- Indian botanist Kamaljit Singh Bawa was awarded the Linnean Medal in Botany by the Linnean Society of London “for service to science.” Prof. Bawa is the first Indian to receive the medal in the 140-year old history of the Society awarding the medal.
- Bawa is the founder-president of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), an institution specialising in inter-disciplinary environmental studies.
- In an interview to Mongabay-India, Bawa said that climate change rises above other challenges when the focus is on interactions between society and nature.
- India is committed to substantially restore the degraded forest areas to meet the Paris Accord, but the past rate of afforestation and restoration, the existing governance and management regimes, and inadequate monitoring systems offer little hope that the commitments made at Paris will be met.
Indian botanist Kamaljit Singh Bawa is recognised for his pioneering work on tropical forests trees that changed prevailing notions about their ecology and evolution. An author of nearly 200 research publications and the editor or author of 10 books and monographs, Bawa extended his work from population biology to sustainable use of forest resources, conservation of large tropical landscapes, and climate change. He is particularly noted for decades of work on the biodiversity of forests in Central America, the Western Ghats and the eastern Himalayas.
Bawa is the founder-president of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a non-governmental organisation devoted to research, policy analysis, and education in India. He is currently a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the editor-in-chief of Conservation and Society, an interdisciplinary journal in conservation, and is also the coeditor-in-chief of Ecology, Economy and Society
The Linnean Society, named after the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, honoured Bawa with the Linnean Medal “for service to science” at the society’s annual general meeting on May 24. He is the first Indian to receive the medal in the 140-year old history of the Society awarding the medal.
In an email interview with Mongabay-India, Bawa recollected his early days of studying forests, promoting multi-disciplinary ecological studies and nurturing institutions.
You have several awards and recognitions to your credit. What does the Linnean Medal mean to you?
The Linnean Medal is very special, because of Carl Linnaeus’s contributions and legacy, the esteem in which the Linnean Society is held, and the fact that the recognition is for botanical work. My other major awards have been in sustainability, and conservation biology, and to a lesser extent in botany.
Interestingly, the first recipient of the Linnean Medal in 1888 was Sir J.D. Hooker, who had explored the Himalayas and compiled the seven-volume ‘Flora of British India’ in the 19th century – a compilation that has not been fully revised yet. I work in the Himalayas, and I grew up admiring Hooker’s work.
What motivated you to focus on conservation biology, climate change and the impacts of human use of natural resources on biodiversity?
I began working in the tropics in 1962. Starting in early 1970s a lot of biologists became aware of extensive deforestation in the tropics. We started to see our field sites being rapidly converted into pastures or other types of land. In 1980s many of us were at the forefront of an academic movement to establish a separate field of conservation biology. A new Society for Conservation Biology was formed in 1985; the journal Conservation Biology started publication in 1987. I was one of the first associate editors of the journal. Basically, it was the realisation that we are losing biodiversity at a very high rate that led many of us to focus on conservation biology.
I resumed my work in India in early 1990s (I had earlier worked here in the 1960s). Working in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas, the two global hotspots of biodiversity in populous India, the human impact on natural habitats was apparent. It was also obvious that exclusionary approaches to conservation were not going to work, and we needed to focus on more inclusive approaches.
Climate change rises above other challenges when the focus is on interactions between society and nature in the Himalayas. Perhaps nowhere else people talk more about climate change than in the rural parts of the mountains, and also nowhere else is the signature of climate change on the environment as obvious as in the Himalayas. Thus, the people and landscapes I interact with drive my interests.
How was it to be among the pioneers in promoting multi-disciplinary ecological studies?
Lonely. But at the same time exciting, exhilarating and challenging. Lonely because, often, most of your colleagues do not fully appreciate the many and varied dimensions of your work, and even still consider conservation and sustainability as ‘soft sciences’. It was exciting and exhilarating because of the multiple ways of thinking about solving a problem. It was challenging, because the problems are complex and their resolution involves continuous learning of new concepts and tools.
Fortuitously, I still mange to do a bit of disciplinary work in plants!
How did you move away from botany to adopt a more holistic approach at the ecosystems level?
Even in my botanical work, the focus has been on patterns or trends at the community level rather than on a particular group of plants in a genus or a family. I started my doctoral work on chromosomal evolution in trees of the Himalayas. Later in Costa Rica, I worked on the reproductive systems of tree communities in dry deciduous and wet evergreen forests.
What interested me were the patterns at the levels of communities and ecosystems, and how these patterns evolved and were shaped by a multitude of interactions within communities. Later, I started working one level lower at the population level (plant population genetics) and one level higher (land use changes at the level of landscapes). The logical next step was to bring in people and work on socio-ecological systems.
When I resumed my work in India in early 1990s, I had the good fortune to be associated with colleagues such as Ganesan Balachander and Sharachchandra Lele who helped me understand the nuances of interdisciplinary work.
Why is factoring in local knowledge important for adaptive strategies?
Social, economic, and political forces as well as local use shape landscapes. Local knowledge governs local use. Adaptation cannot be divorced from local history. Any effort to change landscapes or interactions between people and landscapes must take into account the local knowledge, traditions, and cultures.
How has your work brought changes in communities?
I would like to think that our work with local communities has diversified nature-based livelihoods, enhanced incomes, reduced the use of natural resources as well as chemical inputs to agriculture and restored vegetation on relatively small pieces of lands. The data seem to indicate so.
Our work has also sought to make rural development programmes run by the government more green, created greater awareness of environmental challenges, and resulted in more positive interactions between people and the environment. However, we realise that we have a long way to go in resolving environmental problems.
What, according to you, are the most pressing concerns in India with regard to biodiversity and climate change?
Loss of biodiversity is a major concern. However, we do not know how much biodiversity we are losing because we do not have good monitoring systems in place. We have the Forest Survey of India undertaking periodic surveys of forest cover, but the satellite imagery cannot tell us the state of forests on the ground, whether it is degraded or not, or the changes in the composition of forests.
Furthermore, apart from forests there are other landscapes, and then there are rivers, water bodies, and oceans. Monitoring of animals is limited to a few large mammals in selected areas. Change in the flow of ecosystem services is another concern and so are the economic and social consequences of these changes.
The biggest challenge is the reconciliation of development with the need for the maintenance or even enhancement of biodiversity.
Climate change would exert further pressures on biodiversity and ecosystem services, especially water. Yet at the same time, increase in forest cover of well-stocked forests can mitigate climate change and alleviate water shortage. India is committed to substantially restore the degraded forest areas to meet the Paris Accord, but the past rate of afforestation and restoration, the existing governance and management regimes, and inadequate monitoring systems offer little hope that the commitments made at Paris will be met.
Why did you choose to focus on “institutional building to foster conservation and sustainability science”? What are your strategies to achieve institutional building? Do you think this can influence decisions and policies that will have an impact on biodiversity conservation?
New or restructured institutions are the key to fostering sustainability science or sustainability studies. Many individuals and institutions wish to engage in sustainability science, but the placement of faculty in disciplinary departments is a major constraint. New structures or institutions are needed to foster the relatively new disciplines.
New institutions need resources, but above all a clear vision and mission. The key to success is human resources trained in interdisciplinary methods or willing to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines.
By definition one engages in sustainability science to influence policies.
What was your vision when you set up ATREE? How has it evolved over the years?
ATREE was set up to undertake interdisciplinary work, to solve problems, to influence policies, and to train the next generation of environmental leaders, initially in biodiversity and later in water and climate change.
We envisioned a relatively small institution, but we are happy that it has sufficiently grown to become one of India premier environmental organisations engaged in applied research, policy analyses, community outreach, and environmental education at all levels. We are particularly proud of our innovative, interdisciplinary doctoral program.
ATREE still has a long way to go. We probably will be drawn more and more into work on public health and broader areas of rural development and urbanisation. Considering a multitude of interrelated problems, the challenge will be where we draw the line.
How has the open-access interdisciplinary journal Conservation and Society helped explore linkages between society, environment and development?
The journal has succeeded in fostering interdisciplinarity. All this has been made possible with open access and a very committed editorial board drawn from various disciplines led by good editors such as Vasant Sabherwal, Kartik Shanker and Nitin Rai, who set a different tone right from the beginning.
Going forward, what are your goals?
I would like to see more institutions engaged in interdisciplinary work, undertaking rigorous applied research that has an impact on policies and action on the ground. We must not only meet the challenge of huge knowledge deficit but also the utter lack of human resources in India to deal with our pressing environmental challenges. I also want to help other organisations develop their strategic plans and realise their goals. And, finally I wish to bring together institutions and resources to deal with problems at the national and regional scales.
BANNER IMAGE: Any effort to change landscapes or interactions between people and landscapes must take into account the local knowledge, traditions, and cultures. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay-India.