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Lokvani Talks To Kamaljit Bawa

Ranjani Saigal

A distinguished Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Kamal has authored or co -authored more than 160 papers based on his 35 years of fieldwork in Central and South Asia. He is the editor-in chief of Conservation and Society, a recently launched interdisciplinary journal about conservation. He also serves on the editorial boards of several other journals and has been a member of numerous national and international advisory panels. He has been the President of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and a member on the board of many organizations. Kamal Bawa is the founder and President of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a non-governmental organization devoted to research, action and education in India (www.atree.org). He is also a founder-trustee of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore, India (www.cised.org).

Dr Bawa spoke to us about conservation and his new book, Sahyadris.

You have a PhD in Botany and you chose to come to America to pursue a career. What motivated you to turn your attention back to India and focus on conservation?

Genetics of topical trees was a primary focus of my research. My first research on biodiversity was part of an effort at Punjab University to study patterns of chromosomal and morphological variation in tropical and sub-tropical tree species. After I completed my Ph. D, the desire to learn advanced research techniques in my field brought me to America. Conservation was a part of Biology, but Conservation Biology became established as a field in the nineties.

I always wanted to work in India but in the earlier days India was not very open and hence doing research in India was difficult.  I worked for many years doing research on the genetic basis of species richness in tropical forests of Central America. In the nineties, India became open to collaboration and I was able to do conservation work in India.

Could you describe the mission of Ashoka trust for ecology and the environment (ATREE) that you founded in 1996?  

ATREE was established to combine principles of natural and social sciences to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable development; and, to build the necessary social and human capital needed to address our most pressing environmental challenges. ATREE deals with the issues relating to India's rapidly diminishing biological resources and natural ecosystems, and the environmental, social and economic dimensions and implications of this decline. ATREE has a network of four offices and field stations across India, through which it works to develop social and human capital to address environmental issues at local, regional and national levels.

As professor of Biology, how did you develop an interest in developing social and human capital as part of ATREE?

Conservation Biology requires a deep understanding of the intimate relation between human development and nature. Development of social and human capital is critical if we have to save the environment.

How is ATREE funded?

I was chosen as a PEW scholar in conservation and environment in 1991. The award is given as recognition for excellence in research. It comes with funds that the scholar can choose to use in anyway they deemed fit. I used part of the funds for research and the rest I used as seed money to create ATREE. Later we received support from many foundations

What  impact has ATREE created to date?

Since its establishment, ATREE has played a significant role at the local, state and national levels. It has been asked to assist in the planning and execution of many projects in conservation and sustainable development by local, state and federal authorities. ATREE is also involved in a number of national and international conservation program. As part of the World Heritage Biodiversity - India program, ATREE seeks to strengthen biodiversity conservation in protected areas by building replicable models at existing and proposed UNESCO World Heritage Biodiversity sites.

With support from the Arghyam Foundation, ATREE is setting up a Centre for Conservation, Governance and Policy. The Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) has recently approved ATREE's plans to start a doctoral program in conservation biology in India. ATREE has brought the conservation community together through the Western Ghats Forum and the launch of Conservation and Society, an interdisciplinary journal designed to foster dialogue among researchers, teachers, resource managers and policy makers. Thousands of students have participated in ATREE's conservation education programs.

Could you tell us a little about the Ecoinformatics center that you have created as part of ATREE?

The Eco-Informatics Center is envisioned as a web-enabled, publicly accessible resource for integrated and value-added information on ecology and the environment that actively promotes collaboration in applied research and capacity building in the area of ecoinformatics.

The objective of the center is
a) Assemble, organise and disseminate ecological, remotely sensed and geo-physical data in the public domain for use by researchers, students, teachers, policy makers and wide range of other professionals interested in biological research, teaching, conservation and management of natural resources.
b) Promote research on the organization, structure and dissemination of databases through modelling and development of tools and software.
c) Train environmental professionals in handling large databases, modelling and dissemination of information.

Data is critical to decision makers when they are working on policy. It is our hope to use this resource to inform and educate students and decision makers. It is also a space for collaboration for researchers.

ATREE  has also established Plantsindia.org.  What is the focus of that web site?

This site is being used to systematically compile the taxonomic information of flowering plants. Again the goal is disseminate information that can be useful for a wide variety of reasons.

You have released a new book, a coffee table book titled "Sahyadris - India's Western Ghats". What motivated you to work on that book?

The book is a way to attract attention to a biodiversity hotspot which is fragile. We hope the production value of the book will attract attention of people who may not  be conservation biologists to be part of efforts like ATREE. Conservation biology is a complex topic that needs many different kinds of expertise to be successful and by drawing the attention of a varierty of people we hope to draw on their skills. Fundraising is also a goal for the book.  All proceeds from the book sales goes to supporting conservation efforts.

Any message for our readers?

We need to pay more attention to the environment. While health and education issues are important, it is the environment that sustains all human endeavors. The concept of natural capital that includes air, soil and biodiversity has immense. If we do not pay attention to it in India the economy will go down.  I urge everyone to do their bit to understand the issues of conservation and contribute their skills or funds to keep the biodiversity hotspots like the Sahyadris safe.


Thankyou for your time

Thank you



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1.XEvTZfBSxXcwNMqyUJ November 11, 2011Darence 
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