Sustainable Livelihoods

Historically, communities that are forest-, pastoral- or estuarine-based have been restricted and impacted due to exclusionary conservation policies and practices. Foraging, farming and grazier communities have lost access to natural resources due to colonial forest laws, while post-Independence development priorities and their ecological impacts have resulted in exclusive and landscape-restricting solutions like Protected Areas that privilege large mammals and penalise traditional livelihoods.

India has an established history of community use and management of ecosystems. For 25 years, ATREE’s approach to livelihoods has been to recognise the use of resources like non-timber forest products (NTFP) and traditional grazing routines as customary and sustainable.

This programme seeks to research, understand and enhance strategies that enable forest and pastoralist communities to access natural resources and develop coping capacities to exclusionary changes in policy and practices.

Our natural and social science researchers have worked with Adivasi communities in the Western Ghats to enhance their forest incomes and secure individual and community rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. In Maharashtra, they have challenged the mislabelling of grasslands as wastelands, and thereby have secured pastoral communities from the perils of land use change. In the western coastal estuaries, we embraced ‘action’ research by forming fishermen institutions to monitor wetland biodiversity. ATREE has also embraced an expanded notion of community well-being, where income and assets are considered insufficient as livelihood indicators, and has initiated human development assessments of forest and agro-pastoral communities in the Eastern Himalayas.


Livelihoods and cultural values have sustained and nurtured biodiversity in our forests. Forest dwellers, mainly Adivasis, inhabit, farm and forage in forests. Besides subsistence farming of millets, cereals and even cash crops, they collect NTFP. These include products such as fruits, berries, medicinal plants and honey. We have worked for over two decades in the forests of the Western Ghats and central India and accumulated valuable interdisciplinary insights on the ecological, social and institutional underpinnings of harvesting NTFP sustainably and enhancing NTFP-linked livelihoods.


Semi-arid savannah and temperate grasslands have attracted far less scientific and policy attention than forests. In fact, grasslands have been misused and afforested or constructed upon, based on their mislabeling as‘ wastelands’. We have researched and advocated for the grasslands of the Western Ghats and Central and Western India to be maintained as open biodiverse ecosystems that support pastoralists who graze diverse livestock. For nearly two decades, we have pursued conservation-and livelihood-oriented research in grasslands, such as sheep grazing Dhangars in Maharashtra’s savannahs and the buffalo grazing Todas in the Nilgiri Highlands of Tamil Nadu.


The aquatic and avian diversity of these habitats has gained them attention and protection under the Ramsar Convention. And many such coastal wetlands, whether Ramsar designated or not, are tourism hotspots. Kerala’s Vembanad estuary is one such. However, agricultural development and tourism have impacted water quality, biodiversity and local livelihoods. The Vembanad Community Centre has, since 2007, practised the ‘wise use’ of this wetland. It has enhanced the capacity and institutional networks of the local communities for its sustainable management.