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S.L.N. Swamy (India 1996) has established an environmental education program that is giving rise to a population of urban Indians committed to conserving the endangered rainforests. At the same time, he has created economic incentives for the forest's tribal inhabitants to preserve their ecological heritage.

This profile below was prepared when S.L.N. Swamy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


S.L.N. Swamy (India 1996) has established an environmental education program that is giving rise to a population of urban Indians committed to conserving the endangered rainforests. At the same time, he has created economic incentives for the forest's tribal inhabitants to preserve their ecological heritage.


Running through the South Indian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, a chain of highlands known as the Western Ghats is undergoing severe deforestation and the extinction of many plant species. S.L.N Swamy's plan of saving the Ghats, so biologically rich and diverse, involves simultaneously raising environmental awareness through experiential outdoor adventures and creating in people a reliance upon the rainforests, by providing economic incentives to protect them.

Although the central idea was hatched in the early 1980s, it has taken more than ten years for Swamy to establish adventure as a serious discipline and career path. It took him nearly that long to reach a stage where eco-consciousness penetrated people of every social class, occupation, background and age. In fact, now Swamy's multiple programs not only consist of, but rely upon, the interplay among various groups. Equally impressive are his ability to convince urbanites of their stake in ecology and his skill at appealing to the very different needs of local communities.

The launching pad for Swamy's environmental program is The Adventurers, his eco-tourism organization and wilderness school. The Adventurers breaks the stereotype of outdoor adventure tours being the domain of tourists and wealthy Indians on holiday. It offers land, water and air expeditions to everyone from corporate managers to housewives to school students, with the goal of building awareness of impending ecological disaster. As Swamy explains, "A casual initiation into the forest through treks, or the mountains through rock climbing exercises, or tribal villages through cycling expeditions invariably leaves them thinking. Some forget the experience. But most come back, a second time, for answers to questions they had asked themselves after the first trip or for a more exhaustive adventure exercise. With a third come-back trip, we have them as volunteers, pooling in their resources to arrive at an important end: sensitivity towards the bounty of nature." The aim is to develop in people-all types of people-awareness of environmental threats and new habits in response to this awareness.

Once The Adventurers persuades citizens to commit themselves to the environmental cause, Swamy's other programs offer more complex issues with which to grapple. Those who are more serious volunteer serve as tours leaders, and the most dedicated apply to The Indian Institute for Adventure Applications, the environmental management training program that Swamy has established. As Swamy puts it, "The task of eco-managers is to take on eco-restoration projects and work as allies between The Adventurers and the urban-rural divide."

Impressive as these efforts are, they appeal to only half of the potential audience. Through his work, Swamy realized that any sustained attempt in nature studies and adventure activities must involve the people living in the forests. He says, "As nature lovers, we can't see the forest in isolation. The inhabitants of these forests also come within our circle of concern." His second (but equally important) objective is to help these indigenous people by cutting through the power struggles of the local castes and creating a strong environmental lobby.

He has done this by establishing, among other projects, a popular nature school for tribal children at The Adventurers' field base. It breaks the constraints of classroom and textbook and taps children's natural flair for discovering and exploring the natural elements. Swamy has also built a base of rural allies who contribute to discussions with the trekking groups. These laborers, goat herders and produce gatherers are won over by Swamy's commitment to help restore their disintegrating temples and forts. They then form their own environmental police groups, whose area of influence now covers many villages.

One of Swamy's most creative initiatives is the Forest Cooperatives Project, a unique form of vocational training for tribal people, geared toward creating a dynamic, scientifically aware, eco-conscious population which will work to conserve and intelligently manage the Western Ghats. The cooperatives market products of the forests, thereby creating dependency on the forests and the incentive to protect them. In addition, other income generating projects employ the local population and fund conservation programs such as tree-planting.

Swamy has put a wide spotlight on the importance of the Western Ghats. Not only is he building public awareness among all elements of society, but he is educating and motivating people to change their behavior and put a halt to the swift deterioration of this land.


The Western Ghats cover an estimated area of 50,000 square kilometers and testify to several million years of geological history. Full of rich resources, the Ghats are also the veritable lifeline of peninsular India and form the region's main watershed with giant rivers originating from it. Most of the hydroelectric needs of the states comprising the Ghats are met by the 200-odd dams across the rivers and their tributaries. The Ghats possess a wide diversity of species, housing two and a half percent of the world's plant species. As the region's economic powerhouse, the Ghats produce commercial crops such as coffee, cashew, rubber and tea, in addition to cardamom and pepper. Because the hills are also rich in minerals, commercial exploitation is also noticeable.

In the rainforests of the Western Ghats, people have long depended on nature's abundance, chopping trees for their immediate fuel needs. The region, now recognized as one of the eighteen bio-diverse hot spots of the world, badly needs attention. Forest cover, boasting over 60 percent in the 1950s, has been reduced to a meager 38 percent and is decreasing at an ominous rate. While the annual demand for fuel wood in the state of Karnataka is 12.4 million tons, the annual production is 10.4 million tons, a shortfall of sixteen percent. Decline and extinction of many species in the Western Ghats is not only the fault of the local inhabitants. The problems are largely a result of the carving up of the tropical forests, poaching, land encroachment, fire-raising, loss of upland grasslands, dam building and a host of other related problems.

Governmental policy regarding the Ghats has many shortcomings. The industrialized district of Mangalore, parts of which are lodged in the Ghats, is considered one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world, yet the government has sanctioned the establishment of several mega-industries there. The impact of cumulative air emissions and toxic discharges from these industries is critically affecting the ecosystem of the mountains. Although timber extraction from the evergreen reserve forests in the states of Kerala and Karnataka has now been arrested, Swamy laments that existing forest protection laws have too little of an impact on the region.

In order to save the Ghats, Swamy wants to create a situation in which people believe that protecting the rainforests will bring more wealth than destroying them. In his view, only economic incentives can reverse the worrying trends.


Making people from both the urban and rural spheres dependent on the rainforests has led Swamy to establish an eco-friendly conglomerate made up of many activities. Underlying all his work is the support of a formidable citizen base. With 40 state level branches, 35 international liaisons and 35,000 members, his program, based out of a central office in the city of Bangalore, now has the support it needs to impact practice and policy on a large scale.

As the linchpin of Swamy's programs, he has created the Western Ghats Restoration Project, a grassroots organization that promotes volunteer field work projects to help fend off environmental threats to the region. Because he realizes that no single agency can protect the Ghats, The Adventurers network is a vehicle through which nature lovers around the world mobilize to support the organizations' activities. In mapping out these various activities, the Western Ghats Restoration Project takes into consideration social and cultural dimensions, as well as economic ones, and puts special emphasis on the constituent tribal population.

The Adventurers has found a great deal of support in schools: the Karnataka state education department now provides partial annual funding to every government school for outdoor education programs. Science and Humanities Clubs in several schools and colleges affiliate themselves to The Adventurers as "Explorers Clubs," and many of these schools have incorporated nature programs into their curriculums. For tribal children in the rainforest, the nature school that Swamy started prepares children for careers in outdoor education, to the great satisfaction of the majority of families in the village.

At the more advanced level, the Institute for Adventure Applications is offering tribal people, and especially women, the first degree program in the field of eco-management, and graduated its first class in 1997. The university is in the middle of 750 acres of dense forest granted by the government, along the backwaters of the Sharavathi river in Karnataka. Its location is ideally suited to conservation-oriented activities and nature studies.

The Institute provides a variety of courses in botany, geology, environmental studies, tribal culture, folk art, and archaeological restoration of forts and temples. At the same time, it focuses on developing supportive economic structures. Swamy eventually wants to start another institute to document and disseminate tribal performing art forms.

The Adventurers also targets other types of students. Civil servants training in field administration and police officials in training take outdoor courses to tone up for the physical and emotional exertions built into their jobs. Swamy's intentions are clear: he wants training academies to turn out personnel who subscribe to The Adventurers' ideology before they have even seen the insides of the bureaucratic maze. He says, "We have involved civil servants who have helped from time to time to conduct the vast number of adventure programs we have organized across the state."

Many of the outdoor guides are rainforest inhabitants whose employment is assured through the continuation of adventure groups. Because they know the area so intimately, they have helped locate important cultural places in the forest and map the first authentic trekking corridor of India. The local people also support themselves by making Adventure Allied products-equipment including rucksacks, sleeping bags, ground level chairs and tents, which they sell to the National Police Academy, the Border Security Force, the Tourism Department, and members of the organization. Another employment opportunity exists in the restoration of temples, forts, and other monuments to preserve the cultural heritage of the Western Ghats. With some of the funds from these activities the local inhabitants are setting up nurseries for endemic species and planting trees to enhance green cover.

Swamy believes that creation of viable and eco-friendly employment or enterprise options along with educational and training programs isn't enough. He began Forest Cooperatives to build the necessary skills and structures for management of the resources generated and to involve the people who live in the Ghats in the restoration movement so that those who are dependent on the forest will take the initiative to protect its produce. In addition to marketing the forest products, planning and monitoring the positive utilization of natural resources is one of the cooperative's main objectives. National, state, and international liaison and branches of the organization will be involved in providing the most viable marketing avenues and options to these cooperatives. Swamy believes that when the benefit of this effort reaches the forest dweller, more people in the Ghats will be attracted by its success, and ideally the Cooperatives will one day encompass the entire stretch of the Western Ghats.

In 1996 The Adventurers benefited from Swamy's membership in the Ashoka network. Five Ashoka fellows congregated to discuss issues related to forest conservation in the Ghats. This meeting resulted in two of the Fellows offering to assist Swamy by supporting conservation related projects and setting up a health care program in the Ghats.


Ever since his childhood, Swamy has seized every possible opportunity for experiential learning. While still in the eighth grade, he broke the monotony of learning botany by developing his own illustrated textbook to replace the dull text prescribed by the school. Despite his brilliance, Swamy failed the pre-University level examinations, which caused his disappointed father to stop supporting him financially. Undaunted, Swamy enrolled in the Industrial Training certificate course, supporting himself with bookbinding and later, printing. He worked for a leading engineering company, was a fairly successful journalist, and was interested in painting and outdoor adventure activities.

From his experience in mobilizing groups and building citizen bases at the Youth Hostels Association, Swamy foresaw immense potential and challenges in developing the adventure field, and instinctively felt compelled to devote himself full time to it. The field was very new at the time; adventure activities were restricted to the Himalayas, and were only seen "as an elitist hobby or sport for the rich in India," as Swamy puts it.

Fueled by discussions with world leaders in the field, including Tenzing Norgay, Swamy began testing his ideas of creating a forum for education through adventure. With seven friends and a backpack, he began frequenting the Western Ghats in the early 1980s. Swamy recalls that his ideas were originally met with laughter and derision: "The idea and activity packages were ready but when we tried to sell them, we were received as a group of enthusiastic young people trying to make a business out of fun. Schools and parents didn't take us seriously."

Not until 1990 did Swamy eventually change people's minds through a nature awareness study camp for 1,600 children. Each student selected a subject and wrote a thesis, drawing data and inputs as they cycled across the countryside. The program jump-started The Adventurers into the high gear it has continued to maintain.