S.L.N. Swamy

Ashoka Fellow
Bangalore, Karnataka, India
Fellow Since 1996


This profile was prepared when S.L.N. Swamy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
The New Idea
Running through the South Indian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, a chain of highlands known as the Western Ghats is undergoing severe deforestation and the extinction of many plant species. S.L.N Swamy's plan of saving the Ghats, so biologically rich and diverse, involves simultaneously raising environmental awareness through experiential outdoor adventures and creating in people a reliance upon the rainforests, by providing economic incentives to protect them. Although the central idea was hatched in the early 1980s, it has taken more than ten years for Swamy to establish adventure as a serious discipline and career path. It took him nearly that long to reach a stage where eco-consciousness penetrated people of every social class, occupation, background and age. In fact, now Swamy's multiple programs not only consist of, but rely upon, the interplay among various groups. Equally impressive are his ability to convince urbanites of their stake in ecology and his skill at appealing to the very different needs of local communities.
The launching pad for Swamy's environmental program is The Adventurers, his eco-tourism organization and wilderness school. The Adventurers breaks the stereotype of outdoor adventure tours being the domain of tourists and wealthy Indians on holiday. It offers land, water and air expeditions to everyone from corporate managers to housewives to school students, with the goal of building awareness of impending ecological disaster. As Swamy explains, "A casual initiation into the forest through treks, or the mountains through rock climbing exercises, or tribal villages through cycling expeditions invariably leaves them thinking. Some forget the experience. But most come back, a second time, for answers to questions they had asked themselves after the first trip or for a more exhaustive adventure exercise. With a third come-back trip, we have them as volunteers, pooling in their resources to arrive at an important end: sensitivity towards the bounty of nature." The aim is to develop in people-all types of people-awareness of environmental threats and new habits in response to this awareness.
Once The Adventurers persuades citizens to commit themselves to the environmental cause, Swamy's other programs offer more complex issues with which to grapple. Those who are more serious volunteer serve as tours leaders, and the most dedicated apply to The Indian Institute for Adventure Applications, the environmental management training program that Swamy has established. As Swamy puts it, "The task of eco-managers is to take on eco-restoration projects and work as allies between The Adventurers and the urban-rural divide."
Impressive as these efforts are, they appeal to only half of the potential audience. Through his work, Swamy realized that any sustained attempt in nature studies and adventure activities must involve the people living in the forests. He says, "As nature lovers, we can't see the forest in isolation. The inhabitants of these forests also come within our circle of concern." His second (but equally important) objective is to help these indigenous people by cutting through the power struggles of the local castes and creating a strong environmental lobby.
He has done this by establishing, among other projects, a popular nature school for tribal children at The Adventurers' field base. It breaks the constraints of classroom and textbook and taps children's natural flair for discovering and exploring the natural elements. Swamy has also built a base of rural allies who contribute to discussions with the trekking groups. These laborers, goat herders and produce gatherers are won over by Swamy's commitment to help restore their disintegrating temples and forts. They then form their own environmental police groups, whose area of influence now covers many villages.
One of Swamy's most creative initiatives is the Forest Cooperatives Project, a unique form of vocational training for tribal people, geared toward creating a dynamic, scientifically aware, eco-conscious population which will work to conserve and intelligently manage the Western Ghats. The cooperatives market products of the forests, thereby creating dependency on the forests and the incentive to protect them. In addition, other income generating projects employ the local population and fund conservation programs such as tree-planting.
Swamy has put a wide spotlight on the importance of the Western Ghats. Not only is he building public awareness among all elements of society, but he is educating and motivating people to change their behavior and put a halt to the swift deterioration of this land.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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