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Rohini Nilekani and Kamaljit Bawa: How to Grow ATREE in the Era of Climate Change

Strategic Philanthropy | Climate & Biodiversity | Apr 20, 2021

Indiaspora Climate Summit on April 20th that addressed topics around climate and environmental justice. Rohini Nilekani joins Professor Kamaljit Bawa to discuss the urgency of climate science and ATREE’s work.


0:00:00.0 Bawa: So I think this is a session of hope and inspiration. And so we hope we will continue this theme and… So Rohini, you have a very large portfolio, and that is Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, with very large portfolio of environmental grants, and we at ATREE, certainly very much appreciate your recent 50 crore pledge to support our environmental world. And I want you to tell us what motivates you to devote so much time and resources to the environment. I know you believe in other causes too, and you’re supporting those, but I think it’s particularly nice to see this focus on environment and I was wondering if you could tell us what inspires you?

0:00:58.4 Rohini Nilekani: Sure. Thank you Dr. Bawa and in fact, as one of my mentors, you helped me to come to this conclusion that my environmental portfolio was perhaps the most critical as I looked forward into the future, because I think, certainly the people gathered in this audience know very well, and sometimes we only talk to the converted, but more and more people are beginning to understand that the economy, which drives so many of us and certainly drives many governments, is only a subset of the ecology, right. That is very clearly understood that if you are going to build a development model that drains away your natural capital, you’re really looking at a very bleak future.

0:01:44.1 RN: So on one side there’s my strategic imperative, sort of, thinking that environmental issues, especially when combined with climate change related existential challenges are really very important to look at at a long-term basis. But apart from that, just my increasing love for nature itself and my increasing desire, especially to get younger people involved with understanding how interconnected we all are in the web of life and in nature, and what a joyful journey of discovery that can be, and how that journey of discovery can lead you to understand so many things and you yourself change in the process, so that your earlier ideas, perhaps, of what is abundance begin to change, material abundance begin to change. And so for me, for both the personal dimension, the moral dimension and the strategic dimension, my environmental portfolio, including of course, ATREE, which thanks to you I’ve been involved in for so many years now, is not only very important, but also very joyful for me.

0:03:01.5 Bawa: Well, thanks, and I think your support to ATREE, and for those of you who really don’t know much about ATREE, ATREE works in three primary area, biodiversity, water and climate change. And I think your gift is going to allow us to strengthen our programs in several ways. One, of course, is generating knowledge to address our pressing environmental issues, including climate change, and I’ll come to that in a minute. Second, this knowledge in turn will feed into policy design. As you know we have recently started a new Center for Policy Research and Design. And thirdly, this knowledge will be applied to transform action on the ground as we have been doing for quite a few years or few… I would say decades, a couple of decades, with the local community, through another new center that we started two years ago, Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation that you, again, so generously funded.

0:04:25.1 Bawa: And finally, of course, as you know, we are building India’s Human Resources to tackle important environmental issues. We’ve a world class doctoral program, interdisciplinary doctoral program in Conservation and Sustainability Studies. And I think the support will help us really strengthen that program considerably. I should also mention to others that Rohini’s pledge also includes a matching grant, and we hope we will be able to meet that challenge, a challenge of matching grant. But I think more importantly…

0:05:12.7 RN: Dr. Bawa, if I were to…

0:05:13.5 Bawa: Yeah.

0:05:13.7 RN: Dr. Bawa, if you were to tell our audience that since there’s a matching grant out there, why should people try to match my challenge grant? Why should people invest in ATREE? Do you want to say that, in just a few words?

0:05:28.9 Bawa: Well, certainly. I think, first and foremost, I think any contribution to ATREE will be doubled by your matching grant. Secondly, I think it’s most important that the important issues we are addressing in terms of the water, biodiversity and climate change. And I must say, I think, there are very, very few institutions that are addressing these problems, that clearly demonstrate the linkage among these issues. I think we have to realize, I’m sure we are realizing as a matter of fact, due to the pandemic, most notably, that many of our problems, many of our problems arise because we have disrupted our interaction with the nature, with the natural world. And climate change is going to compound many of these problems. So if we don’t invest in these issues now, few years from now, it will be much more expensive. So I can go on and on, but I think one of the things we want to do is we want to engage public more widely in some of the things we are doing. And I think, Rohini, you are very keen on public engagement and I was wondering, you know, if you would like to share with us your views, how we can engage public in the efforts towards the environment?

0:07:20.9 RN: Yeah, I really think that, as you know Dr. Bawa, I’ve always believed that in the continuum of samaj, bazaar and sarkar, which is, society, state and markets, that I believe that we have to really strengthen the samaj or the society part of things. Because when you have a strong, healthy society, diverse society but with good institutions, such as ATREE, and good leadership, in fact, such as you provide, also, if we have many such institutions, we are much more likely to build resilience into our… Just into society and to make things, to make people much participate and develop agency to solve local problems in context.

0:08:09.9 RN: And I think with the climate change challenges especially, that becomes very important to build the societal muscle to solve their local problems in context. Of course, there is the state to look at the larger picture and we must hold the state accountable to helping resolve those larger complex problems and so also markets. We need them to stop creating so many negative externalities which have a huge societal cost. So for that, to have a strong society that can challenge both state and markets, I think it is very important that citizens begin to understand that these, especially climate change related problems are going to impact us globally, but also impact us not just locally, but very, very personally. And so if we get more people to see this and participate in however small a way they can, I think over time that is going to build up, in a shift in the mental model about what we mean by development.

0:09:17.1 RN: So for me, a lot of my work is focused on involving people, especially young people, as citizens to come together to solve their own problems. And that’s why some of the work at ATREE interests me because while… You’re looking at nature-based solutions, you’re looking at conservation-based livelihoods, and that involves wide grassroots participation in creating positive change. So that’s what I like to focus on. I mean, we have, as a country done our nationally determined contribution at Paris, and especially the NDC3 on sequestration, right? Carbon sequestration. We have a long way to go. And I think some of ATREE’s solutions, including the project, I love, our Lantana, where invasive species such as Lantana, which have overtaken India’s southern forests. ATREE helps the local people living in and around those forests to harvest that Lantana and then to sequester it as furniture and some really beautiful other kinds of things that are made with that Lantana. And so, there’s a lot of creativity there, when you involve a lot of local people and help them to innovate their way out of problems. So that’s what I like to focus on.

0:10:33.0 Bawa: Well, that’s great. And I think our focus is also going to be increasingly towards public engagement, and I think one of the really big ambitious project which is going to allow us to do that is the national mission on biodiversity and human well-being, which is all about how we sort of mainstream biodiversity in the economic development process, and how we really demonstrate the efficacy of these nature-based solutions. And I think the nature based solutions with respect to climate change, I think you mentioned sequestration. I think it is just so critical. I think it’s not only… It has a huge potential in terms of sequestering carbon, but it is also one of the least expensive ways to sequester carbon, but more importantly, restoration of our land and soils…

0:11:37.4 RN: Land of course…

0:11:38.1 Bawa: Restoration of our forest, restoration of our agricultural systems, agro biodiversity. They have tremendous co-benefits. People will benefit, in fact, one of the goals of the mission is that every citizen of India, every citizen of India will be able to participate and contribute to not only conservation of biodiversity, but also benefit socially, economically. And let me ask you just one more question. I know we have to let the program continue. How do you think Indiaspora, here, can contribute to this process? What are your suggestions to become more involved? In this sort of a… In a very holistic way, to deal with the environmental issues, which have very, very clearly tremendous social and economic benefits, and it also addresses the issues of justice and equity.

0:12:49.4 RN: Yeah. Before I start, and before this goes away, let me just show you. ATREE worked with The Shola Trust and the elephant family to take Lantana, which is an invasive species of wood, and used the wood of Lantana to create these marvelous life sized, life-like elephants based on real animals in the jungle. And I have two of them right here in my garden and they occupy pride of place.

0:13:16.4 RN: So the point I’m trying to make is that by supporting such things, the diaspora, we really ask the diaspora to support India in all its development issues and challenges, especially because I’m telling you, in India we’re innovating and we are looking to create impact at scale, through innovation, through collaboration to creating digital public goods and really many exciting things, in the environment sector and everything else. But if the diaspora… And the diaspora people have so much talent and resources, if you could join our hands with us, if we don’t get India right, Dr. Bawa, I’m sure you’ll agree, if we cannot get India right, I really don’t see how we can get the world right, whether it is in public health issues, whether it is in ecological, biodiversity conservation issues or it is anything else, because we are soon going to be one-fifth of the world’s population. We’re getting there and, we matter. And getting India right in terms of justice, equity and environment is going to be hugely important, of course, for India first, but also for the whole world.

0:14:32.4 RN: So all of you, half of your hearts are in India, I think, so reaching out, helping organizations like ATREE and there are so many other great organizations in India. So I think the diaspora plays a critical role in supporting innovation, impact at scale in India. So this is kind of an appeal, Emmer does this very well, Indiaspora does this very well. But I really do believe it’s not just about your love for India, but everybody needs to help get India right, and we are on the way, we need some help. So that’s why I think the diaspora is important.

0:15:09.0 Bawa: Well, thank you very much Rohini and over to you Emmer and thank you again Emmer for your work. We very much appreciate it. And one last point to the young people Emmer mentioned, and I’m going to compete here with Robert, ATREE also has very good centers in the Himalaya and Western Ghats, come and please work with us. Get in touch with us, and you will have unbelievable experience. Thank you. Thank you Emmer.

0:15:41.1 RN: Agreed. Thank you. Thank you Emmer. Thank you, Sanjeev. Namaste.

0:15:45.4 S3: Namaste.

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