Nature-based solutions provide cost-effective strategy to meet key economic development goals while conserving nature

Written by R Parasuram, Manoj Shrivastava, Ruchika Singh

The unanticipated outbreak of Covid-19 and its swift spread around the world has made several countries re-evaluate their recovery and economic development models. Governments need to act quickly to build back from the crisis, which has pushed millions into poverty by killing jobs, livelihoods and incomes. Confronted at the same time by the accelerating global climate crisis, many are putting nature at the centre of their recovery plans – not only is it good for the planet, it is also proving to be more financially viable and beneficial to the health and well-being of local people.

Countries like South Korea and Germany have built in a green economic stimulus into their economic recovery strategy. For India, that kind of holistic growth must focus on making rural populations, especially the women who have suffered disproportionally from the pandemic, more resilient to future economic crises and climate change.

A country-wide survey on the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on livelihoods indicate that almost 78 per cent of rural respondents reported that work came to a standstill. That happened as the unemployment rate in India skyrocketed to 23.7 per cent in April and over one crore (10 million) migrant workers returned to their home states in rural India last May. Post-lockdown, migrants are returning to cities, many of which have seen spikes in infection rates, because they have few livelihood opportunities in rural areas. They are putting themselves in harm’s way out of desperation, even as the unemployment rate in October was still close to 7 per cent. Policymakers, civil society leaders and investors are asking a key question: How can we improve livelihood security, incomes and well-being for our rural population?

Nature-based solutions like landscape restoration provide a cost-effective strategy to meet key economic development goals while conserving nature. It is an effective climate strategy, too: In India, protecting forests and restoring landscapes by growing trees could store the equivalent of the emissions of roughly 282 crores (2.8 billion) passenger vehicles over 20 years (11-15.7 Gigaton CO2 eq). Those same forests are the lifeline of more than 27.5 crores (275 million) people, including marginalised groups and tribal communities, who directly depend on them for food, fuel, fodder, small timber, and medicines.

Non-timber forest produce constitutes one of the largest unorganized sectors in India, with a turnover of at least Rs 6,000 crore per annum (USD 876 million). This opportunity is especially important for an economically poor and climate-vulnerable district like Sidhi in Madhya Pradesh, where one-fifth of rural households reportedly migrated to areas as far as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Delhi. There, they earned an average of only Rs 70,000 (USD 952) per year, per household before the lockdown.

A new analysis shows that planting, growing, and maintaining trees in Sidhi could catalyse more than 30 lakh (3million) paid working days by creating 3,000 micro-enterprises and employing 30,000 people, including women, youth and landless people. These enterprises can grow, harvest, process and sell high-value tree crops, such as bamboo for furniture and wood, and jackfruit, moringa and Indian gooseberry for cooking. By adjusting the Restoration Opportunity Assessment Methodology (ROAM), a tool to design restoration strategies, researchers uncovered that more than 3 lakh (300,000) hectares in Sidhi could benefit from restoration.

Adopting the wadi (agri-horti-forestry) system and growing trees on farm boundaries could improve soil health while boosting crop yields and supplying wood for cooking and household timber. The adequate provisioning of these services will contribute towards developing sustainable livelihood strategies for poor and climate-vulnerable districts like Sidhi.

However, achieving the full potential will require serious investment to grow nearly 4 crore (40 million) tree saplings in two years Thousands of poor men and women could earn wages to a total of Rs 71 crore (USD 10 million) from planting and caring for saplings. An additional Rs 59.2 crore (USD 8.46 million) can be earned from selling saplings to other projects.

The government of Madhya Pradesh has taken the initiative to unlock this “true opportunity” for restoration. Their focus will be on developing innovative institutional arrangements with civil society partners and investors to unlock this economic potential, with local people driving work on the ground. This initiative will adopt a landscape approach that considers the various uses of the land and who owns it. Growing trees in this way could lead to sustained benefits and help move past a fragmented approach to development through synergistic action across different departments.

The state is a front-runner in implementing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and has seen the demand for wage employment from this program double compared to the last fiscal year. Leveraging government rural development schemes, the focus would be on restoring key ecosystems like watersheds.

Growing trees within different land use to address local priorities and ecosystem services will contribute to various government initiatives, helping meet India’s international commitments. These include its Bonn Challenge and Paris Climate Agreement targets and its Land Degradation Neutrality pledge, expanded at last year’s United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) summit.

Designing inclusive restoration strategies is also aligned with India’s vision of doubling farmer incomes and improving rural livelihoods and jobs. Restoring land is a means to many ends, helping India meet a wide variety of its goals on energy access, biodiversity, and erosion control, which significantly support agriculture and rural livelihoods.

Leveraging Sidhi’s natural capital (the right way)and designing restoration strategies to address people’s priorities will benefit marginalised and poor men and women and secure India’s environmental well-being. Through this initiative, Madhya Pradesh is attempting to defining what it means to build back better in the aftermath of Covid-19. With the upcoming United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-30), Sidhi and Madhya Pradesh have the opportunity to showcase what a healthy landscape looks like. We can’t pass that up.

R. Parasuram is former chief secretary, government of Madhya Pradesh and senior fellow at WRI India; Manoj Shrivastava is additional chief secretary and development commissioner, government of Madhya Pradesh, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Department. Dr Ruchika Singh is director, Sustainable Landscapes and Restoration, WRI India. Views are personal.

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