Q&A with India Managing Director Seema Paul
President and CEO Mark Tercek talks to Managing Director Seema Paul about how The Nature Conservancy can make a difference in India.
Mark Tercek: We’re excited to have you leading the team in India, one of our newest programs. What led you to The Nature Conservancy?
Seema Paul: I have long admired the mission of the Conservancy, as well as the caliber and ability of its staff to deliver on it. I witnessed this first hand when I was the Program Director for Biodiversity at the United Nations Foundation, working closely with a range of global and national conservation NGOs. It was clear that the Conservancy attracts the best and most collaborative people in the field.
I remember that the Conservancy struck me as a remarkable organization with its science-led approach, financial acumen, commitment to making a difference on the ground and ability to leverage change at scale.
Mark: How do you think we can make a difference in India?
Seema: One of the aspects of the Conservancy that I greatly appreciate is the organization’s adaptability and evolution over the years. The Conservancy’s clear focus on the benefits and well-being of people and nature is so critical, particularly in India which needs to focus on both economic development and conservation of its natural heritage. India has four times the population of the United States on a landmass only one-third of the size. Conservation goals need to take this density into account.
India’s culture and history is built around a deep reverence for nature, but we still face significant conservation challenges. It’s not an easy balance.
The Conservancy is uniquely positioned to work with national partners on solutions for India’s challenges, thanks to its science-led approach, global conservation experience, pragmatic pursuit of solutions and willingness to collaborate across stakeholders.
Mark: What is one of the biggest challenges?
Seema: India must grow economically and also manage its natural resource base effectively; and this is the biggest challenge facing the country. India is the fourth-largest and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Indians have seen how other industrialized countries grew their economy first, and later cleaned up the environment. They know this isn’t the best path for them.
In order to lift 400 million Indians out of poverty, we need jobs, infrastructure development and a clear plan to leverage the services that nature can provide. McKinsey & Company says that 70% of the infrastructure that will exist in India in 2050—roads, power plants, dams, and cities—has yet to be built. Making sure this is done sustainably—and with nature in mind—is a big opportunity, but it’s going to take a lot of work and collaboration.
Mark: Are you optimistic?
Seema: Yes! I am optimistic about the future of my country and also the role that our organization can play here. We have the innovation and intellectual talent, and most importantly, our focus is aligned with the Indian government on sustainable development priorities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that India wants to pursue “development without destruction,” and it is our endeavor to support the government’s priorities by advancing science-led implementation and working together to build a vibrant and healthy India.
Another reason to be optimistic is the growing public consciousness around environmental health issues. The public is now demanding clean air and water. There is also a very large constituency of people in the country, both young and old, who care about their natural heritage.
Mark: What projects are underway?
Seema: We have nine projects along three priorities: freshwater, land, and cities. Given our science-led approach, much of the work in the first year was focused on scientific assessments. That said, many of our projects are now being implemented on-the-ground.
Under our cities strategy, we are working in two of India’s fastest growing cities: Chennai and Coimbatore. In Chennai, we are working to restore wetlands, which are critical to the city’s water security and resilience to erratic weather events like floods and droughts. In Coimbatore, we are working to support the city’s Master Plan and Smart Cities Plan by including ecologically sustainable urban development alternatives or “greenprinting.” This city is particularly important as it is located in the middle of a global hotspot—the Western Ghats.
In partnership with Indian NGOs and research Institutions, we are conducting a Trade-Off analysis on the River Ganga, which will help the government make informed decisions about how much water should be allocated from the Ganga for specific users, without adversely impacting the river’s ecology.
We’ve focused our land planning work in Central India in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which are home to a number of indigenous communities and wildlife. Almost 40% of India’s wild tigers are found in the forests of this landscape. We are supporting the Madhya Pradesh Government in scientifically identifying sites for renewable energy projects which avoid or minimize impacts on lands with high ecological and social values. We are also working to conserve one of the largest and most significant rivers of this State—the Narmada—by identifying specific regions and interventions along Narmada’s riparian zones where conservation efforts will have the maximum impact at the lowest cost. Another project focuses on building resilience among farmer communities in Maharashtra’s drought prone regions by scaling up efforts to improve water security through the conservation of traditional water tanks.
The Conservancy’s “development by design” solutions are particularly relevant for India’s high-growth environment. As we start to think about ways to reduce air pollution in cities, we are advancing a program that will help farmers reduce crop burning, a significant contributor to air pollution in northern India and New Delhi.
Mark: What special considerations are we taking into account as we expand our work in India?
Seema: Overall, India is wary of environmental NGOs, particularly those from the West, because in the past these organizations have focused on establishing limitations rather than providing feasible solutions. The Conservancy excels in its solution-oriented approach, and we are working to win the trust of stakeholders. I have every reason to believe we will build credibility based on our results.
Additionally, the Conservancy’s science and expertise needs to be matched with local knowledge, relationships and cultural acceptability. We are building strong relationships with national partners to amplify and scale up the work of existing conservation organizations from governmental, NGO, and business sectors. Because of our brand, we are attracting some of the best science talent in the country. We are a strong team of 12 members who are well-attuned to India’s needs and sensitivities and have begun building important relationships on the ground. I have no doubt that the Conservancy’s collaborative approach will help us amplify our impact.
Mark: We’re excited to have you on board, Seema!
Seema: I am truly excited to be on this journey and am optimistic about the road ahead. Now is the time for us to act, and I feel fortunate to be a part of The Nature Conservancy’s mission, outstanding resources, and history of success as we move forward.
More about Seema Paul
After working for 14 years as an environmental journalist in New Delhi, Seema came to Washington, D.C. to complete a master’s degree in environmental policy. She built a hands-on environmental career at the World Resources Institute and later at the UN Foundation. Most recently, Seema was the Vice President for the ClimateWorks Foundation as well as the founder and CEO of India’s only private foundation dedicated to climate mitigation—the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. She also serves on the board of one of the world’s top 20 research-led conservation NGOs in India, ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology).