Environmental conflicts cannot always be resolved through an adversarial process inside a court room. Most conflicts, on the other hand, need well crafted policies to address the concerns of different stakeholders through a participatory process.

Shyama Kuriakose, our next pathbreaker, Legal Head at Wildlife Conservation Society of India, works on wildlife conservation by strengthening wildlife crime prosecution, helping with capacity building, providing legal assistance to law enforcement agencies and conducting policy research in this area. 

Shyama talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her keen interest in natural resource management which led to a career in environmental governance exploring the connections between cultural rights/traditional expressions of indigenous communities and environmental conservation.

For students, biodiversity conservation in partnership with local communities is the future. Its upto you to make the concepts like circular economy, farm to table and sustainable consumerism a reality !

Shyama, Your background?

While I originally belong to Kerala, because of my father’s military career, we moved all around the country. My early childhood was spent in army cantonments of Meerut and Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh. After that, during secondary and senior secondary schooling, I was in Kochi and Hyderabad. Since we travelled around a lot, I was always exposed to new experiences. Due to this exposure, I have always enjoyed travelling and meeting new people. Every new landscape was a new adventure and to this day, I can never say no to travel. 

As a kid, I also enjoyed reading books, writing poetry and was fascinated with arts and handicrafts. Maybe because of living in cantonments and green spaces and then coming back to Kerala to spend time with grandparents in their lush typical farmhouse during vacations, I was quite close to nature. While growing up, I never imagined becoming an environmental lawyer, but I suppose, my love for nature has a foundation in my childhood. 

Experiences like collecting warm eggs from the hutch, fishing in the local pond, taking dips in the farmyard tanks, watching the grownups cook delicious food from farmstead greens which we kids foraged, giving a hand to the farm helpers during rice harvests, getting stuck in wet mud, collecting flowers and grains, helping the elders churn fresh butter in the morning, and then during festivals, experiencing the sense of community, have all probably had a role in influencing my career choice.   

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

I did not have much clarity after my 12th std, so I decided my next steps based on my interests. Though I loved to read and delve in arts, I also wanted to have a stable career. I had thought of hotel management/ fashion designing/ journalism, but back then, there was no one to take advice from regarding these choices. Though I was fascinated about joining the army, there were very few options for commerce students at that time. 

This is when my family and I heard of Judge Advocate General Recruitment in the army and so we decided that I will pursue law as a means to an end to join the army. The attraction was job stability, as well as spare time to pursue things I love and the opportunity to travel from place to place. Thus I wrote the entrance exam to National University for Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi (NUALS), cracked it and ended up doing law (LLB) for five years from 2004-2009. 

During my course, I started getting exposed to a whole new set of subjects, which I could never dream of. Subjects like intellectual property rights (IPR), jurisprudence, forensic science, media law and environment law stood out. I had varied internship experiences working in different environments ranging from practicing lawyers to law firms with corporate backgrounds. I tried for JAG (Judge Advocate General) in my final year and also pursued NCC ‘B’ and ‘C’ certifications which can really improve one’s chances of getting selected. 

However it was during my NCC training that I felt like I wanted to do something different with my life. I did enjoy the physical training and outdoor camp experience for sure. My sessions with target practice and assembling arms still remain fresh in my memory. In effect, by the time I passed out, I was still undecided on my career. Consequently, I decided to pursue an LLM in IPR law at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad from 2009-2011.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Apart from my childhood interactions with green spaces, I was influenced by my parents’ green practices in food waste management and energy consumption. During my NUALS days, I followed the work done by Sunita Narain from Center for Science and Environment. I used to love reading Down to Earth and Gobar Times during my college days. Further, my lecturer in environmental law, Advocate Abraham Meachinkara, also encouraged me to learn and read more on the subject. My short internship with Mr. D. Dhanuraj, Director of Center for Public Policy Research, opened my eyes to the research prospects in environmental law.

At NALSAR, I was influenced by Prof. Amita Danda to choose a career that is based on my interest rather than just being a box ticker and going after a job. This is why I did not sit for placements either at NUALS or NALSAR. After joining ELDF, I was privileged enough to be trained directly by Advocate Sanjay Upadhyay, the Managing Partner, in all aspects of a career in environment law policy making. 

I felt encouraged to work for the welfare of forest dependent communities after seeing and reading about all the complex environmental conflicts in the country. I got an opportunity to explore rights based environmental governance. Given that I was more interested in research and advocacy rather than court craft, this seemed like the right choice. Extensive travelling to the most remote parts of the country and interacting with communities became an added advantage. 

Since I had also nurtured an interest in writing and journalism back in school, I started gravitating more towards writing op-eds and academic articles recently. To this end, I must be grateful to the founders of Livelaw, Mr. M.A. Rashid and Advocate P.V. Dinesh, as well as Advocate Sanjay Upadhyay, Dr. Balakrishna Pisupati and Dr. Dhvani Mehta for letting me explore the magic of the written word. Some of my noteworthy writings include ‘Legal Aspects Revolving Open Access to Ecological Data’, ‘Climate-induced migration, too, must be addressed’, ‘Upholding Tribal Autonomy To Propagate India’s Forest Wealth’, ‘Legal responses to Multiple Challenges Facing Wetland Management’, ‘Lessons after the Great Deluge’, ‘Biodiversity Act: A jungle of confusion’, ‘Debunking The Myth That Forest Rights Act Is Against Forest Conservation’, ‘Leaving Communities Behind in the Quest for Conservation’, ‘Rebuilding Kerala Post-Floods: Law & Policy Perspective’, ‘Impact of Traditional Knowledge on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants- An Overview’, among others. 

It was during this time in 2018 that the floods struck Kerala and the state government was left unprepared. I realized the importance of coordination and buy-in from all stakeholders in disaster risk reduction during climate induced extreme events. This is when I started believing in the idea of collaboration with other legal professionals who also wanted to make a difference in environmental governance. This experience of volunteering, advocacy and awareness building led me to be part of an unofficial cohort of legal professionals who collaborate in making a difference in environmental governance. 

In the spirit of collaboration, I began working with organizations across the country such as Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, Forum for Law, Environment, Development and Governance (FLEDGE), Centre for Environmental Law Education, Research and Advocacy (CEERA), Taru Leading Edge, among others as an independent consultant to gain deeper understanding of the environmental policy space and to also develop my network. 

Bottom-line is that I wanted to be in a sector where I could collaborate with like-minded people, pursue my passions and not be stuck in a rat race.      

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

It was my keen interest towards natural resource management which enabled me to take up my master’s subject as IPR, wherein I researched on the connection between cultural rights/traditional expressions of indigenous communities and environment conservation. My interest in working on NRM was further encouraged through Enviro Legal Defence Firm (ELDF) of which I was part of from 2011-2018. While I spent 9 months in NCR in the beginning, the rest of my time at ELDF was spent managing its South Indian branch in Cochin.  

My time in ELDF gave me a good foundation in laws and policies on Wildlife, Biodiversity, Decentralisation/ Self-Governance, Urban Infrastructure, Oceans and Renewable Energy, Water, Forests, Environment Protection and Disaster Management, among other subjects. My focus had primarily been in research, capacity building, and publication related activities in above-mentioned subject matters.

I have participated in various environmental consultations across the country. Through these projects, I have sought to support national and state level government agencies with implementation of environmental laws. I was also able to conduct ground truthing exercises. My responsibilities also included development of funding proposals, monitoring and evaluation of project objectives, program coordination from the inception stage and preparation of progress reports, deliverables, project indicators, among others. 

Another great gift through these varied opportunities is learning how to think like an entrepreneur and create my own space in this industry. As I was involved to some degree with business development initiatives of ELDF in South India, it helped me design projects from scratch and enable partnerships with like-minded networks and organizations at the local, national and international levels. 

With my exposure to international law organizations such as United Nations Development Program, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, United States Aid for International Development, International Development Law Organization, among others, I feel that I got a lot of exposure at being a global professional. I was also able to contribute towards the administrative aspects of project management including budget preparation, work allocations and personnel management.

One of the most important lessons that I learnt at ELDF is that we cannot work in silos. Just like the environment around us, every single law or stakeholder is connected in some way or the other. For example, when I researched on forest conservation, I learnt that in a country like India, forest dependent communities must be involved in the conservation process. Another lesson is that not every environmental conflict can be solved through the adversarial process inside a court room. For some conflicts to be resolved, the parties must come to an understanding based on mutual self-interest. I know it is not possible for all stakeholders to join hands and sing ‘kumbaya’ but this should be the direction that we aspire for!  

As a policy researcher, I also learnt that many of our environmental laws need to be updated. We still follow the Indian Forest Act from 1927! While attempts to amend it have been kick started, there is a long way to go. The conflict between central and state laws has been another cause of concern and this pile on to the conflicts inside courts. 

In 2018, I took a break to explore my potential as an independent legal consultant. In between, I was also offered an opportunity to  attend a one week Workshop on ‘Elaborating Measures to Implement the Nagoya Protocol’ organized by the International Development Law Organization in Vietnam. This experience showed me how interested I am in the implementation of Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and I am now focusing all my energies towards gaining more expertise in this subject. Consequently, I ended up with quite a few research projects and clients where I could demonstrate my understanding of the law. 

In 2019, I got this wonderful opportunity to join Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, New Delhi for a project tracking the implementation of five landmark judgments of the Supreme Court of India and the National Green Tribunal on environmental protection. This project resulted in five documentary films and detailed case briefs. Between 2019 and 2021, I continued to work on independent research projects and publication of op-eds on the side until I landed up with a full time job opportunity in Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Bangalore. 

What I realised with every new job is an opportunity to learn something new and how to look at practising environmental law in a creative manner beyond courtrooms. The complex dynamics in environmental conflicts also make me realise that the solutions have to be creative and empathetic to all parties concerned. My journey from one job to the next has been organic with no other intention but to explore the various aspects of this sector. However, the skills I have learnt along the way, have given me a better perspective on how to handle my current job.  

How did you get your first break?

It was during my masters that I came across a senior who had passed out from NALSAR and was working at ELDF. I immediately applied for an internship at ELDF, continued associating with the firm through my masters and on graduating, got offered a job. Excellent networks and an encouraging boss set me up for life to pursue a career in this sector.  

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Most policy making and organizations involved with the same are based out of NCR and there is barely any presence in South India, especially Kerala. 

I shifted my base to Delhi to get introduced to more individuals and organizations working in environmental law policy making; attended as many talks and workshops as possible to expand my understanding. 

  • Challenge 2: In the natural resources management sector, it can get very competitive and difficult to find work.  

Interacting and collaborating with as many legal professionals as possible through op-eds, papers and research projects. Linkedin has been very useful towards this purpose. 

  • Challenge 3: Revenue generation in the beginning is very difficult and it takes one, several years to come to a point where being a legal consultant in environmental law is financially sustainable. 

I took on as many opportunities as I could even if these were not directly related to my field of interest so that I could earn on the side while still pursuing my passion. I remember appearing in labour court to generate income while I was an independent environmental law consultant. 

Can you tell us about your current role in Wildlife Conservation?

I currently work as the Legal Head- Counter Wildlife Trafficking with Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Bangalore. We work on wildlife conservation through the strengthening of wildlife crime prosecution. We help with capacity building, legal assistance to law enforcement agencies and policy research in this area. 

An understanding of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 along with other supporting conservation legislations such as Indian Forest Act, 1927, Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, Indian Evidence Act and Indian Penal Code is a basic requirement in this sector. It also helps to be informed about the national and international developments happening around wildlife conservation and natural resource management in general.

Since we have to assist law enforcement agencies with cases, we have to be well versed with providing legally astute solutions. As part of my work experience, I have been able to conduct detailed assessment of Indian and international laws concerning the development sector, thereby bringing out the lacunas and providing solutions for the same. I have also assisted both private sector as well as government organizations with enviro-legal due diligence so as to ensure compliance with legal measures and troubleshoot in cases of non-adherence. This prepared me for the task at hand. 

Another task is to be able to interact effectively with a wide range of stakeholders. I have been able to interact with a wide variety of stakeholders such as government officials, representatives from international organizations and private sector, experts, NGOs, community based organizations and indigenous communities thereby sharpening my communication skills and ability to provide solutions and resolve conflicts for a diverse group of stakeholders. My involvement in film making helped in sharpening my communication skills further. Writing on these issues and resultant publications has helped me hone my knowledge and understanding of the issues at hand.

It is currently a typical 9 to 5 job from Monday to Friday as I believe in work life balance. While burning the midnight oil is required on some occasions, I pay great importance to my physical, emotional and mental well-being. I devote the first half of my day usually to creative thinking and intellectual work and in the latter half, I spend time in project discussions, updates or administrative tasks. What I absolutely love about this space is the kind of impact we are making in wildlife conservation through our work with law enforcement agencies. It is quite fascinating as a lawyer to engage with scientists and wildlife conservationists and chalk up creative solutions in the policy space.   

How does your work benefit society? 

I believe that the natural resource management sector has untapped potential and the future is filled with amazing career opportunities in this space. While I would not like to be a doomsayer, the anthropological approach to development has come with its own cost with severe stress on the economic and human resources of the world. Socio-economic conditions of poor communities are set to become worse with climate change induced disasters, reducing natural resources and general reduction of life standards. On the plus side, these problems require creative solutions and talent drawn from all walks of life. Lawyers have a special role to play in this endeavor, given their understanding of how laws and policies work. Having a career in this sector will certainly prove as a service to society and to the planet.  

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

At ELDF, I had the opportunity to help draft a medicinal plant policy for the state of Arunachal Pradesh under a project by UNDP. For this project I ended up travelling to different parts of Arunachal Pradesh and interacting with traditional healers. The learnings from this trip have inspired me to advocate for the conservation of traditional medicinal knowledge through my entire career. All my field trips for projects have given me interesting experiences and insights. 

Another interesting opportunity was to work at Vidhi Center for Legal Policy on documentary films depicting implementation of landmark environmental judgements. Through a combination of field research, judgment analysis, and interviews with petitioners, lawyers, and other stakeholders, I assisted with the production of a set of five documentaries. As a legal professional, this was a very unique experience for me. I learnt to storyboard, write scripts, distil judgements to make it seem less complicated to the layperson and work with film editors in finalizing the film. I will forever cherish this experience that introduced me into the world of movie making! 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never say never. Take every opportunity and challenge that appears in your way to learn something new. Every skill that you pick up on the way can be put to good use. Be ready to collaborate as it will make your journey less lonely. Pass on your knowledge and experience to those who are younger than you so that the community thrives. The more you share, the more you gain. Last of all, work towards achieving a healthy work life balance as this will keep you motivated and happy in the long run.   

Future Plans?

I see biodiversity conservation in partnership with local communities in my future. I am exploring concepts like circular economy, farm to table and sustainable consumerism to help build communities that are self-sufficient, self-governed and also contribute towards the well-being of this planet. I also want to work more in the creative space of arts and literature and combine them with natural resource management. For now, I am gathering the tools I need to upskill myself towards achieving this vision.