A teacher has been leading afforestation efforts in India’s Thar desert for nearly two decades and was recognised by the United Nations. But the process is not without challenges, he says.

In India’s Thar desert region of Rajasthan, changing climate, soil erosion and deforestation make the quality of land the poorest in the country. Degradation of land in the dry and sandy Thar, which spans over 60 percent of the state, poses a threat not only to desert ecology but also has an impact on people’s food security and source of livelihood. 

Since 2003, Shyam Sunder Jyani – a native of the region and an associate professor of Sociology, has been working towards restoring and preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity of the Thar desert through his approach of familial forestry, which aims at integrating the region’s culture and nature. 

Jyani, who belongs to one of India’s marginalised caste groups, hails from a farming family in the 12 TK village in Ganganagar district – about 12 miles away from the India-Pakistan border. Worried about the menace of desertification in the region, the professor interacted with locals and eventually formed a grassroots network of villagers and youths to further the concepts of ‘Familial Forestry’ and ‘Institutional Forest,’ where trees are planted on family land and in public spaces, respectively. 

The former had won him the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Land for Life award – the world’s highest award for land conservation and restoration – in June 2021. 

Established in 1994, the UNCCD is the only legally binding framework that globally addresses problems related to desertification and drought. 

FairPlanet spoke with professor Jyani about the challenges and triumphs of the grassroots network he established as well as his take on the concepts of familial forestry and institutional forest. 

FairPlanet: Where did the idea of developing familial forestry come from? Can you take us back to the origins of this 19-year long journey? 

Shyam Sunder Jyani: When I first came to Dungar college in 2003 as an assistant professor, I observed that the campus only had 10 to 15 trees left. And even those trees were dying. So in the same year, I rescued the trees with my students. And that whole exercise made me realise that this district is more arid than Ganganagar, my native district. The district lacked greenery, which doesn’t occur to our imagination when we think of Rajasthan. However, once my students and I rescued and planted some neem (Azadirachta indica) trees, I got quite keen on making the district green. 

So as my subject is sociology, I first thought of taking a cue from people’s mindset and understanding what people in this area really think of the environment. So, I observed that people in my area, or I think in most parts of this country, worship trees and water. They already have a semblance of connection with nature but certainly lack empathy. So I wanted to touch on that aspect and bridge the gap. 


Can you talk about the concept behind Familial Forestry, how it is being implemented and at what magnitude? 



Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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