Guwahati: Forests are the key to life on earth today, providing clean air, food and water security, fuel, medicines and livelihoods to billions globally. Indirectly, their ecosystems services are the silent machinery that keep critical economic systems functioning–enriching soil, preventing floods, habitats for pollinators, preventing pathogen spillover, regulating rainfall and keeping the planet cool. In pure numbers, $44 trillion (>50%) of the world’s GDP depends on healthy, functioning ecosystems and the services they provide. In India, that figure is closer to 60% of our GDP, and over 57% of our rural communities depend on them for their livelihoods.

Yet, we continue to destroy the forests we depend on. Every second, we lose one hectare of tropical forest to deforestation or degradation. Since 1960, we have lost half the world’s tropical forests. Today, the North East accounts for 74% of India’s net deforestation and already, nearly 25% of the region’s land is facing desertification. For smallholder farmers, who constitute 80% of the North East’s farming population, the future looks increasingly dire.

BUILDING RESILIENCE THROUGH RURAL FUTURES

However, as forward-thinking leaders and countries around the world are recognising, immediate investment in nature could change this dire story. Globally, transforming food, land and ocean use practices offers an economic opportunity of up to $3.6 trillion and 190 million new jobs over the next 10 years. Similar nature friendly transformations in the energy and extractives sector–one of the biggest sources of contention in the North East today, as seen in Baghjan and Dehing Patkai–will create $3.5 trillion and 87 million jobs by 2030.

For a natural capital rich region, like Assam and the North East, the message is clear: the rural is the future. Urbanization and industrial growth have brought us to the brink of collapse today, through its overexploitation and overconsumption of natural capital. A decentralized future and ecological balance are the only answers for prosperous, resilient rural communities.

Accordingly, there are five key action points in the Rural Futures agenda: 1. Invest in forest restoration–JFM and CAMPA schemes already provide a basic framework for this, but a systematic scientific payment for restoration and management programme led by rural and forest-fringe communities is the key to building sustainable livelihoods for the future; 2. Nature friendly agriculture–through agroforestry, organic farming and other agroecological practices; 3. Effective land use–by maximizing natural capital values and investing in landscape level nature based solutions; 4.

Secure community rights to manage the commons–for forest-fringe and ethnic to take executive decisions for restoration and management, as stewards of forests and 5. Valuation of natural assets for natural capital and universal basic assets–to invest in community futures through universal basic assets such as education, healthcare, renewable energy etc.

NATURAL CAPITAL FOR A NATURAL FUTURE

The Rural Futures pilot already demonstrates the untapped future ahead. Communities involved in forest restoration and rewilding now have a 40-50% income increase. Agroforestry in buffer zones of restored forests, will earn these communities INR 10 lakh/hectare and bamboo will earn them Rs 29 lakhs/hectare by year three. Well-designed agroforestry enhances yields by up to 56%. Rural prosperity is not merely economic, but must generate social and ecological wealth: natural capital can be reinvested in universal basic assets, ecosystems services provided by these restored forests touch everything from the air we breathe, to our weather systems, our ability to continue growing food and critical protection against increasingly vicious floods.

Investing in rural communities, the commons and ecosystems is not CSR. It is good business practice. Ecology is economy, not philanthropy. This must be reflected in both policy and practice. From CSR to corporate biodiversity management through sustainable supply chains and natural capital integration in accounting. The Environmental Impact Assessment must be environment positive, not shield businesses from public scrutiny on their environmental impacts.

Nature today is at a dangerous tipping point. If we protect it, it will protect us. As we usher in the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, let us seize this opportunity for transformation and build real Rural Futures for our communities and our biodiversity.

Ranjit Barthakur is Founder, Balipara Foundation; research by Joanna Dawson & Saurav Malhotra.