In the remote biodiversity-rich district of Darjeeling in Northeast India poverty and population growth are threatening unique and fragile ecosystems. But the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) has been working since September 2004 to foster a sustainable model of conservation that simultaneously addresses pressing environmental, economic, and social issues the region faces.

ATREE promotes conservation in Northeast India by simultaneously addresses pressing environmental, economic, and social issues the region faces. (Photo credit: ATREE)ATREE promotes conservation in Northeast India by simultaneously addresses pressing environmental, economic, and social issues the region faces. (Photo credit: ATREE)As part of an initiative it calls Conservation and Livelihood Security in the Eastern Himalayas, ATREE is implementing projects in 14 Darjeeling villages in and around the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, Singalila National Park, and Neora Valley National Park. These protected areas are known for their rich plant and animal diversity. Sal trees, rare orchids, rhododendron flowers, and a variety of bamboo species are native to the region. Among the rare mammal species still found in Darjeeling are the clouded leopard, common leopard, tiger, Asian black bear, Himalayan thar, red panda, and Indian rhinoceros. Darjeeling is also well-known for its diversity of bird species, such as the Bengal florican and migratory ducks and plovers.

The ecological wealth of the region offers vital resources to impoverished villagers. But the fragility of these ecosystems makes them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation. The population has grown in recent years, and along with it, dependency on the forests for food, farm animal feed, fuel wood, and other forest products has increased. There are few economic opportunities in the region that do not depend on forest resources, and extreme environmental degradation could have devastating effects on the livelihoods of villagers. By working to improve village incomes in conjunction with conservation efforts, ATREE aims to help locals sustain their forest resources to support long-term ecological health and economic needs.

ATREE promotes conservation by spreading awareness and involving local people in its efforts. After a basic training with ATREE, villagers help to monitor biodiversity in protected areas and to develop strategies for biological resource management at the village level. As a result, farmers are establishing gap plantations that allow forests to remain intact around isolated cultivation areas. The consumption of fuel wood has decreased significantly—from 1,440 kilograms to 160 kilograms per day, according to ATREE—in some areas due to heightened community awareness. Communities have also begun to manage their own seed banks to conserve indigenous crop species, which have been neglected in recent years. These crops improve local diets and are well-suited to the local environment. The organization also conducted a survey allowing locals to document the impacts of climate change on their lives, which could guide national and international efforts to protect communities from those impacts.

The organization also focuses on the development of environmentally friendly small businesses such as beekeeping, small vegetable gardens, handicrafts, organic agriculture, and eco-tourism. By supporting village self-help groups, ATREE has enabled villagers to come up with new environmentally friendly products—including bamboo and weaving—and ways to market them at fair prices. ATREE has also done further market analysis to help villagers narrow in on high-value forest products and services that have minimal environmental impact. ATREE attributes a 30 percent increase in income for more than 4,000 Darjeeling households to its initiative.

In order to ensure lasting improvement, ATREE has worked to strengthen the communities where it works. It supports 33 village-level self help groups, 20 of which the organization initiated. Some 60 percent of these groups are entirely comprised of women, making women’s issues a central tenant of community improvement. ATREE has also held workshops to inform villagers of Indian legislation that allows for collaborative management of forests by communities. By translating the act into local dialects, ATREE has encouraged residents of ten villages to establish Forest Rights Committees that can designate and document forest areas under their charge. ATREE and other organizations, along with India’s Forest Department and community groups, are collaborating to address issues of trans-boundary conservation.

Local communities that depend on Darjeeling’s delicate but rich natural environment will either benefit from its preservation or suffer from its degradation. Conservation efforts that ignore economic realities and the role of community institutions miss opportunities to provide incentives for environmental preservation. Promoting effective stewardship in biodiversity hotspots like Northeast India requires a holistic approach that addresses needs that local communities cannot ignore.