Forest Conservation and Indigenous Community Empowerment: The Impact of the Balipara Foundation

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Hitanshu Bhatt
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Local Samosa interacted with Jo Dawson (Anthropological Visioner) at Balipara Foundation on the occasion of 'World Environment Day' to bring the various projects the foundation is working on to maintain the ecological, economic, and employment balance in the Eastern Himalayan region.

Balipara Foundation strives to create a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the environment through its multifaceted approach. By addressing ecological concerns and improving the socio-economic conditions of the indigenous communities, they contribute to the overall well-being of the Eastern Himalayan Region and the states of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur.

The Building Blocks

Balipara Foundation, founded in 2007 by social entrepreneur Ranjit Barthakur, emerged with a vision to protect the environment and support local communities, particularly in the Eastern Himalayan Region and states of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur. "The foundation's model encompasses ecological and economic well-being, recognizing the interdependence of these aspects," said Jo while elaborating on the vision of the foundation. One of the core initiatives of the Balipara Foundation is assisting farmers in transforming their farms into agroforestry systems. This approach enhances climate resilience and helps farmers sustain their livelihoods. By diversifying their agricultural practices and incorporating tree crops, farmers can mitigate the impact of climate change and improve their economic prospects.

Ranjit Barthakur - Founder of Balipara Foundation

Ranjit Barthakur - Founder of Balipara Foundation

In addition to agricultural support, the Foundation works on improving the quality of life for communities in the region. They focus on providing basic amenities such as access to education for children and primary healthcare services. These efforts aim to uplift the overall well-being of the local population. The foundation also engages in community-level projects to develop small-scale infrastructures. "For example, the community has successfully undertaken the construction of a bridge, using funds generated through their initiatives," said Jo. This approach empowers communities to take ownership of their development by actively participating in the creation of essential infrastructure like roads, bridges, and public toilets.

Ecology is Economy

The foundation focuses on Naturenomics, a method combining the environment and economy. In simple terms, it is the idea of using nature to generate income without harming it. People in India look for tangible goods such as fruits, vegetables, and crops as means of earning income. But there are other non-tangible assets of nature that are yet to be explored. Naturenomics aims at converting these assets to ripe monetary benefits without harming nature.

Balipara Foundation

Indigenous Communities of Eastern Himalayan Regions

Restoring the Habitats and Enriching Lives

The eastern part of India has an abundance of forests, but they are being exploited. People in this area cut down the trees and sell the timber to earn a livelihood. To combat this, the Balipara Foundation came up with the 'Rural Futures Model.' The initiative involves paying people to restore forests and supporting them in converting their farms to agroforestry. "By practicing agroforestry, farmers can grow 10 crops at a time on a single plot of land, compared to the 3 crops they traditionally grow on farmland. This not only benefits farmers by enabling them to sell crops individually but also ensures efficient resource utilization. The funds provided to the farmers are further used by them to start small sustainable businesses, such as homestays, weaving, or mushroom cultivation," Jo on Rural Futures Model. Overall, this approach promotes forest restoration, diversified agriculture, improved resource management, and the development of rural entrepreneurship.

The foundation has impacted 15 indigenous communities till now. Boro and Mising communities of Assam, Kuki and Nepali Communities of Manipur, people in Sukhai Village in Zouneboto District, and Fakim Village in Nagaland, to name a few. In one such incidence, they helped the communities build a bridge across a river and access the other part of the village, and this was done through the money they received from community nurseries and cultivating lands.

Also Read: A quick recap with the Environmentalist Foundation of India on the restoration of rivers and the challenges that come along with it!

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Deserted Farmlands to Wealthy Forests

The Rural Futures model uses a very particular technique that also helps in restoring degraded farmlands and converts them into forests. Dawson said, "Balipara follows a food forest model where we implement the simple concept of planting trees on farmlands that are deserted." They adopt the technique of growing 10 trees on a single field, each tree having a different height. This arrangement creates a sloping roof-like canopy that mimics a forest environment. The variety of trees grown includes the longest tree, called Moringa (drumstick tree), as well as fruit trees such as lemon and papaya, shrubs like king chili, and herbs like turmeric and ginger. Additionally, they practice a mix-and-match approach, incorporating different medicinal plants and vegetables on the same farm.

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This integrated system offers mutual benefits among the plants. Moringa fixes nitrogen into the soil, while lemon and king chili act as natural bio fences, keeping elephants away from the fields. Consequently, this approach not only enhances soil productivity but also provides a habitat for birds. Implementing agroforestry techniques like this has proven to be successful for Balipara farmers. "They experienced a significant 40% increase in income within the first year itself, thanks to the adoption of agroforestry practices," said the Anthropological Visioner while highlighting the benefits of the project.

Calling the Human-Elephant Fight off.

"Started in 2016, the 'Habitat Restoration Project' aims to protect the depleting population of Asian elephants in the northeastern regions," Jo while stating the Habitat Restoration Project. The main cause behind the decline of elephants was the loss of their habitats. To address this issue, the science team at Balipara Foundation conducts a biodiversity assessment in the intact forests, identifying key species that can be restored. Saplings are sourced or collected from the forests and planted in a nursery. These trees, once grown, help in restoring the degraded land, ultimately providing a potential habitat for the elephants. The planting process is strategically carried out during the monsoons to make the most of the extra water available and prevent waste.

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The foundation takes care of the project for a year and then endeavors to hand over the responsibility to local communities. This approach aims to make the communities independent while also providing them with necessary assistance whenever required. Additionally, this initiative enables the local communities to earn a livelihood by harvesting some of the Non-timber Forest Products (NTFPs).

Nurturing Young Minds for a Greener Future

The foundation has started the 'Rural Futures (RuFu) Fellowship' to train young people in the A to Z of restoring forest and agroforestry in the eastern Himalayan countries of India - Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. It’s an 18-month program that trains individuals between the age of 21 to 35 in agroforestry and makes them environmental leaders for tomorrow. The program teaches them to understand climate change, environmental damage and works towards resolving the issues. During the first 12 months, the individuals are trained in fieldwork and restoring particular areas. Following this, there is an entrepreneurial development course that makes them fit to start their own business. The foundation also offers a grant to the selected students for the same.

“People should get loud and knowledgeable about sustainable products, reach to the labels and brands before buying the products, and question whether it is really sustainable and what it means. If we are loud about asking the brands about the positive impact that they are creating, that will be all,” a departing note by Jo Dawson on what people should really do to create a sustainable environment in their daily lives.

Overall, the Balipara Foundation focuses on the overall development of nature, the economy, communities, and young individuals and strives to create a change in the true sense.

Also Read: Here’s how Jadav Payeng, aka the Forest Man of India, planted an entire forest in Assam!

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