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Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala run imaginative campaigns to protect the environment, linking advocacy and legal strategies with action-oriented education.

This profile below was prepared when Kitayun Rustom was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala run imaginative campaigns to protect the environment, linking advocacy and legal strategies with action-oriented education.


Through their Center for Environmental Research and Education (CERE), Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala bring fresh tactics and new professionalism to India’s environmental movement. One stream of their work is a direct, focused legal campaign to improve and enforce legislation for environmental protection. In this effort, they partner with rural organizations and communities to advocate for new laws and make the most of the laws that already exist. Another campaign supports a longer-term struggle for environmental protection across India through high-quality education. Here, Kitayun and Rashneh push beyond schooling for awareness and help students put their understanding of environmental issues to work, from building plant nurseries to partnering with local protection organizations.

These two environmentalists have pioneered a powerful balance between legal, educational, and advocacy campaigns, resulting in a powerful program whose elements complement each other remarkably well. Without immediate efforts for environmental protection in courts and halls of government, schooling on the topic would be futile, because in a short time there will be little if anything left to protect. Likewise, if the small victories in local battles for protection are to have greater meaning, a nationwide change in thinking is required, which can be obtained only through consistent and rigorous education.


Campaigns for environmental protection often fail because their members—and occasionally their leaders—lack the knowledge and professional skills to secure broad, lasting change. Environmentalists frequently confine their efforts to narrow geographic limits or react to the initiatives of other groups rather than advancing a positive agenda. When they face powerful corporations and government agencies, they are inundated with mountains of scientific data and legalistic paperwork aimed at clouding the issues, and they lack the knowledge and skills to find their way through. Worse, environmentalists in India often find themselves isolated from the people whose lives are most affected by pollution, unable to communicate a compelling message to this crucial audience.

During the last half of the twentieth century, environmental movements made promising steps toward ending this isolation through outreach to India’s school system. However, most schools have resisted the serious curricular change that would be needed for students to develop deep understanding of the natural world. Most environmental education in India is focused on dry textbooks, weighed down with seemingly random data, offering only a series of disconnected personal viewpoints on problems that should be explored from a regional and global perspective. Teachers resent the extra workload from yet another subject in an already overcrowded slate of classes. Curricula from elementary through high school offer little sense of involvement, presenting the environment as an abstract, faraway concept rather than a living system intimately connected to daily activities.

Rigorous, practical education in ecology and environmental protection is rare even for students who pursue higher degrees in environmental science. While they can gain fairly detailed knowledge in the technical workings of nature, these students have almost no chance to develop practical skills. Many students go through years of training without any opportunity to study in the field. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, leading environmentalists are straining onwards with little or no formal scientific training, desperate for professional support.


OpEPA cannot bring all of Colombia’s urban youth into nature, so instead, using the education system, it is bringing nature to Colombia’s youth. Through agreements with local districts, Luis Alberto is making a new type of environmental education available to the nation’s schools, already reaching over 8,000 students in 20 high schools. It begins with direct services—interactive on campus and off campus classes for students taught by OpEPA staff. But it extends to the entire system of science education with teacher training and easy-to-use manuals that help educators make in-school learning more relevant to their students’ daily lives. OpEPA supplements better teaching with easy access to nature. It has created the “eco-bus,” a prototype for what will become a fleet of traveling science and nature study centers parked in school lots throughout Colombia. An award-winning business plan (Ashoka-McKinsey Business Plan Contest, 2nd place) foretells of environmental education centers on the outskirts of each major city. The first, already in construction outside of Bogotá, combines the simple science tools of the eco-bus with pristine nature and trained professionals to facilitate the learning process. While partnerships with public districts have proven effective so far, Luis Alberto is tapping into Ashoka Fellow Vicky Colbert’s network of hundreds of progressive “Escuela Nueva” schools to accelerate his spread throughout Colombia.

To build on this educational base, Luis Alberto is introducing a new type of environmental excursion—one with a strong educational component—into the Colombian context. These trips take many forms, ranging from a day to a month in length and from simple hikes to intense wilderness experiences. But they all share one common tie—a pedagogical method that draws deep ties between participants and the world around them. OpEPA staff work closely with youth to examine nature while simultaneously questioning their everyday interactions with the environment and their place in the world’s ecosystem. These experiences ultimately aim to produce what Luis Alberto calls the “magic moment,” when a young person is suddenly and profoundly struck by a new sense of his or her role in nature and society. Participants break existing paradigms and simultaneously create space for new and lasting paradigms to form.

Whether classroom- or wilderness-based, OpEPA’s environmental education programs begin by sparking a connection between young people and nature. Luis Alberto sees that this interest can only be sustained through concrete opportunities for action, but he also recognizes that providing these opportunities is not OpEPA’s core competency. So OpEPA draws on a menu of follow-up programs created by other organizations, each giving young people leadership roles and the chance to take the initiative in improving the environment around them. To date he has established partnerships with Ashoka Fellow Ricardo Bertolini’s Eco-Clubs program and the Australian Clean-up-the-World Campaign to provide OpEPA participants the opportunity to put their environmental leadership to practice. Bertolini has trained OpEPA staff to manage and guide youth through the creation and execution of their own environmental ventures while OpEPA has engaged young leaders in their own initiatives by launching Colombia’s arm of the Clean-up-the World Campaign.

These three major components of OpEPA’s work—education, excursions, and action—bear a structured relationship to one another. The first represents Luis Alberto’s idealistic and impassioned side through his desire to reach all of Colombia’s youth with opportunities to connect to nature. The second is a manifestation of his practical side. Taking all of Colombia’s young people into the wilderness for intensive outdoor experiences simply isn’t feasible. So Luis Alberto targets these activities at young people that show special sparks of interest during OpEPA’s more basic activities. The organization always provides opportunities to stay in touch and continue involvement with OpEPA and other environmental causes. Those with the deepest interest self-select for further involvement with OpEPA and thus open the doors to participate in the more intensive and meaningful outdoor excursions.

When Luis Alberto talks about access to nature, he talks about access for all, regardless of financial status. From its very founding OpEPA has been a profitable and sustainable institution. Whether school districts or individuals, wealthier clients pay more than enough to cover costs and cross-subsidies allow access for clients that cannot pay. As a result OpEPA works in poorer school districts as well as the affluent and always plans outdoor adventures for groups with mixed socioeconomic background. The Interactive Center planned for the outskirts of Bogotá will only enhance OpEPA ability to reach all strata of society. Income generated through visits to the center will fund a large portion of the organization’s operational expenses as well as broad access to the programs for poorer Colombians.


Kitayun Rustom and Rashneh Pardiwala talk of themselves as one person in two bodies. They met in 1998, at a critical time in the struggle against a giant seaport proposed in Dahanu. The area was one of only three regions in India designated as ecologically fragile, but the state government had ignored the designation for years in favor of the huge amounts of money offered for the port. The main concern over the port was that it would irreversibly damage the coastal rock shelf and intertidal zone, thereby upsetting fish breeding and species distribution all along the northwest coast of India. Kitayun and another colleague were leading some fourteen organizations of farmers, artisans, fisherfolk and unionists in an effort to stop the port’s construction. Rashneh arrived just on time, performing a landmark marine biodiversity study that was a crucial part of the campaign’s eventual success. Kitayun went to work with colleagues in Gujarat and helped to successfully overturn a plan for a similar port there, and Rashneh went on to complete her PhD, but the seeds of a lifelong partnership had already been sown.

The two founders of the Center for Environmental Research and Education balance each other both in temperament and experience. A tireless and inspiring worker, Kitayun untangles complex issues and brings diverse people together with apparent ease. At the same time, she maintains the unassuming appearance of “a farmer’s daughter, and later a farmer’s wife.” Rashneh keeps the work of the organization firmly grounded in scientific knowledge, drawing on her extensive training as an ecologist. Her interest in nature began in childhood, on walks in the hills with her father. It has blossomed over the years into a vocation, leading her to decline lucrative offers from established institutions of environmental research in favor of the hard but rewarding road of leadership in the citizen sector.