, including GIS, remote sensing and Global Positioning System, Bihbab has developed a database of bio-physical and ecological characteristics of various habitats. Displayed in high-resolution satellite imagery, the data later serves to convince various agencies to contribute to biodiversity conservation. The mapping applications help to identify key migratory routes and transboundary corridors of long-range elephant herds and other species, and provide valuable information for major analyses of land cover, canopy and deforestation, succession rate (the rate at which grasslands are converted to woodlands), and habitat conditions for various endangered species. Working with four universities in the northeastern states, Bibhab and a team of software trainers train environmental science students in GIS mapping and allied areas. Similarly, he runs several capacity building programs for COs working in the fields of conservation and biodiversity. 

Since government officials and civil servants frequently lack awareness about current legislation, he has created a Legal Aid and Advocacy Program, designed specifically for the police and forest department staff. Participatory training and workshop programs are geared to enhance their knowledge on existing laws and the judicial system. In addition, four to six legal orientation programs are conducted every year for officials working in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, covering topics such as wildlife protection acts, forest conservation acts, and the prevention of cruelty to animals act. Furthermore, in an effort to support demoralized local forest departments, Aaranyak provides the department’s anti-poaching task force with wireless radio sets, mobile phone handsets, raincoats, and patrol vehicles, along with other forms of logistic and material support. As part of its anti-poaching strategy, Aaranyak’s Wildlife Crime Monitoring team tracks the pattern of wildlife crimes; creating a database of criminals, routes, and other relevant information, and shares this information with law enforcement authorities.

In a unique effort to tackle the problem at its source, Bibhab has begun to work directly with some of the families and communities of poachers. Aaranyak helps family members understand how important the rhino and other endangered species are to the health of the ecosystem, as well as what they can do to help. As part of these efforts, Aaranyak trains women to start their own microenterprises; providing an alternative means of income for the families. Other COs and communities have adopted Aaranyak’s strategy—creating a multiplier effect throughout the region. Before 1998, more than forty rhinos were poached every year. Today, that number has fallen to as low as four to eight rhinos a year because of the support extended by Bibhab and his organization—Aaranyak.

Bibhab is currently working to expand his efforts, having established numerous partnerships in Nepal and Bhutan. Apart from working to map traditional corridors of wildlife movement, Aaranyak provides trainings to concerned officials in both countries on the use of GIS technology and impact assessment.




THE PERSON

Born in 1968 to a middle-class family, Bibhab spent his childhood in the Dhubri township of Assam, located in the Eastern Himalayas. By the time he grew up, he could no longer see many of the birds he had watched as a child. This, and his discovery that there was virtually no available information on the region’s unique biodiversity, sparked an interest in conservation and environmental education. In 1989, he formed a local nature club called Aaranyak—then part of a larger national environmental movement.

Realizing that the India’s Wildlife and Forest Protection Acts were being grossly violated, he wrote a petition to the state government to uphold their constitutional duty to protect the wildlife of the region. In a surprise verdict, Aaranyak won the case, much to the delight of the forest department, who until then had been helpless in the face of political apathy.

Armed with a Master’s degree in Biology from Guwahati University, Bibhab decided to further strengthen Aaranyak. After taking a four-week training course on conservation education in the U.K., he returned home and immediately began to set up research processes. With the help of audio and visual aids, he started various orientation programs for target groups of students and teachers. From there, he introduced an informal culture of information-sharing and teamwork in Aaranyak, and began to shape it into a professional research-based conservation institute.

Bibhab is a member of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) within the Species Survival Commission, and was recently appointed a member of the Commission of Ecosystem Management of IUCN. He is also a member of the National Board of Wildlife under the government of India, and was a member of the Steering Committee for the formulation of the New Assam Forest Policy, among others.




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