Arti Dhar: Paying Farmers to Reforest Land
Greetings earthlings! I’m Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. We are winding down with our focus on climate change. But before we move to the next pressing issue, I’m excited to make my way to India to chat with Arti Dhar, co-founder of Farmers for Forests.
Spiffy: Welcome Arti, it’s great to meet you! I’m ready to hear all about the actions you are taking to mitigate climate change.
Arti: Thanks for coming all this way, Spiffy! So, our mission at Farmers for Forests (F4F) is to protect and increase India’s forest cover. We do that by supporting farmers, tribals and other rural landowners to either protect existing forests on their land from deforestation or convert their unused or degraded land into dense and biodiverse forests. We are one of few organizations, if any, using the “payment for ecosystem services” (PES) model in India’s forestry sector. Under a PES program, managers or owners of natural resources are financially compensated for conserving the natural resources (like forests) and providing ecosystem services, such as groundwater recharge or carbon sequestration. It is essentially a conditional cash transfer.
Spiffy: That sounds like a very big endeavor. What exactly motivated you to tackle this problem?
Arti: Two primary reasons. First, it’s important for everyone to understand that climate change disproportionately burdens developing countries, given their levels of poverty and inequality. For example, India emits only 6% of global carbon emissions but is estimated to suffer 20% of the global economic burden of climate change. So it’s important for us to think of solutions that can fight climate change at scale. Second, not enough is being done in India and around the world to leverage the full potential of forests as a climate change solution. Forests are not only carbon storage powerhouses, they provide a range of ecosystem benefits such as freshwater, climate regulation, and soil conservation. Yet, we are losing forests the size of the UK every year!
Spiffy: You just helped to put the scale of this problem into perspective. How do you think your work will help ensure equity when there is such unequal footing to begin with?
Arti: Well, Spiffy, did you know that climate change and poverty are closely linked? For example, farmers are very vulnerable to climate change because it hurts their agricultural yields and incomes. We work in Maharashtra, which has witnessed a record number of farmer suicides. Similarly, indigenous communities around the world depend almost entirely on forests for their livelihoods, which is why it was important for us to include them in our model. We want to see today's “victims” of climate change become “climate stewards” of tomorrow
Spiffy: It would be phenomenal to witness that sort of change instead! I understand you have had some exciting milestones. Can you tell me about them?
Arti: Certainly! We recently converted our 7th acre of degraded land into a young forest! Which means we are on track to meet our goal of completing 10 acres of afforestation in our first year. We have planted approximately 20,000 trees already. In a few months, these forests will be sequestering around 400,000 kg of carbon every year!
Preparing land for afforestation in the village of Dhavalgaon, Maharashtra, India. (Photo courtesy of Arti Dhar)
Spiffy: Those trees have their work cut out for them, don’t they? With all this excitement, can you remember a time when you were on the verge of failure?
Arti: Actually, Spiffy, we were in a predicament quite recently. In March 2020, it was our fourth month of existence and we had to suspend our field operations for four months due to COVID-19 lockdowns. It was a major setback for a young start-up eager to prove itself to its early supporters. But we decided to turn it into an opportunity. We reallocated our budget to provide cash relief to urban daily-wage workers who lost their incomes due to the lockdown. F4F is built on the principle that when given agency, the poor know how to use resources most effectively to improve their lives. Our work caught the attention of others and donations started pouring in. So we ended up not only doing impactful work in those four months, but we also triggered a discussion around the value of cash transfers to achieve social and environmental outcomes. There’s a saying that “failure is not falling down but refusing to get up,” and we have tried to internalize that at F4F.
Spiffy: I hope you never give up, Arti. Is there anything else you’ve learned during your entrepreneurial journey?
Arti: My co-founders and I learn something new from our small but mighty field team every day! They brave harsh sun, rains and bug bites to not only plant the new forests and take care of them diligently, but also build trust within the communities we work in. Launching an organization is easy. But staying committed to the larger mission every single day on the job is tough, especially when the work can be physically challenging. Our field team’s ability to do that is commendable, and their drive to leave the world a better place is beyond inspiring.
Spiffy: It’s inspiring and contagious! I hope this sparks someone else’s desire to take action towards positive change on the climate! Thanks so much for talking with me, Arti, it’s been a pleasure.
Arti Dhar is the co-founder and CEO of Farmers for Forests, a not-for-profit working to protect and increase India's forest cover in a sustainable and accountable way. Arti has spent nearly a decade working in the international development and impact investing space, focusing primarily on the environment and women's financial inclusion. Arti has an MPA from Cornell University and BA in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College. (Nominated by Shakti – The Empathy Project)