From roots to resilience: Raintree Foundation’s journey towards building community stewardship

Leena Dandekar

As pressing reality of climate change looms large over us, the need for action has never been more evident. With each passing year, we witness the escalating impact of climate change, from extreme weather events to habitat loss and species extinction.

Climate as an issue is intrinsically interconnected with all other human and natural elements such as water, biodiversity, community resilience and livelihood. Hence, to address the issues at a fundamental level, a systemic change is required along with a generational mindset shift.  This dire need for systemic change forms the genesis of the Raintree Foundation. Started in 2018, we are driven by a commitment to build climate resilience by fostering community stewardship of the environment through innovative, community-led programs.

At the heart of our foundation’s mission lies a deep-seated belief in the power of community-driven conservation to bring transformative change. We understand that the preservation of our planet’s ecosystems is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity for safeguarding the well-being of present and future generations. Through innovative programs and inclusive initiatives, we aim to cultivate sustainable, resilient ecosystems that flourish in harmony with humanity. Our integrated and customised programs address all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as prescribed by the United Nations.

My family and I established Raintree Family Office with the aim of channelling our resources towards interventions that emphasize on climate solutions, sustainability, and ethical consumption practices. Within our office, we manage two distinct capital pools: for-profit ventures and not-for-profit endeavours. Both types of investments are focused on pro-ESG assets and environment conscious activities.

The Raintree Foundation serves as the philanthropic arm of the Raintree Family Office. By embracing circularity and civic custodianship as core tenets, the foundation’s efforts are focused on fostering regenerative systems where resources are used efficiently, waste is minimized, and communities take ownership of their environment.

The foundation’s landmark project is in the Velhe region, nestled within the heart of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India and spanning 2100 hectares and 9 villages. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a biodiversity hotspot, playing a critical role in India’s ecological balance. The region encompasses 30 percent of all plant, fish, bird, and mammal species in India, playing a crucial role in influencing the country’s weather patterns and monsoon. We are working hand in hand with local stakeholders to address issues such as water scarcity, biodiversity endangerment, impact on livelihoods, air pollution, mental health issues, inclusion, and marginalisation.

The Landscape Approach: Multifunctional, Integrated, Systemic change

Central to our strategy is the landscape approach, which recognizes the interconnected nature of ecosystems, social dynamics, and economic activities. By engaging with local communities and customising our interventions to specific landscapes, we pursue to maximize impact while ensuring the diverse needs and interests of all stakeholders are fully considered. Through collaboration and innovation, we are pioneering a model that harmonizes social, economic, and environmental objectives, setting a model that can be adapted for varied landscapes.

On the ground, our activities encompass a wide range of areas, including biodigesters, regenerative agriculture, and support for individual, micro, and group enterprises, particularly those involving women and persons with disabilities. We also focus on strengthening existing water resources, managing groundwater levels, and implementing surface water interventions.

As per a report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about 33 percent of the biodiversity of the Western Ghats will be irreversibly lost by 2050 due to extreme weather. Recognizing the importance of preserving natural habitats, we actively work on conserving sacred groves, establishing nurseries for endemic species, conducting reforestation efforts, and managing forest fires. We have been instrumental in setting up 5 Biodiversity Management Committees (as per Biodiversity Act, 2002) across 9 villages. Our clean energy efforts have led to a reduction in total emissions of 679.8kgs, saving over 300 trees and 18.96 percent conversion to renewable energy.

Watershed Ecology: Balancing Development and Conservation

Often referred to as the ‘water tower’ of peninsular India, the Western Ghats play a pivotal role in ensuring water security and ecological balance for millions of people. However, the Western Ghats’ unique topography, characterized by steep slopes and dense deccan trap basalt geology, presents both challenges and opportunities for water management. The region faces seasonal water scarcity despite high rainfall and the groundwater potential is limited due to factors such as poor groundwater recharge and soil erosion.

As a result, communities in the Western Ghats face persistent issues such as degraded land, invasive species, retracting forest cover, single cropping, seasonal migration, and lack of livelihood options. The Velhe taluka, situated in this region, encapsulates these challenges, facing soil erosion, sedimentation, water insecurity, and flooding.

Our concept of watershed ecology, at its core, seeks a harmonious balance between economic development and ecological conservation. Rather than viewing water resources in isolation, this approach recognizes the need to maintain a sustainable balance between meeting needs of people and replenishing the natural resources.

‘Mental health issues have emerged as a silent crisis, often exacerbated by the harsh realities of climate-induced hardships, water scarcity, and economic uncertainties.’

Our efforts have been focused on repairing and desilting micro watersheds in villages, impacting over 500 families. By increasing the storage capacity of percolation ponds and river pools, we have created over 10 million litres of static water capacity, providing a lifeline for agricultural and domestic water needs, especially during the lean season. Water filters have been installed across villages for regular clean water dispensing.

Furthermore, our work on river desilting has not only resolved clean water issues but has also rejuvenated local ecosystems and biodiversity. Since June 2023, over 50 percent of livestock in the 9 villages have benefited from Raintree’s efforts in groundwater recharge and river desiltation. Recognizing the looming threat of a water crisis this year due to various climate change factors, Raintree Foundation has expanded its focus beyond groundwater recharge interventions.

In addition to continuing these efforts, we have initiated workshops with the community on crop water budgeting and sustainable agriculture practices such as System of Rice Intensification (SRI). In addition to the tangible outcomes, our watershed ecology initiatives have empowered communities to take ownership of their water resources, further fostering a culture of environmental stewardship and resilience.

Mental Health Program: Addressing the core and future proofing

While the lush landscapes of the Western Ghats evoke a sense of tranquillity, its residents are facing the stressors arising out of climate change on a regular basis. Mental health issues have emerged as a silent crisis, often exacerbated by the harsh realities of climate-induced hardships, water scarcity, and economic uncertainties.

Velhe as a region had limited livelihood options that are heavily dependent on agriculture and allied activities. The ill effects of climate change such as seasonal water scarcity, floods, rising temperatures and heat waves have a direct impact on agricultural produce and livelihoods. We cannot expect communities to become environment custodians and contribute to climate resilience if their own resilience is being challenged.

Raintree Foundation recognizes the importance of promoting mental well-being and offering coping mechanisms as an integral part of its mission to build resilient communities. Our comprehensive mental health program prioritizes dignity and well-being, focusing on community led efforts. By integrating recreation, environmental awareness, and community care systems, we empower self-reliant communities to foster a culture of mental health support and advocacy.

We are at the forefront of setting up mental health counselling centres in rural India called Manosaarthi (Mental Health Charioteer), which serve as vital support centres for individuals in need. Staffed with trained professionals and supported by community volunteers who are trained as para-counsellors, the centre provides ongoing care and counselling services to community members. Through individual counselling sessions, group therapy, and outreach programs, we aim to destigmatize mental health issues and promote health-seeking behaviours within the community.

In addition to direct counselling services, Raintree Foundation conducts periodic awareness sessions within the community, targeting children, adults, and community leaders. These sessions aim to educate individuals about the importance of mental health, common signs of distress, and spread the word about available support resources. We have also trained Community Resource Persons (CRP), who go door to door and spread awareness about mental health issues. By fostering open dialogue and reducing stigma surrounding mental health, we intend to create a supportive environment where individuals feel encouraged to seek help when needed. We use different modes for our outreach programs such as group discussions, movie screenings, street plays, songs, and games.

Our outreach programs have been designed based on in-depth assessment of the communities. Our analysis revealed that women were more forthcoming towards seeking help and support. In addition to climate induced stressors, they had to also deal with issues like gender inequality, substance addiction of their spouses which aggravated the impact on their mental health. In addition to CRPs, there have been male and female support groups created that work on sensitizing and offering support to gender specific issues.

Collaboration is critical

The concept of building climate resilience for living landscapes considers the community as an agent of change. Climate and all interconnected elements need a root cause analysis and a similar approach towards solutions. The core issues that our planet is today facing stems of years of neglect and inconsiderate actions. While we address the immediate stressors of the nature and communities, true change can only be brought about by addressing the underlying core issues and bringing about a fundamental systemic change and generational mindset shift.

The issue of climate change is too big and impacts our future existence.  Hence, the goal of climate resilience will need collaborative efforts across the geographies. Every individual and organisation must take cognizance of the situation and explore ways in which they can contribute to climate action.  There is a dire need to start acting now and join hands in combating every issue that sits at the nexus of climate change and various aspects of our lives. Only then we can expect and hope for real change.

Leena Dandekar is the founder of The Raintree Family Office and Raintree Foundation

Comments (0)

Sandeepa Kanitkar

Laudable efforts in community development by building up climate resilience.

Lassina KONATE

Bonjour , nous sommes une structure qui oeuvront dans le domaine de developpement et dans l'action humanitaire . Notre souhait et d'avoir de partaire qui puisse nous aider dans la mise en oeuvre de nos activités . Nous sommes à Bobo-Dioulasso au Burkina Faso .

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