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Scaling-Up Successful Nature-Based Development

In this interview, Crispino Lobo of the Watershed Organization Trust talks about how rural villages can escape poverty by managing their land sustainably.

I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Lobo about his poverty work for the Watershed Organization Trust in the Maharashtra state of India. The 2005 World Resources Report studied the example of Mr. Lobo’s project, and found that it was “successfully mobilizing villagers to regenerate land through tree-planting and water and soil conservation.”

In the rural community of Darewadi, the success of the program was clear. Residents saw a rise in their water table levels, an increase in the volume of land under irrigation, and higher employment and wage levels. Currently, the program is active in 896 villages located throughout four Indian states.

His work is especially relevant today, as WRI recently unveiled World Resources Report 2008: Roots of Resilience at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. The report found that community-based, natural resource management projects like Mr. Lobo’s can lead to successful development projects that help the rural poor overcome poverty, while also benefiting the surrounding ecosystem. In addition, sustainable natural resource management can help rural villages build resilience to climate change.

The WRR 2008 calls for scaling-up successful projects to ensure that other rural, low-income communities benefit from the knowledge gained in places like Darewadi.

Mr. Lobo and I discussed how giving the rural poor ownership over development projects can lead to greater success, how spreading these projects is necessary to fight poverty successfully, and how these development methods can be used in other impoverished areas of the world, particularly in Africa.

An Introduction to Nature-Based Development

Q: Can you describe what the Watershed Organization Trust did in Darewadi, and talk through what’s gone on there the last few years?

Lobo: Darewadi is a village in the rain shadow belt of Maharashtra, so it’s a drought prone village. Dusty hot and surrounded by hills. And before we intervened, half the people had to migrate 6-8 months of the year for the purpose of living, survival. And there was no water in the village, so they had to migrate.

So when we intervened, or rather we mobilized the people, we got them to understand that this is not a long-term solution, migrating. It’s certainly not helping anybody, least of all themselves and the future of their children. Which they understood perfectly well, but the problem was, what is the alternative? What do we do?

So then we showed them by taking them to other villages where we did work, that if you trap the rainwater wherever it falls within the catchment of your own village then you could possibly not only solve the drinking water problem, you could also solve the problem of agriculture and livestock. In fact, change your lives. And it took some time for them to believe that because it’s basically an abstract concept. It’s only when you do it and see the impacts that you realize what it’s all about.

Q: How did you go in there and work with them to convince them to participate in this project?

Lobo: You see, drought is a great motivator. And when people have, unfortunately, tragedies of this type, natural calamities, they are a lot more open to receiving new ideas. Drought and such human suffering gives us an opportunity for changing things–if you can handle it well. Darewadi every 5 years, we have 2-3 years of drought. So when we offered the possibility of change, people took it. But a good incentive was we offered them cash for working also, wages.

Because they had to contribute. They contributed with 20-23%, or 25 percent depending on what you compute, but a minimum of 20% they contributed.

Q: Of their time?

Lobo: Of energy and labor. They had to work and they were not paid for, like for instance, in six days of work per week, they would get paid for 5 days, so that one day was work done on a contributory basis, a voluntary basis. So they had to contribute. But the fact was if we had not offered them wages for 5 days out of 6, they certainly couldn’t undertake this effort. These are people who live from hand to mouth from day to day, and if they’re not going to earn a living, then how do they do the work? So, we had the opportunity through donor funding to be able to organize them for work.

But that’s not the key thing. The key thing is, so what? The government often takes up this food for work programs, work for employment programs. But after that, what?

See the key thing in a watershed program is what you create. You must maintain. And to maintain, people must have a sense of ownership. They also must be involved in formulating and implementing what was done. It’s not as if I’m paying you to do work, and then you dig a hole and refill it because you get the money. It’s not that.

Basically the approach is, it’s your program, it’s your effort, you’re going to benefit because these are assets that you created in your village. And so we are going to particulate in your work, not vice versa, you’re not going to participate in my program. It’s your program which I am facilitating–making possible. But it’s not me doing it, it’s you. And my role is to help you to do it well.

The Critical Concept of ‘Scaling Up’

Q: How did you take the success of these particular watersheds, and the term the World Resources Report used is “scaling up”—how did you expand upon the lessons learned in Darewadi? And can you explain the concept of “scaling up”?

Lobo: Sure. Basically the approach is this. It should be simple enough such that at the micro level, at the village level, people not only can understand it, but own it. Because after the project is over, they must maintain it. It should be simple enough.

But it should be comprehensive and sophisticated enough to not only deliver at the micro level, but also meet the requirements of accountability, efficiency and sustainability at the macro level.

Now you have to have a program that answers not only the questions of accountability to donors, and to governments, and to whoever you’re accountable to. But it should also be decentralized enough such that the local people are able to own it. So the challenge was to develop a management system that while being sophisticated, you could centralize and decentralize it at the same time. In other words, both the tendency for centralizing, for command and control, and the tendency for ownership at the village level had to be finely balanced. So that is precisely the success.


Nothing talks louder than facts on the ground. And nothing succeeds like success. So when people saw success, then it spread. And success has many parents, many fathers, and failure is an orphan, obviously. So when you are successful and that success stems from ground activities which are owned by the people, and whom everybody claims to have had a role in the success of, then you have a movement.

Q: And you get “scaled up” from there?

Lobo: Exactly.

Where Else Can These Projects Work?

Q: Just on a general level, do you think this model is only useful in India, or can you see it used globally to help attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? Can you discuss that a bit?

Lobo: Yes. The impact of watershed development the way we do it, it’s not just land and water, it’s the whole gamut of activity–agriculture, horticulture, education, all of this comes in. The watershed is the hanger on which you hang everything else. Without that, there’s very little that you can hang together. This approach, which is community driven, in my opinion can be used everywhere in the world, particularly in Africa.

Why Africa? Because Africa is also very community based. I was born there. They are a very community based continent. People who leave their village have an obligation to those behind, and if you have a job, you’re expected to send money. Which means there’s a lot of social capital, ideal for such a program, number one.

Number two: their economies are largely agrarian. This is exactly what suits such a program, in fact we need it. In Somaliland for instance, which is the breakaway province of Somalia, we were asked to help them in training their people to do watershed work. They said, they admitted that when they came to India and saw our work–they did a training and we sent our people to support them also—the impact it had on the community was phenomenal. So much so that I believe the World Bank has asked them to submit a bid proposal now. […]

I believe this has tremendous potential for Africa. In Somaliland, and this is something interesting, you see, that’s a post-conflict situation. Really devastating. They’re shepards, they’re pastoralists, largely. So they were telling us, “Watershed won’t work here. Our people don’t dig. There’s no connection with the land, with the soil. It’s with sheep and you know, we’re independent people.” Good, I said, good. But here are people coming back to their villages who’ve lost a lot. They’ve got to start life again, and agriculture is the basis, whether you like it or not. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it on a watershed basis and do it right, number one.

Number two, if you are to build these communities again, which has seen much bloodshed, often from their own communities, then you have to get them to reconnect. There’s no better of reconnecting than digging the soil. Somehow the Earth has a very healing influence in all of us. And when you deal with the Earth, you realize your common brotherhood. That the divisions we have made are artificial, for which we have paid a heavy penalty.

That sweat, that mud on your hands reconnects you with the Earth and leads you back to the basis of building a community, a society. So post-conflict situations, in my opinion, should engage themselves in regenerating the environments in which they live. Touch the earth, work with it, and you rebuild, in my opinion, your communities. So it’s ideal for post-conflict situations, where people are largely agrarian, and where the environment requires building up.

Mr. Lobo’s Conclusions

Lobo: Once you do watershed development, you release the creative forces of a community. And once people discover that in their collective strength, they stand to benefit as a community and individually, a lot of things happen which you could never have planned for, nor even hoped would happen.

For instance, when people, once their mindset changes, and they get confidence, they find their way in life. They need a little assistance, nothing more. But they can walk out of poverty. That’s what I have seen in all these villages where we have worked successfully. I’m not saying we have success everywhere, no. There are failures. But wherever it’s been done well, people largely have gone out of poverty, or at least they do not have the same crises that they had before, particularly in regard to water availability and food security.

They’re diversified, they’re eating well, and more important, they send their children to school, when formally they couldn’t afford to. Now they do. The schools are full. And girls, girls are being sent more and more. For us, that’s the measure of our success.

All photos courtesy of The Watershed Organization Trust.

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