For the past several decades, the North-Eastern forest belt in India has been brutally cut-down for commercial occupation. The aftermath has resulted in severe environmental degradation in the region. To add to this scare, the native communities who were dependent on this forest ecosystem have lost their jobs and have nowhere else to go to. It is even more difficult for the tribal farmers that are farther away from a utilitarian market.
Saurav Malhotra, a young beaming intern at the Assam based Balipara Foundation, a pioneer organization working on ecological conservation, saw this challenge up close and personal during his duration of the internship. The on-ground experience and reflection brought him to realise that there was a need for an ecosystem that not only caters to ecological conservation but also creates employment opportunities for indigenous farmers without proposing displacement.
Sourav, with the help of the parent organisation Balipara Foundation, developed a unique program called Rural Futures program (often referred to as RuFu). Rural Futures engages a robust team of subject-matter experts ranging from botanists, zoologists, GIS, and GPS experts to mentors train indigenous communities living inside as well as on the outskirts of the forest to encourage a self-sustaining livelihood. A majority of these people are primarily forest farmers. “Since they have been living here for more than 100 years, the indigenous people are deeply aware of the merits of the forest. They just needed a direction on how to market these merits for their livelihood.”, says Saurav. They are taught how to extract their learnings from the forest as a product or service. The skill, as Saurav says, is pretty much innate for them. The program works as an enabler that catalyzes them to set up their enterprises.
Since 2017, the program has encouraged the participation of the indigenous populace in agroforestry, organic fishing, etc. The participants of the RuFu Program are trained to make and commercially sell handmade artisanal products or the organic produce from agro-farming. This is followed by packaging, transportation, and distribution to local markets. Rural Futures help facilitate these on-ground operations for the development of products. The profit garnered is divided equitably within the community. There has been a 40% increase in individual earnings since the commencement of the pilot. When the local market had shut down due to the pandemic, RuFu innovated to sell products via digital platforms.
The program was first incubated in 2017 on one pilot-site. It has now expanded to four pilot-sites around three protected areas in the Assam-Bhutan and Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border areas. Currently, RuFu works directly with 25 villages, nine ethnic communities, and over 4500 young farmers; and indirectly benefits approximately 30000 individuals. For tribal communities, they have added livelihood incentives based on community needs. Processes have been set-up to enhance local economies of the area. These include mushroom cultivation, homestay eco-tourism, and homestead agroforestry across 100 households.
“The goal is to build a circular economy by utilizing the spirit of conscious capitalism. This is done with the help of a Triple Bottom Line approach: People, Planet, Profit.”, says Saurav. The model works to ensure that all three are given equal attention in the enterprise. The program also draws distinctions between utilization and exploitation of the forest. The raw material is grown, and the available resources in the forest are utilized end-to-end. This ensures that waste generation is minimal. RuFu has proved that capital gains through sustainable forestry are possible.