Jagdeesh Rao

CEO, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)

Fellow project website: www.fes.org.in



Jagdeesh Rao has championed a replicable framework that enables self-gov- erning village communities to uplift themselves by effectively and sustainably utilizing the natural resources around them in a way that restores ecosystem productivity. His respectful, science-sharing approach shows how to end vil- lages (and all of us) the ‘tragedy of commons’.



Jagdeesh is working to end the spiraling modern tragedy of these villagers’ forests and other commons and move instead to “the promise of the commons.” His organization – The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – helps secure rights to the land and assists the local communities in strengthening and building local institutions, restoring degraded ecosystems, and cultivating local volunteers to take on the stewardship and preservation of the forest and water resources around them. These common property resources provide a single platform that anyone can leverage to address issues of social justice, ecological restoration, and poverty alleviation.

These activities also reduce hunger and poverty while reviving democratic functioning in the village. Jagdeesh ensures that the local communities that use “common” lands have the information needed to choose options and run ongoing decision-making wisely. That’s the only way to get sustainable decision-making reliably that will ensure ongoing livelihoods and ecosystems.

By recognizing that the forests, water, and other natural resources are part of the village’s ecological, social and economic landscape, conservation efforts are always informed by local needs and contexts. Instead of considering farming as crop production alone, FES works with communities, so they see the interconnections between the larger farming system and resources be- yond the farm, such as forests, pastures, bodies of water, livestock, pollinators, and pest predators more clearly. This kind of systems understanding is innate and latent within farming communities, so efforts to connect agriculture, livestock, pastures, and forests have resulted in vastly improved collective decision-making on crop choices, the treatment of groundwater as a common property, and the nurturing of pollinator and pest predator habitats to improve crop productivity. Besides scaling up such measures, FES also plays an equally important role in motivating government and research institutions to integrate the commons into their systems thinking and to screen their sector-based programs for any unintended and undesirable consequences.

Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – Jagdeesh’s model brings together reliably scientific data and community cohesion and self-governance.
Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – Jagdeesh’s model brings together reliably scientific data and community cohesion and self-governance.

Rao has been working on the problem since 1984 when he first visited Hyderabad as undergraduate studying agriculture science. Through FES, he has collaborated with more than 7,000 villages to bring 3.7 million acres of common land under local management. - CNBC


The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a publicly held resource (known as a common) act in their own self-interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource. The Tragedy is often applied to discussions of environmental issues and is a model for a great variety of society’s current resource-based problems, including over-irrigation, habitat destruction, overfishing, and traffic congestion. Around the world, and in India in particular, the degradation of Commons has been identified as a key contributor to poverty, conflict, corruption, and limited economic growth.

The commons in India face widespread degradation, leading to falling crop yields, increased cost of cultivation, depleted water tables, shrinking forests, and the unregulated use of pastures. Everyone in India depends to some degree on the ecological functions of these commonly held lands, but the vast numbers of the most marginalized people in India depend entirely on commonly held community land for every aspect of their lives. While the majority of this common land in India is owned and managed by the government, the poor communities that live on these lands have long-standing relationships and practices associated with their management and use of the lands, but ensuring the community works to conserve the land depends on whether their rights are protected. Without any formal tenure rights or legal claims to the land, the community has very little incentive to maintain the health of the ecosystem, despite its importance in their lives. The issue of legal rights to the land becomes particularly acute when outside private interests or government forces exploit the land, and all of the hard work that a community has invested in the land provides them with no benefits. At the heart of the situation is the even more tragic fact that the government lacks belief in the community’s ability to be effective custodians and stewards of the land, and chooses the short-term economically viable option, such as giving the land to industries (e.g, mining and logging) to destroy the land and forests completely while ignoring the greatest protectors of the land, the people themselves.

 Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – FES provides capacity building workshops and legal assistance to help community members claim their rights to use, manage, and protect the Commons.
Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – FES provides capacity building workshops and legal assistance to help community members claim their rights to use, manage, and protect the Commons.

Forests represent the second largest land use in India after agriculture, covering 23.57 percent of the overall landmass of India (378 million hectares). Local people de- pend on forests and other common lands for fuel wood, fodder, timber, forage, food, drinking water for animals, and other household requirements. About 275 million of the country’s rural poor depend on forests for at least part of their subsistence, with the collection and processing of Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) alone estimated to be worth between USD 208 million to 645 million per year. Despite their criticality, forests across In- dia are besieged – previously inaccessible areas are now open to exploitation, and subsistence hunting and gathering in forests have given way to large-scale extraction of forest resources to cater to industrial and distant market demands.

Forest destruction has also contributed to a serious and alarming rate of groundwater depletion in India, which has resulted in around 75 percent of India’s dry-land districts being declared “dark zones” meaning post-monsoon water levels in the aquifers are inadequate to sustain farming practices until the next monsoon season. Practically speaking, forests and other Commons need to be maintained for the ecological functions they serve, the ecosystem services they provide, the biodiversity they contain, and the ways in which they reduce the harmful effects of greenhouse gasses, as well as to preserve local agriculture and water systems. Compounding the problem is the fact that conservation and developmental efforts of the government to im- prove land usage practices are often administered by different government branches and levels and tend to be fragmented and piecemeal, and at times they even work at cross-purposes, giving rise to further negative consequences. What is required instead is an integrated methodological framework for conserving forests, grazing lands, and bodies of water that can span across habitats and administrative domains, and which are led by self-governing communities of women and men, who are sensitive to local needs and the long-term health of the environment and the village.

Entrepreneur Jagdeesh Rao Puppula is definitely disrupting status quo. . .[His] foundation helps villagers improve the soil, water and other conditions in what had been regarded as wasteland. So they’re able to grow more crops and bring in more revenue. Wildlife benefits, as well, from the changes. - NPR


Recognizing that the vast majority of common lands sit in unique geographical regions, with very specific cultural norms, Jagdeesh and the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) have built an adaptable model which puts the onus of the future of the Commons in the hands of the community members, and brings together principles of self-governance, community cohesion, and justice. At the heart of the model are three interconnected elements that vitally connect local communities to the Commons, and enable them to better understand and respect the inter-relationships of biodiversity and natural systems: First, is to help local communities retain their rights over the Commons; second is to move these communities towards sustainable land-use practices that aid conservation; and, third is to foster collective action that creates sustainable economic opportunities. By securing community land rights, establishing community-based resource management and governance plans, and creating access to resources and finances, the Commons becomes the source of resilient livelihoods and improved ecological health.

To achieve and multiply the impact on community-led governance of shared natural resources, FES works to enable system-level shifts by providing system-wide thought leadership and by embedding the Commons in debates on policies and programs. By advancing thinking around community property rights and groundwater management, they advance the dialogue of the Commons at local, regional, national, and international levels, rooting the conversation in the larger goals of climate action and sustainable development while at the same time linking it to local thematic groups in neglected domains, like pastoralists and small livestock keepers. FES is also at the forefront of promoting informed action by improving access to knowledge, analytics, and tools, for greater transparency, civic engagement, and informed decision-making.

As Jagdeesh has observed, “if you put a map on the floor, people start talking and local people know everything about the land.” So, in collaboration with organizations and initiatives across India, they aggregate and contextualize data, analytics, and tools to supplement the decision-making of rural communities. By providing better information to villages, including spatial and satellite imagery, locals can approach the management of the Commons with a birds-eye view that helps them account for the land’s history, current usage, threats, and potential. At the community level, Jagdeesh begins his intervention by identifying natural resources which have been degraded over time, such as forests, grasslands, or bodies of water. FES then conducts extensive studies of the area and the surrounding communities around the degraded lands and completes an analysis of the land’s condition, history, and use. Once the studies are concluded, Jagdeesh brings together and engages local organizations that already have trust in the communities living near the natural resource. Depending on their level of awareness of the role that the common lands play in their lives and larger natural ecosystems, FES conducts capacity-building workshops to help the community members better understand their importance in managing the Commons, even if they do not directly use them.

Jagdeesh then assists these united communities in us- ing provisions of affirmative legislation such as the recently-enacted Forest Rights Act, to claim their rights to access, use, protect and manage commonly held forests and other natural resources. Because the degradation of Commons can be attributed to weak tenure rights, the erosion of local institutions, and the misplaced belief that local communities are ineffective managers of their shared natural resources, FES aids communities in securing tenure over their Commons. Where the Forest Rights Act applies, communities are supported to claim rights over Commons such as community forests. Where there are wastelands, they help village communities acquire long-term leases and claim increases in pastures. They also enable local communities to map their common lands (wastelands and pastures) and to legally register them to limit their diversion to other uses.

 Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – FES has restored over 11.38 million acres of common lands benefitting over 22 million people.
Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – FES has restored over 11.38 million acres of common lands benefitting over 22 million people.

In this work of advancing the communities’ capacity for local self-governance in managing resources, Jagdeesh works to improve gender parity by promoting the participation of women and increasing their involvement in governance processes. By working with Panchayats (a common system of local self-government in rural villages throughout India) to develop Gram Panchayat Development Plans that place restrictions on groundwater mining, better sanitation, and protection of grazing land, they help restore the agency of rural communities while improving collective action, democratizing the functioning of local institutions, and devising institutional spaces that safeguard the interests of the poor. To further enhance local capacity for policy and program implementation, FES developed the Prakriti Karyashala (Rural Colleges), which are designed to serve as local centers for the exchange of ideas and experiences and to provide large-scale, cost-effective, and quality learning opportunities. The Karyashalas train rural communities, village institutions, and Panchayats, as well as government and NGO officials, who can then provide training to stakeholders in other locations. To achieve the learning outcomes, Karyashala employs experiential learning methods in the form of sequential training modules in combination with field-level applications. The modules include filing claims on community lands; effective planning, and implementation of natural resource management through the national rural employment government pro- gram; strengthening the capacities of Panchayats, and accessing social security benefits. The overall focus is on enhancing local stewardship, improving the rigor of action, and building the necessary leadership and collaboration skills to bridge local practice and program imperatives.

Jagdeesh emphasizes that with the development of the land comes the development of the people. ‘A vital part of this is enhancing the capacity of local people, the power of collective action, and harnessing these high-quality leaders who address these serious ecological, economic, and social deficiencies. - SKOLL

Since its beginning, FES has worked with 36,407 villages across 10 ecological regions of India, restoring 11.38 million acres of common lands and impacting the lives of 22 million people. With an ambitious aim of restoring 30 million acres of common lands in the next five years (and with an overall potential of restoring 200 million acres), FES aims to scale its work to 100,000 villages through collaborations with various local NGOs, government partners, researchers, practitioners, and changemakers. By creating a collective platform and exchange forums, FES is elevating the debate about the Commons and giving a voice to the issues of the degradation of common lands while also participating in the development of products to facilitate widespread change across many sectors and communities – like groundwater monitoring tools, a Geographic Information System enabled entitlement tracking system, an integrated forest management toolkit, a crop water budgeting tool, tools that identify and demarcate shared lands, create designs for soil and water conversation, and provide quick summaries of socioeconomic and environmental parameters of any chosen state, district or block, as well as documentaries, research studies, and reference manuals.


Jagdeesh was born in Andhra Pradesh and in his years growing up, he experienced harsh treatment due to the dark color of his skin. His own experience opened his eyes to the many other forms of division all around him – mistreatments related to race, sex, and social status – and with this awareness grew a fierce determination to fight for the underdogs and to make room for the voices of the people who are not heard. He also grew up next to a river which brought him calmness and serenity; so, in choosing his professional life, he knew he would want to live close to the water and to nature.

While finishing his schooling and an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Sciences from Baroda, Gujarat, he encountered a local guru who showed practically the ways in which social and ecological systems are interconnected with economic systems. He then went on to study Forestry for Rural Management in the Netherlands. In 1986, Jagdeesh was part of a pilot project on Tree Growers Co-operatives by the National Dairy Development Board. He was responsible for project design and conceptualization in the first year, which brought him face-to-face with the political and bureaucratic hurdles that face rural India.

While engaged in this work from 1986-1994, however, he began to see the pitfalls of the cooperative system model which defined a successful cooperative by the profits it generated from cutting and selling trees and reducing the natural landscape to a commodity. It was during his work with TGCP that he began to understand the politics and power struggles associated with the Commons, and especially the dynamics of ownership. While with TGCP, the core of the work he was doing was arranging land from the government and passing it to the villages to help manage and protect them. While doing this, he realized that the villagers were strongly disproving the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons when the land was brought under their management. He learned up close in the villages that “just because people are financially poor doesn’t mean they are intellectually poor.” In 2001, he moved away from the cooperatives project and founded Foundation for Ecological Security.

Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – Women’s active involvement and participation in the governance process improves gender parity in their communities.
Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) – Women’s active involvement and participation in the governance process improves gender parity in their communities.