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  • Writer's picturePatricia Chu

GroundUp Conservation: Re-centering conservation around indigenous peoples and local communities

Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what inspired the founding of GroundUp?

Swapnil: Radhika and I have worked in the development sector, particularly in community-led biodiversity conservation, landscape management, agriculture development, and climate adaptations for the last two decades. Throughout this time, we witnessed first-hand the challenges faced by grassroots communities and local organisations in securing the necessary funds, despite their remarkable achievements in meeting important global targets. This awareness led me to start GroundUp in 2021 to empower grassroot organisations and assist them in building skills, acquiring funding, and realizing their full potential. That’s when Radhika joined this quest.


Why are grassroots communities and organisations particularly important to support?


Swapnil: Landscape management finds its roots in the traditional way of living of indigenous people, rural communities, and local communities collectively referred to as IPLCs, who have been living side-by-side with non-human beings. Unfortunately, when conservation as a scientific discipline emerged, it heavily relied on top-down approaches, discounting the traditional knowledge, technical know-how, and wisdom of grassroots communities. This exclusion of IPLCs from critical decision-making is a core issue, leading to the failure of many conservation efforts. This becomes glaringly obvious in the fact that less than 1% of global funding reaches grassroots communities, despite their stewardship of 80% of the world's biodiversity resources. GroundUp stands at the forefront of a cultural shift in conservation, aiming to return local people to the center of the equation to generate true value.


Indigenous women of Pangi. Source: GroundUp


Tell us more about GroundUp. How are you spearheading this cultural shift in conservation? 


Radhika: GroundUp provides capacity building to grassroots organizations working at the intersection of nature and livelihoods. We are supported by philanthropic foundations, International Development Agencies, governments and private sector corporations. Our ultimate objective is to enable grassroots organisations to attain financial independence and self-sufficiency, ensuring their ability to engage in long-term conservation efforts even after GroundUp’s hands-on support comes to an end. The approach has already been put into practice with over six grassroots NGOs across India and Nepal, collectively supported by more than eight development agencies.


What are some of the examples of the impact that you have achieved on the ground?

Swapnil: Since we started, we have brought 787 hectares of land under sustainable management. In the Koshi Tappu wetland restoration (in the Terai region of Eastern Nepal) program of KTK-BELT, over 187 bird species are now recorded compared to 26 when we started. Additionally, we created 65 jobs for tribal women and successfully linked 8,000 tribal farmers to markets, providing them with better opportunities and price realization. The average revenue of one of the conservation enterprises, Pangi Hills, is US$60k/year.


Wetland restoration essentials with local youth. Source: GroundUp


Surely, this is no easy feat. What has been important for you in tackling various challenges?

Radhika: As a business that works on the ground, every day comes with new challenges and learnings. Our field operations are located in a few of the remotest regions of South Asia. This requires a dedicated and mission-driven team with the right attitude and appetite. Thus, building a team has been one of the key challenges. Thanks to our network, we see growing interest among professionals to join our team.

Swapnil: Biodiversity is also yet to be recognized as a material issue and a threat by the sector, which is primarily focused on health and livelihood resilience. We see only a handful of philanthropic agencies supporting biodiversity causes in South Asia. For us, engaging with all stakeholders to bring attention to the biodiversity crisis is an ongoing process that will remain the center of our work.

Furthermore, operating at the border of the for-profit and non-profit sectors, it has been crucial for us to streamline our services. We are guided by seasoned professionals to continuously develop GroundUp to make a meaningful value addition to the overall sector. In August 2022, we were part of the Silverstrand Biodiversity+ Accelerator program, a pivotal step that provided us clarity and helped us define our pathways to scale.


Looking towards the future, what are the next steps for GroundUp?


Swapnil: In the next five years, we aim to build a G2G (Grassroots to Grassroots) platform among the local organizations and communities we support so that lessons and impact pathways can be exchanged without having to reinvent the wheel. This, we feel, is going to be highly effective and provide our partners with a much-needed quantum leap to take forward the biodiversity and livelihood agenda.

Looking ahead to 2030, our goal is to expand our reach and impact by working with 100 grassroots organizations from the Mountains to the Seas, making sure catalytic investments are directed towards the right actions. This ambitious plan aims to bring over 100,000 hectares of biodiversity-rich landscapes under active eco-restoration, contributing to the recovery of approximately 1,500+ IUCN-listed species, creating permanent employment for 10,000 indigenous youth, and generating sustainable economic opportunities for over 100,000+ indigenous people.

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