Harshada Gauns: Protector of Goa's Green Gold
Harshada Gauns is one of those rare people who is able to translate thoughtfulness for people and the environment into action. Founder of Arannya, an environmental research organisation and lecturer of Zoology at the Government College of Sanquelim, she also completed her Masters in Zoology from the same institution.
She first got involved with wildlife and conservation while she was studying at the Government College of Sanquelim. After she completed her Masters, she worked with the Centre for Environment Education in Goa, and after that, as a project coordinator at the Mineral Foundation. Both these jobs involved working on documenting wildlife and biodiversity and preparing a biodiversity management plan. They also afforded her the opportunity to visit a lot of places in Goa, which is where she had her first major exposure to the flora and fauna of the state. She realised there is so much to be learned, the knowledge is so vast, and she felt that not enough is known about it.
Arannya Environment Research Organisation is run by a group of 9 young environmentalists from Goa with diverse professional expertise, with the aim of connecting the younger generation with nature, to explore and experience the rich natural heritage of the state and work towards wildlife conservation through research, education, outreach and action. The organisation is just a year and a half old, but already they have worked with more than 50 schools and colleges across the state, organising nature camps, biodiversity walks, and conducting certificate courses on forest ecology.
Arannya also works closely with local communities, documenting traditional nature-based practices, local biodiversity, preparing solid waste management plans for villages, understanding how agriculture is being developed and why people are moving away from the profession. Harshada says it is heartening to see young teachers so enthusiastic about these programs, and in many cases, they are the ones who reach out to her to do these programs at their school. She also runs a program called ‘Research Matters’, for 2nd year students on the cusp of entering their final year, where she teaches how to do effective research for their final year project.
Always looking to new horizons and new avenues for outreach, Arannya’s future plans involve assessing Goa’s environmental literacy and “adopting” a few schools so they can work more closely with students on honing their environmental awareness.
Harshada finds the environmental literacy of Goa to be another concern. She shared that India’s overall environmental literacy is just 7%, and in Bangalore, the supposed “Garden City”, it’s a measly 3%! She wants to understand the environmental literacy in Goa. She’s noticed that kids do know a little about nature, but once they reach college, they have no clue. Arannya wants to understand why that is happening. Towards that end, they want to frame a basic questionnaire about Goa’s environment and go to private as well as government schools and colleges. She will first begin in her taluka.
A powerhouse of a woman, she is also keen to “adopt” a few schools to do a regular lecture series, because doing talks with 200 students at once makes it difficult to meaningfully engage with them. She also hopes that through this avenue, they can find interested students from their classes and polish the kids capabilities, empowering them to do small research programs on documenting their local biodiversity.
Harshada was born and raised in a village, as a result of which, she was always close to nature. But her grandfather was the one who nurtured her love for it. He would drop her to school, and show her vultures on the way. She would also accompany her parents to the fields, and they had many pets at home throughout her childhood.
When she was in college doing her BSc, her teacher took her class to the Carambolim wetlands to see birds. She realised that these very same birds were right at her doorstep. That’s when she decided to document the birds in her village wetlands for her BSc final year project. In just a year, she documented 143 birds! Long after the project was over, Harshada continued going back to the wetlands and also documented the butterflies, and amphibians of the area. She then submitted a report to the Royal Society for Protection of Birds - the Society that declares areas as important IBA areas. Thanks to her detailed report, the Society declared her beloved local wetlands as an IBA area!
This experience really motivated Harshada. She realised that if a small BSc project could lead to such a significant positive step towards protecting the environment, why not facilitate students to do this across the state? Already her area has become popular with tourists and birding enthusiasts. She sees the potential of developing a good source of income from wildlife tourism.
A small incident moved Harshada to take that big step in creating her own organization. The Goa Bird Conservation Network conducts one bird walk a year in Netravali. Students from her village, Sankhli, have to start out at 4.30 AM in order to arrive at the reporting time (7AM). She thought, ‘why not create a platform to localise the effort?” Harshada spoke to her team that had worked on the BSc project with her, and they said “let’s do it!” Initially they would work informally, but as the interest, support and encouragement kept growing, they registered their organisation.What kind of change do you hope to see happen over the long run through Aranya?
Her long term vision is to help create a society that is very close and sustainably lives with nature. While policies take time to be implemented at a larger scale, she hopes her work inspires and empowers people to ask “what are the individual actions that you can take today?”She believes that policies alone may not inspire people to change. Positive change needs to be made accessible to communities, and efforts need to be localised. Always translating insight into intervention, after an incident where Harshada was taken aback to learn that a highly educated person didn’t understand something as simple as why you should not litter plastic, she started the NO SUP (single use plastic) Campaign. As part of the campaign, people go to local vendors like lime soda sellers and other ‘gados’ and tell them about the harmful effects of plastic, give them pamphlets to hang at the stalls. They worked with stalls from Old Goa to Ponda. Many youngsters got in touch and wanted to do it their villages too.
As a result, the campaign has spread to Morjim, Harmal and Pednem. She is thrilled that one young man, Divesh, went to more than 300 shops across the state, spreading the pamphlet about NO SUP! When they went back to see whether the campaign had been effective, they found a few shops even completely stopped selling straws and disposables.
Even if she sees a small change in a person, that is her biggest achievement. When she talks to her students about wildlife and they come back with a photo of a bird and ask her to ID it, she feels proud. She is particularly proud of the change she sees in her own household! Now, even on the rare occasion where Harshada goes looking for a plastic bag, her mother tells her there are none in her house!
What change would you most like to see in Goa?
Harshada suggests that the government thinks in a more sustainable way. It’s not only local communities and NGOs that need to be driving sustainable development. If governments involve sustainable and environmental organisations and use them as stakeholders to formulate policies, that would be great. Recently, Arannya was called for a consultation meeting with the Forest Department. The FD currently doesn’t have jurisdiction over marine life, but they now want to come up with a marine cell and are consulting with local organisations to formulate this plan. She sees these small steps as good changes, but would like to see them happen at a larger scale.Climate change and ecological crisis
Harshada says climate change and the ecological crisis needs to be tackled at the policy level as well as at the local impact level. Arannya influences locals and society to act, and Harshada believes that even small changes make a difference if they are meaningful.
When we arrived at this question, Harshada began laughing and said, more than inspiration, she’s encountered many challenges as a woman in wildlife! Her village is quite conservative and as the only girl working on her BSc project, she had a hard time hearing negative comments from other villagers, which bothered her parents as well.
But all this changed thanks to the timely intervention of one little bird: the Red Avadavat, which had previously never been reported to be sighted in Goa. Her team saw it for the first time in their very own wetlands! This sighting was reported in the papers, and that was a turning point for her parents. They never again questioned her work, and others in the village also eventually stopped judging her. Now, in fact, they will contact her for help with any issues related to the environment.
India has around 1200 species of birds, and 473 of them can be found in Goa, which occupies a mere fraction of the country’s landmass. Another amazing fact is about the diversity among ant species. There are around 200 types documented - many of which are colourful. The red and black ones we commonly see are invasive and exotic species.
Her own village island in winter season!
Written by Francesca Cotta
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