The Local Voices in Conservation Summer School trains young islanders so they can contribute meaningfully to the conservation of the archipelago.
Community-led conservation is the future of biodiversity protection. It is not just empowering to the local people, but also more impactful, long-term, and low-cost.
When local knowledge is synergised with scientific expertise, involving ecologists working within and around the region to safeguard its unique species, the outcome becomes exceptionally impactful.
There are inspiring initiatives across India leading the way in this arena, including GreenHub, the Barefoot Ecology programme at Keystone Foundation, the Student Conference on Conservation Science, and the summer camps in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh.
All of these programmes involve young environmentalists, train them, and support them so they can contribute meaningfully to the conservation of their landscape.
Taking a leaf out of these projects, there is a new summer programme created by Pune-based Karishma Modi and Kochi-based Krishna Anujan to protect the biodiversity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Called the Local Voices in Conservation Summer School, Port Blair, the first edition of the three-week-long summer programme for local islanders was held from June to July 2023.
“Krishna had the idea during the lockdown that we should do something to help early-career conservationists from the Islands to break into mainstream conservation organisations and discourse,” informs 32-year-old Karishma.
This vision took two years of rigorous discussion and planning.
“Madhuri Ramesh of Azim Premji University held round-table discussions, which helped experts from the field of conservation and practising diversity, equity, and inclusion come together to formalise a curriculum for the programme,” adds Karishma, an Economics graduate from Fergusson College, Pune.
Karishma is an experimental educator and Krishna is an ecologist. Both have worked in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in different capacities.
“I have worked in Andaman since 2014, on ecological research projects,” says 31-year-old Krishna, adding, “I was mostly based out of the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) field research station in North Wandoor (South Andaman).”
Krishna met Karishma at ANET in 2018. “Meeting her was pivotal as it made me think seriously about the role that education plays in building relationships with places and environments,” informs Krishna, who has a PhD in ecology from Columbia University.
During the 2020 lockdown, the duo felt an urgent need to start a summer school in the archipelago. This need came from their recent experience working in the Islands.
“We had noticed the exposure and opportunity gap between urban youth and local islanders in the field of conservation,” Krishna recalls.
“In the lockdown, the exposure gap seemed to widen. There were many online opportunities for urban India to engage with the professional conservation community, including remote internships. But high-speed internet hadn’t made its way to the islands yet,” Krishna notes.
Karishma and Krishna didn’t want the islanders to be left out; these early-career conservationists deserved to get access to the right courses.
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“During our time at the ANET field base (around 2018), we both spent a lot of time reflecting on the experiences we were having with our teams, learning so much from them and then talking about it with each other,” Karishma recalls.
“We realised there were a lot of opportunities that we had as mainlanders that were not available to the young locals from the Islands,” she adds.
And so, during the lockdown, they prepared a curriculum for the summer school. The criteria to sign up for this school are simple — anyone from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who is over 21 years of age, has a reasonable command of English, and has passed class 12 in any stream can apply.
“…as long as they can demonstrate an interest and past association with some aspect of conservation,” Krishna points out.
The three-week programme covered the basics of conservation — in research, practice, and communication — with a special focus on the social-ecological systems of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“Our sessions covered foundational ecological concepts, socio-ecological systems, research aspects of natural history and behaviour, conservation practices, and basic communication for conservation. Participants also developed practical skills in conservation through activities and assessments that cut across these themes, like short documentaries about specific animal behaviours for social media,” informs Krishna.
The programme ended with the Port Blair BioBlitz.
“During this event, the graduating cohort led a larger group of nature enthusiasts from Port Blair in observing and documenting flowering and fruiting in common trees through the Seasonwatch App and contributing to climate science,” adds Karishma.
The result was a great success. At the end of the three weeks, they had an excited and motivated graduating cohort of eight young islanders who are now continuing to engage with conservation in the Islands.
“While there is a long road ahead to levelling the playing field for conservation work in India, we think that this year, we have also taken a tiny step in that direction,” Krishna explains.
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The next summer school will take place around June-July next year. So, can this model be replicated in other eco-sensitive regions in India, we ask. The duo says it’s a possibility!
“The curriculum addresses general learning but also leaves space for context-specific readings and knowledge, making it suitable for a place-based summer school,” informs Krishna.
“While Karishma and I are currently invested in building a self-sustained programme in the islands, we are also excited about the possibility of collaborating with anyone interested in adapting and implementing this programme in their landscape,” she says.
The entire Nicobar Islands are a tribal reserve and are key for the survival of several species of rare and endemic flora and fauna. Similarly, the Andaman Islands are a treasure trove.
The duo hopes that some of their graduating participants from the 2023 batch return and contribute to next year’s programme and help build a larger community to save these Islands.
To follow their work, visit Instagram @localconservation