IDR Interviews Vance G Martin: “The Environmental Movement Has Made A Few Mistakes”

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By Saahil Kejriwal and  Smarinita Shetty:

Vance G Martin is the president of the WILD Foundation, an international conservation organisation. He is an expert in international nature conservation and wilderness protection, and specialises in bridging the interests of people and nature through culture, communications, science, and policy.

In this interview with IDR, Vance discusses the importance of people-based and culture-based models of development, the mistakes that the environment movement has made, and the need to mobilise people to reverse climate breakdown.

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Saahil Kejriwal (SK) and Smarinita Shetty (SS): India is going down a certain path when it comes to development and ecology. Given your experience in conservation work, do you think we are making the right choices?

Vance G Martin (VGM): There’s a Western paradigm of development, that I believe ‘modern’ India has accepted. This was not the case when I first came to India in the 1970s, when there was still a strong Gandhian ethic. I believe India has strayed from that ethic, even though it likes to trade on it. But India has so much more to draw from to create a better development model.

The Western model of development throws a lot of money at a problem. It defines the solution, even though it often doesn’t define the problem very well. Then it decides the time frame within which it will execute the solution. That paradigm is not people- or culture-based; it is GDP-based and normally anti-culture. For example, we see it when suddenly there is a plan to build 10,000 kilometres of new roads, or 200 new dams.

The Western model of development throws a lot of money at a problem. It defines the solution, even though it often doesn’t define the problem very well.

Money is thrown at these projects, and they are meant to be finished quickly. What happens then?

Roads cut through habitats, causing pollution, and death if there are no wildlife underpasses or overpasses. Dams silt up quickly because they are not accompanied by a biodiversity conservation programme. So, you have a landscape that is laid bare and communities that have been displaced.

Biodiversity supports life. Dams, meanwhile, support power and water, and that’s only a part of life. If there is no effort to relate dams to the environment that they’re in, we have a disconnect, which leads to dysfunction, which leads to failure.

This particular model of development, and the scale of money involved, also lends itself to a particular type of ‘human-involvement’—corruption. Corruption for money (and/or power), and influence. India knows it, Latin America knows it, as does Africa, and my country, the United States of America. Corruption exists everywhere and it is the number one issue with bad development.

SK, SS: How can we move away from this paradigm of development?

VGM: What we need to do is turn this paradigm on its head, and adopt a culture-based development model. The first step towards that is to not throw money at a problem; instead first we must create partnerships. And let us not call the people we work with ‘stakeholders.’ They are partners, and they must be respected as partners. When you use the word stakeholder, it indicates that you are still the one in charge.

Second, don’t give people the solution. Create an environment where the solution comes from the people most affected by it. It could be a local community, or a nation.

Third, look at the time frame. Yes, we need to create jobs and to modernise, but we also need to ask, at what cost and what pace? We need to slow down, so that we can pay attention to the needs of communities, people, and places.

Our organisation, the WILD Foundation, along with our partner in India, Sanctuary Nature Foundation, works with a ‘relationship paradigm.’ We look at the relationships first—between communities, and between people and nature. The world we live in is a social construct, and if development does not work as a social construct, it is self-aimed towards failure.

If we take simple lessons from the complex system of nature, we can have a very different approach to development.

Economic development requires systemic or holistic thinking. And where do we get this thinking? We get it from looking at nature. Nature is an integrated system; it has self-regulating mechanisms that produce resilience. Things live, die, evolve, and everything is connected.

I observe wilderness because it helps me understand how to prioritise relationships. If we take these simple lessons from the complex system of nature, and apply them, we can have a very different approach to development. But we humans seem to believe we are cleverer than nature. We know where that ends up!

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Nature is an integrated system; it has self-regulating mechanisms that produce resilience. Things live, die, evolve, and everything is connected. (Photo: Rawpixel)

SK, SS: Is it also about how the two narratives have been marketed? People are attracted to the idea of development at scale, while there is a distrust of environmentalists, saying they are all anti-development. Have we failed to build the right narrative in India?

VGM: I think the environmental movement has made a few mistakes. First, it has promoted science as the right and best tool, bar none. Science is important but it is only a tool, and conservationists have used science almost like a holy grail, instead of putting it in the context of community and culture. What we should have done was create connections and relationships in which science partnered with culture and community, and model ourselves on nature, because nature works. Science alone is just information, not a solution.

Science alone is just information, not a solution.

Second, the language that the conservation movement has used has been largely fear-based. Fear is a motivator; it is not a sustainer. People get tired of fear, they burn out on it. We may need to use a little fear for motivation, because the danger and impending results of climate change and the extinction crisis is real.

But what people want is a solution, one that they understand and in which they can participate. The minute you define and/or scale up a solution, such that it has no relationship to a person and their community, their engagement wanes and they lose interest.

We need solutions that scale down to an individual or family level of understanding and action. Once we do that, scaling up occurs in the right way. The greatest enemy of our ecological crisis is people thinking the problem is too big, so somebody else needs to solve it. That the issue is not their problem, it is someone else’s, they have no power, and they can’t do anything about it. That is why the small things are important—we need to recycle, ban plastic bags, and so on. These, of course, are not the full solutions, but they are actions that personalise the solution.

SK, SS: Individual action is important, but on the other side we have governments and corporates that are much more powerful. How do fight them? What would it take?

VGM: This is going to be rather simplistic, but whoever thought that Gandhi could defeat the British empire? He took simple principles—without a lot of outside input—and applied them well. He showed us that one person can change the world, by creating a movement. Movements are how women got the right to vote. They didn’t get it by paying somebody else to do it, or waiting for yet another day. They mobilised, they created a movement.

There is a wonderful Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So, that is what we need in our struggle for a healthy, beautiful planet—a movement of people asking for a world that is liveable, that provides power, food, and housing, with human communities that respect nature. How do we create movements? How do we stimulate people? How do we empower everyone to claim this world as their own responsibility? Knowing the principles for doing so is easier than getting them into effective action—but it is very do-able.

One imperative is enlightened leadership. Movements can change the world, but they need a leader. Sometimes, of course, those leaders are crucified because they threaten the status quo—just consider Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, or Mahatma Gandhi. The power of entropy is very strong. This is why a lot of people don’t stick their necks out. But then, look at what this young girl Greta [Thunberg] is doing for attention to climate breakdown.

SK, SS: So, you are saying there is hope?

If you don’t have hope, you have nothing. Without it, we may as well give up now. We build hope through small pieces of success, and out of this mosaic of successes, a story is created, one that says “we can do this.” But we can only do this if we work together and not in isolation.

As long as the triangle between people, the community, and nature is active and reciprocal, there is a lot of reason to hope.

We need relationships. The most important relationships to me are people-to-people and people-to-nature. It’s a little triangle—there is the person, the community, and nature. As long as that triangle is active and reciprocal, there is a lot of reason to hope. There will be problems and it will be very uncomfortable, because the status quo is powerful.

Whether it is the self-focused corporate or political power structures, there are wicked actors at-large. That is the bed we have made, and we have to lie in it. But altruism is strong, and will-to-good even stronger. And so, we still have great reason to hope.

Note: this article was originally published here.

About the authors:

Saahil Kejriwal is an associate at IDR. He is responsible for sourcing and editing content, along with online and offline outreach. He has completed the Young India Fellowship, a postgraduate diploma in liberal studies, from Ashoka University. Prior to that, Saahil worked as an instructional designer at NIIT Ltd. Saahil holds a BA in Economics from Hansraj College, University of Delhi. He spent his early years in Guwahati, Assam.
Smarinita Shetty is co-founder and CEO at IDR. She has more than 20 years of experience leading functions across strategy, operations, sales and business development, largely in startup environments within corporates and social enterprises. Prior to IDR, Smarinita worked at Dasra, Monitor Inclusive Markets (now FSG), JP Morgan and The Economic Times. She also co-founded Netscribes–India’s first knowledge process outsourcing firm. Her work and opinion have been featured in The Economist, Times of India, Mint and The Economic Times. Smarinita has a BE in Computer Engineering and an MBA in Finance, both from Mumbai University.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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