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Volunteer Spotlight: Betsy McGean

Betsy McGean was a volunteer at Seva Mandir for 2 years in the late 1980s-early 1990s. She caught up with us from New Hampshire, where she is currently based, to tell us about her experiences doing forest restoration with Seva Mandir and the impact that experience has had on her life and her ongoing work in forest
and nature conservation.

When did you get involved with Seva Mandir?

I graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1986. My first job was at the World Resources Institute in Washington D.C. Through my network, I met a forester from India who told me about Seva Mandir. He convinced me that learning about forestry in the field would be a great opportunity. He put me in touch with [current Seva Mandir President of the Board] Ajay Mehta. Ajay was very welcoming and receptive to the idea. He suggested I apply to the Ford Foundation for funding, and they ultimately supported me.

When did you go to India? How long did you stay?

I was there from 1988-89 working in Tamil Nadu for another organization, and then 1990-1992 with Seva Mandir and the Ford Foundation so a total of four years.

What kind of work did you focus on during those three years?

It was mostly community organizing around forest restoration. Many of the villages around Udaipur were highly dependent on forest resources for a variety of benefits (e.g. fodder, fuel, fruits, medicinals, etc.). Unfortunately in many of the villages, the forests were highly degraded, almost wasteland. My mentor at the Ford Foundation showed me that you can be effective in regenerating natural forests in India without spending a lot of money. The key was community organizing and temporarily closing off access. We were doing water conservation techniques and planting multi-purpose tree species, but the main effort was organizing communities into forest protection committees.

To restore the degraded lands, you needed to take the pressure off it and to do that, you needed to close access. A lot of these lands were public and communal lands open to all. The forest protection committees would be responsible for monitoring 50 hectare plots. Community members would be tasked, 24/7, to monitor the properties and keep animals and people off the land.

How did you get the local villagers on board with this?

We needed motivated groups of villagers who recognized the land they lived on was not sustainable. They realized the land was either going to regenerate or it was going to become more of a wasteland, and they’d have to move. The compact was that if they agreed to put in the time, they’d share in the benefits of the regenerated forest. So the villagers understood what was at stake.

We also had to convince the state forest departments to be on board. Historically, these departments had often resorted to punishing villagers for overusing the land and the forest resources. The breakthrough was helping repair this relationship, fostering trust between the state forest service departments and villagers, and ensuring that the benefits of the regenerated forests were shared with villagers.

How did the model end up working?

The “Joint Forest Management model” ended up being used across India and became a national policy. The Ford Foundation pioneered the model in West Bengal and helped spread it across India state-by-state, and I went to Udaipur to work with Seva Mandir to implement the model there. Historically, the forest conservation movement was focused on technical reforesting, often using fast-growing, non-native trees. But the problem was, the villagers didn’t know these trees, they were monocultures and therefore were not very useful.

The Joint Forest Management model worked much better because it was a low-cost model simply by closing access and protecting the land. This allowed native species to regenerate into more natural ecological systems. The villagers gained forest management skills and environmental benefits as a result. Ultimately, these Joint Forest Management Programs were very successful because they empowered villagers to take control of their own natural resources.

I, along with my mentor from the Ford foundation, Dr. Mark Poffenberger, and 10 other Indian co-authors, ended up chronicling this effort in a book published in the late 1996called Village Voices, Forest Choices: Joint Forest Management in India (Oxford University Press)

Aside from your forestry work, what was your impression of India?

India really knocked my socks off. The scale and scope of the population, and the density of the people in the cities were incredible to witness first hand. Indians I met were also just so incredibly hospitable. I really loved rural India. I found the people kind and respectful, open-minded and sincere. The villagers were very committed to improving their communities, and the women were fabulous. You didn’t have to do a lot of explaining for them to understand how to regenerate forests. I remember I went to one village to visit a school. Everyone was sitting on the floor, but a woman went running outside to her home to get me a chair. I was the only person sitting in a chair, and it’s an example of the kindness and hospitality they showed.

What was your experience with Seva Mandir?

I worked closely with Ajay and Neelima Khetan [former Chief Executive / current Trustee of Seva Mandir]. Ajay and Neelima are amazing people, I don’t know how else to put it. They were brilliant and visionary, very motivating people to work with. One thing I always appreciated was that we’d all get together at Seva Mandir, the various groups that were working on different aspects of rural development. Our meetings were very conversation- and discussion-based. You really got to know the peers you were working with. Another remarkable thing was how welcoming and open-minded Seva Mandir was volunteers, including foreigners. I always felt really valued, and the organization was so supportive of having foreigners embedded in it and being a part of it. It was a pleasure and honor to be embraced that way.

I understand you’ve continued to do forestry and conservation work after Seva Mandir. How did the experience there shape your subsequent career?

The experience changed my life. I’ve spent a lot of time overseas since, including working for The Nature Conservancy for 8 years in Asia, but I haven’t had a chance to do similar work at the grassroots level since. Personally, it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to learn and grow and contribute. It added so much to my understanding of poverty and the stresses around natural resources. I’d studied it, but to live it and find solutions working with local villagers and Seva Mandir staff was a very formative experience. My time there solidified my interest in the field and years later I’m still doing forestland and water conservation in the U.S. Right now I am involved in conservation work in New England, and just like in India, it’s all about the community, developing relationships, organizing around goals and developing management plans that benefit people.

Is there any final message you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d just say that I am a real fan of Seva Mandir and people should consider supporting the organization in any way they can, whether by donating or volunteering their time. Seva Mandir is a dynamic, field-based organization that really makes a difference in village India, from healthcare to education to community self-governance to natural resource conservation and management. Many of the villages Seva Mandir works with are subsistence-based communities that truly depend on the land and water for their livelihood. The organization adds so much value in terms of what it does in these communities and how it empowers villagers and improves the quality of their lives. The leverage of your dollar in India is tremendous, likely fifty-fold – and you will be supporting a wonderful mission.

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