Suprabha Seshan
Ashoka Fellow since 2005   |   India

Suprabha Seshan

Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary
As competition for the resources in the forests of the Western Ghats increases, and the stakes increase for the indigenous plant species and habitat to be lost, Suprapbha Seshan is addressing a key…
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This description of Suprabha Seshan's work was prepared when Suprabha Seshan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


As competition for the resources in the forests of the Western Ghats increases, and the stakes increase for the indigenous plant species and habitat to be lost, Suprapbha Seshan is addressing a key problem: The need to restore natural habitats through integrated conservation techniques, gardening, and restoration practice. She demonstrates the importance of nurturing the existing links between the health of plants and climate, survival of animal species, humans, land, and livelihoods. Her innovation creates a healthy alliance between people and their environment. 

The New Idea

The Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary is situated in the southern Indian state of Kerala, one of the last bastions of tropical rainforests on the subcontinent. In this ecologically fragile and endangered forest land, Suprabha advocates the Gurukula model to explain the importance of geographically-specific biodiversity and its connection to ecological resilience. Her methodology is about diagnostic healing and restoration rather than simply conserving what remains or “greening” the landscape.
Moving away from conventional theories about indiscriminate reforestation that ignores gene pools endemic to regions and ecosystems, Suprabha and her team have painstakingly brought back on the Gurukula lands a rainforest habitat that supports a myriad of plant life, with each contributing to  change in the micro-climate and water table. This restoration has enabled the return of rare native animals, birds, and insect species—some believed to have been extinct—and raised the water table beyond expectations. It has also shown local people how they, as an intrinsic part of this natural cycle, may contribute and benefit from sustaining the model, while also initiating new and urgently needed land-management practices throughout India.
Suprabha is taking the gurukula (meaning “house of the teacher”), out of the garden to where its lessons are needed. The Ministry of Environment and Forests is keen to grant the Gurukula Lead Garden status and finances to enable Suprabha to train botanists and forest officials in ecosystem gardening.
Suprabha has introduced “ecosystem gardening”, a term used rarely in India, to the widening public debate on how to improve degraded habitat. The name Gurukula captures how Suprabha intends her work to spread. It is a “School in the Forest” where local villagers may train to be horticulturists or “gardeners”, and schoolchildren, teachers, scientific researchers, and policymakers learn and physically participate in the process through extended tours and study programs. Among over 1,800 botanic gardens worldwide, no other offers residential participation and learning for visitors on their grounds.

The Problem

Like other countries, India has its share of environmental problems, including shrinking forest coverage. The Western Ghats is peninsular India’s main watershed, running 1,200 km from north to south. Heavily denuded and overrun with cash crop plantations and hydel projects, new economic pressures have accelerated species loss. More and more plants are being used in cosmetics and drugs in the expanding ayurveda market. For the most part, efforts to cultivate wild species for profit in India have been unsuccessful. In the Western Ghats, less than 100 varieties are being commercially grown. Therefore, most businesses continue to pull the plants straight out of the forest—more than 1,000 species are still extracted from the wild—with lack of regulation leading to wide-scale illegal activities and little effort toward regeneration. Moreover, exotic alien species introduced indiscriminately in the past by the British and later by the government—under the misguided notion of beautification—is resulting in the steady erosion of indigenous wild species—one in eight species is under threat from invasive exotics.
A pervasive insularity about “non-economic” species has led to a lack of knowledge regarding their importance, though worsening droughts and other debilitating consequences are forcing people to rethink these issues. While some are aware that plants are the basis to any ecosystem, an important part of recharging groundwater and enhancing the connection between material security and ecological health, the remaining forest segments in the Western Ghats are a declining and critical global resource, and few know what to do.
Efforts to seize the opportunity have been limited in approach and scope, with traditional conservation groups adopting unreasonably restrictive approaches to environmental protection. In attempting to save natural habitats they have neglected the people in them; including those whose survive depends on the land and gardeners, who possess collective knowledge and acquired skills. As a result, their work has made little progress and whatever they may have protected, they know little about how to restore it to health.
Most environmental lessons are still characterized by conventional teaching and complicated syllabi. India’s researchers, scientists, and governments, face growing gaps between what they know and what they ought to know; what they do and what they ought to do. Much of the work exhibits a lack of ability to distinguish between species of plants in the wild. Specimens viewed under the microscope are plucked from the forest without the ethical considerations that apply to animals.

The Strategy

With international pressure mounting around issues of global warming, greenhouse gases, and carbon sequestration, India and its policymakers are being forced to confront these challenges and find ways to address them. Suprabha is taking advantage of this need, and the lack of cutting-edge knowledge to weave a strategy that not only demonstrates the interconnectedness of plants and healthy habitats, but also links the actors in the process of restoration.
Today the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary includes over one-third of the flora of the Western Ghats; approximately 2,000 species from 100 families. All of these plants were rescued from degraded or destroyed environments. Consisting mostly of local women, her team of gardeners has learned to grow the plants through experience, observation, and experimentation. Now, of the 60 acres of garden, 40 acres are untouched, and on 20 acres there is intense work to raise new species, document the results, and grow food crops.
Although the garden and its knowledge base are firmly situated, since Suprabha became Director of the Sanctuary, she’s been intent to spread its principles. To do this she welcomes visitors. Suprabha and her colleagues conservatively estimate the number of visitors to the garden is over 40,000; each being given a detailed guided tour and over 3,000 visitors annually. By showcasing what can be done and how, Suprabha has created valuable alliances, identified receptive individuals, and reached out to multiple stakeholders to educate and help people replicate her work.
For example, the School in the Forest, a unique residential program for schoolchildren, now has repeat visitors with their ability to observe and keen interest becoming more pronounced each year. The students like to invite their parents to see the sanctuary to boast their knowledge. School research and data collection is an important part of the sanctuary’s documentation.
Visitors to the School in the Forest are growing annually. At present, pupils and teachers from approximately twenty schools attend each year. Partners include local government schools, a nearby tribal center, a network of forty alternative education teachers in southern India, and the Krishnamurti Foundation. The Sanctuary is known to all schools in the district, colleges across the state, and is reaching out to other states and abroad. Internships are offered in natural history, conservation, integrated land use, and related topics. Suprabha recently introduced a several-month course on Landscapes and Lifeskills to train young adults in ecological advocacy and includes a month of field study with colleagues in the Himalayas. There are also accelerated courses in ecological literacy, including a ten-day course for teachers.
The unusual and significant scientific analysis done in Gurukula is gaining acknowledgment from outside agencies. Suprabha and her colleagues are working with landholders locally, and state governments in nearby Mukurti National Park, and, further away in Karnataka. Locally, they have done research for entities such as the Coorg Foundation (Tata Coffee) to restore the ecological balance along the perimeters of plantation and agricultural land.
In Mukurti, they are engaged in plans to protect native vegetation and have done a diagnostic inventory for the forestry department of Tamil Nadu—in conjunction with the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), which has large restoration projects all over the country. FES gave a grant to the sanctuary for a group of students to build a complete database of the garden’s contents. Through this and other work, Gurukula is proving it is possible to establish a vast stock of living plants for study without compromising rigorous scientific analysis or relying on large sums of money and academic support. FES requested the sanctuary initiate a project on wild plant cultivation and has become an important partner in Suprabha’s plans to expand nationally.
Suprabha is also an advisor of the country’s first model forest project—the Kodagu Model Forest Trust in the state of Karnataka—the 41st such project in the world; a collaboration of five groups including the state government. The significance of the project is that the area is among only eight in the world known for the rich variety of species it houses. Together with the state forestry department, local college of forestry, planters’ collectives, and the wildlife society, the KMFT is encouraging wilderness regrowth without adversely affecting the livelihoods of local farmers. Whereas the forestry department initially proposed to breed five saplings and plant 50,000 along the hills, Suprabha and her colleagues advised it to close off the area and bolster the perimeter with native species, and then leave it alone. The money that could have been spent on the trees would be better spent on a fence, and to pay local villagers to guard against intruders. The project is ongoing and rehabilitation of the native species is being monitored. 
That Suprabha’s efforts are slowly but surely gaining ground is evident in the fact that enthused by what Gurukula has demonstrated, collaborators are helping Gurukula buy adjacent land units, clearing them, and returning the land to its indigenous heritage.  
Apart from working with land stewards (the Forest department, planters, and farmers) in three of the four southern Indian states, Suprabha works indefatigably to spread her knowledge through lecture tours and writing in journals and magazines. Gurukula’s documentation and data bank is being recognized as a valuable resource for the country. Suprabha has initiated work with research and documentation with various state and national agencies on the horticultural propensities of wild species, their rehabilitation, and habitat restoration. She has been an advisor to important environmental groups and institutes in the country and abroad, which includes the Bangalore Agenda Task Force for the regreening of Bangalore and ecological research foundations. She presented Gurukula’s work at the Global Canopy Meet, organized by ATREE which has led to an invitation to present the model in Brazil, with stakeholders along the Amazon. Gurukula will not be available for “greenwash” and Suprabha is keenly aware of its potential to attract business interest for carbon offsets—several have already approached her—and to be part of policy resolutions about what constitutes accurate measurement and monitoring.
Suprabha plans to develop a resource center with a library, audio-visual documentation, and seed storage. She is also developing “gardener’s ethics” by providing skills and training for maalis (gardeners—existing and potential) in both urban and rural settings, so everyone learns how to be a gardener for the community. Her goal is to bring about widespread attitudinal change and a paradigm shift about how to “green” the planet and to make the process sustainable.
Suprabha is creating a bioregional alliance to address the critical issue of the dependence of all life on indigenous plants and their habitats. She offers courses in Landscape and Lifestyle literacy both to teachers and students, conducts lecture tours, and involves communities—including tribes, migrant settlers, and urban societies.

The Person

Since the age of ten, Suprabha has experienced a deep sense of belonging in the natural world, which only increased with time. She was fortunate to grow up in a family that fostered this and to go to schools that supported her interests. Suprabha travelled in India with her parents as they worked with Tibetan refugees, in slums, disaster-struck areas, and remote villages. But while her mother and father were most deeply concerned with the state of human society, she was drawn to the magnificent beauty of the landscape, though also puzzled and disturbed by the contrast between this beauty and people’s suffering.
At a Krishnamurti school, Suprabha pursued her passion for nature, reading and writing on the subject, preparing appeals to save wildlife, and rescuing injured and orphaned animals—which she laughingly recalls her mother was obliged to look after. She organized walking tours and other activities for younger students which became a part of campus life. Students were encouraged to develop independent thinking and learn through experience, and Suprabha was strongly influenced by the school’s approach. She realized, “Everyone can learn to observe and to understand and to act on their situation with intelligence.”
By high school, Suprabha knew that she would enter the environmental field professionally. However, after graduating in 1984 she found that Indian universities offered only traditional courses in biology. Suprabha decided to attend the Krishnamurti center in the U.K. She studied philosophy, learned about introduced species, grew vegetables, and explored the woods. After one year, she began a degree in earth studies at the British Open University. Her parallel research—the first of its kind in the county/district—explored shifting patterns of land use, from woodland to agriculture, from agriculture to exotic gardens: How the wider forces in society and human intent shape a piece of land and the creatures that inhabit it.
After graduating in 1989, Suprabha traveled and researched wilderness. With the encouragement and offer of a plane ticket from her school trustee, she mapped out a journey across Asia and Europe. Concerned that the time should be well spent, Suprabha requested five persons to act as advisers. Setting up short assignments with local environmental groups, she went in search of wilderness. However, everywhere she went she saw that the “wild” also contained—or had in some way been altered—by people. Rather than be disappointed, Suprabha thought through the consequences: Wilderness is about the nexus between the landscape and people. This discovery set her on the final stage of her travels, a one-year internship at the Land Institute in Kansas, where scientists designed agricultural systems resembling the natural environment. Suprabha had the opportunity to learn important methods of applied research in ecology and agriculture, which proved extremely useful.
Returning to India, Suprabha visited Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary for ten days. The sanctuary had been formally established eleven years earlier by Wolfgang Theuerkauf—almost by accident. Suprabha was struck by how the problems facing the sanctuary, and its proposed solutions, resonated with her experiences. What amazed her most was that behind Gurukula were a few ordinary people, not professionals like those in the U.S. For the first time she saw a place of immense possibility that had been worked out not so much by scientific protocol but by intuition, and it was in her backyard. Filtering the work at Gurukula through her training and practical experiences, Suprabha saw how it could be more refined, directed and articulated, and taken to others. Suprabha received the prestigious Whitley Award in 2006.

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