We depend on nature—forests, oceans, wildlife, and others—for our basic needs and draw sustenance from it. In the same breath, we must protect our natural world in return.

People, mostly women, living on the fringes of forests such as the Greater Corbett region of the Terai Arc Landscape in Uttarakhand enter protected wildlife areas to fetch firewood and other natural resources for their daily needs and earn a livelihood. Due to these reasons, humans come in close contact with wild animals that often lead to human-wildlife conflict.

Livelihood is sustenance for the communities, and wildlife conservation is non-negotiable for a healthy ecosystem. So, how do we address this challenge and convert it into an opportunity?

We need to integrate the goals of wildlife conservation with the needs of local communities. Community engagement is key to making this integration effective. Through the 'Hameri' project in the Greater Corbett region in Uttarakhand, WWF India works along these lines.

Hamara Hameri

'Hameri', in the local Kumaoni language, means 'ours'. In 2016, WWF India in collaboration with partners initiated a programme to promote women entrepreneurship in the Greater Jim Corbett region. Spearheaded by the Corbett Gramin Mahila Sangathan, a federation of six self-help groups consisting of 75 rural women from six villages was formed. The first phase of this project aimed to produce a livelihood model for these locals by leveraging their traditional knowledge of food processing and integrating modern food science and safety principles to grow organic and handmade varieties of FSSAI-certified processed food products. The initiative was born out of a problem identified in one of our reports - approximately 30-35 percent of India's fruits and vegetables get wasted due to the product's perishable nature and lack of adequate infrastructure to prolong their life.

With WWF India's support, these women are producing and marketing more than 20 different food products such as pickles, chutneys, jams, juices, squash, etc., made from locally available produce.

"Ever since our self-help group began promoting our products under the brand name, Hameri, we received several benefits. We have been trained on various food processing activities using locally available organic produce while avoiding food waste. The Hameri products are of high quality, have good taste, and promote the consumption of healthy products. Even the Uttarakhand government appreciated our efforts to augment livelihoods of local communities here," says Damayanti Bisht, a member of the WWF India-supported micro-enterprise.

Moving forward despite challenges

Though there has been a 90 percent decline in the total revenue in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched the second phase of the project early last year in Haldwani. The second phase takes sustainability one step ahead by producing handicraft products. Lantana Camara, known as Raimuniya, is an invasive and inedible perennial shrub that reduces soil fertility and affects nearby plants' growth. Its unbridled expansion has been affecting grasslands and habitats of wildlife.

In the second phase of the initiative, these plants are being removed and turned into daily usable products, reducing their negative impact on the vulnerable forest and providing livelihood options to the locals.

Bridging learning gaps

WWF India imparts training to these communities to develop a shared understanding of the need to save the environment and promote sustainable livelihood. Practice sessions follow these training sessions to strengthen their newly acquired skills. It will take 12 to 18 months under the new phase to attain quality assurance and standardisation with regular training and capacity-building efforts.

The field team will continue supporting these women in 2021-22 towards achieving quality assurance and increased production. The team is also looking to expand the ambit of handicraft products by incorporating traditional handicraft products made of wild grasses by women from the indigenous Tharu tribe in the Terai East Forest Division (Udham Singh Nagar district).

To ensure long-term social and ecological support for conservation, the cooperation of local communities is vital. It is also essential to build sustainable models of livelihoods and create efficient market linkages for their products. Leveraged sustainably, the local biodiversity and ecosystem services can empower community members in the future.

The article is written by Sharanya Chatterjee and edited by Aishwarya Das Pattnaik, WWF India.