Raveendran Kannan

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2003


This profile was prepared when Raveendran Kannan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.
The New Idea
Kannan has convinced one-time skeptics–from farmers to government officials–that crops, trees, and wildlife can and must coexist. Kannan is demonstrating to poor upland farmers that by making incremental changes to how they work the land and by putting local plants and insects to practical use, it is possible to improve their standard of living and simultaneously protect valuable forests and watersheds. His program, which has been developed over many years, effects a managed transition from destructive, water-intensive crops to a diversified, rural economy that also incorporates preservation and renewal of forests, watersheds, and community integrity.
A farmer himself, Kannan knows well that the natural environment will be protected only when rural people can earn a living. He has ingeniously married these two concerns by having farmers in the Western Ghats range of Tamil Nadu plant high-value native trees that later on they can log in an informed and managed way. The trees, then, are grown not for their own sake but as capital investments that also protect the old-growth shola forests of the upper highlands from logging and other unwelcome encroachments. Kannan teaches farmers that the market for timber is more stable and lower risk than many annual crops like coffee, encouraging them to think long-term: "One-hundred-fifteen-year-old trees will clear your debt and pay for your child's college education," he points out. Kannan then merges the farmers' long-term and short-term needs with those of the environment by further encouraging cultivation of drought-resistant crops, setting up beehives, and growing native flowering plants.
By working predominantly with tribal communities, Kannan has tapped into indigenous knowledge of plant species while challenging stereotypes and contributing to long-term economic stability. Local awareness of plants and wildlife is supplemented with additional skills and knowledge from outside. Tribal women, who suffer some of the most intense discrimination in India, are placed in managerial roles, thereby changing social relations and concepts of women's work.
Kannan is aware that for his idea to have real impact he needs to build partnerships with powerful agencies. He has attracted the interest of government and has begun collaborating in a number of areas. He sees a strong possibility of replicating the work elsewhere in India and is currently building links with persons and organizations in the vast central region.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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