When you have had a culturally rich upbringing, and a part of you belongs to a region known for its incredibly biodiverse landscape, then environmental conservation is not just a career but a part of life as well !

Preety Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Environment and Social Safeguards Manager at Wildlife Conservation Society (Nagaland), leads community based conservation efforts that balance ecological conservation with the ground realities.

Preety talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially following the general trend of doing engineering, and making a conscious decision to work on sustainability solutions focused on safeguarding bio-cultural and indigenous knowledge in a way that suits current societal needs.

For students, since sustainability is an interdisciplinary concept, no matter what subject you have studied or what you are good at, you can always contribute, learn and pave your own path. 

Preety, tell us what were your early years like? 

I had a very culturally rich upbringing; my mother belongs to the Lotha tribal community of Nagaland who are primarily Christians (now) and my father belonged to a Rajasthani Brahmin family. As you can imagine, I grew up in romantic chaos so to speak. Much of my younger days were spent in various activities in school, from theater to music to public speaking. I was subconsciously always interested in people and given my family background I already knew and experienced different cultures and ideals which made it easier for me to understand and make friends from diverse backgrounds. I had not thought of a career plan when I was in school. Even when I was in college, I did not plan or have a career in mind. Infact, it is only a few years ago that I have understood, accepted, and made a conscious decision to stick to the kind of work I do, knowing fully well what it entails. 

On a subtle note, my maternal family, belonging to the rich biodiverse landscape of Nagaland, showed me a way of life that I have aspired for since childhood. Although it started with exoticizing my own family, I soon understood and lived the nuanced life of a forest community later in life. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I studied engineering for my graduation. I graduated as a BTech in IT from Kolkata. 

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career? 

I was always encouraged to find my own path from the beginning. I argue that it was because my parents did not have enough time or understanding of formal education and school systems. But the decision to raise my brother and I to be independent worked in our favor, in paving our course. My mother was my biggest influencer, in the way she struggled, but mingled and understood the complexity of the Brahmin Marwari culture in a Bengali city. She is a people’s person and I know most of the things by learning from the hard work she put in while living her own life. She encouraged us to have friends from different backgrounds and often learnt about them along with me. 

I have been fortunate enough to meet many amazing people throughout my professional journey. But I believe the most impactful person I met was Poonam Bir Kasturi, founder of an organization called Daily Dump, where I worked for two years. She showed me the whole world of innovative design thinking through her thoughtful work and empathy. I learnt many skills, but the most important was never to stop learning and seeking. I see her as my mentor and often meet her to discuss my endeavors. She inspired me to look at sustainability in a more wholesome light and I strive to bring that to my work. 

Living with the communities where I work has been instrumental in choosing this career over anything else. I once had the good fortune to engage with the tribal communities of Spiti Valley, in the harsh conditions of trans-himalayan winters. There were multiple events in those 3 years, but the most impactful moment was when I was the most vulnerable, having an argument with one of the women I was working with, that led to an emotional outburst and later on, a stronger bond. It was really momentous for me because I realized the importance of individualism and how it connects us to the communities we are working with within the realm of community based conservation. This even helped me shed inhibitions and develop a more humane approach to my work that has brought me greater satisfaction and helped me stay on this career path. 

The most significant turning point in my life that I believe set me on this course was when I did not sit for any campus recruitment drives for engineering jobs. I made a decision based on the feeling that I may not be suited for the IT world, though I did know by then that I wanted to work with society in some capacity. Subsequently, I did my research for such opportunities, and ended up being a Gandhi Fellow. 

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 

I was very naïve in terms of career planning, even until college. I followed the crowd to study engineering that could secure me a job because that was the need of the hour. However, I went with my gut feeling that I would not enjoy my life as a software professional because it lacked social interaction; and my 6-month internship in HCL did help me in putting the nail into the coffin. 

I learnt to be a planner given the stressful circumstances of our family during my teen years. I needed a source of income after college to pay off personal loans and be financially independent, so I researched opportunities that I could apply for in the social sector that could pay me some money. I was neither experienced nor educated in the field, and so I willfully accepted that I may not get the best position to start working with. 

However, I landed a position as a Gandhi fellow that exposed me to the rural education sector, where all the fellows were lodged in different parts of Rajasthan. I readily agreed since I had some experience with the language and culture. I felt comfortable with this idea. This experience also strengthened my knowledge of communities and social structures because I was able to exercise my learnings during engagements and learn new things about the place and people. It helped me put a foot in the door, but a year later I realized I needed a little more visibly impactful experience to understand the cycle of change. 

I joined Daily Dump in 2015 with a vision to learn about multi-pronged approaches to create sustainable impact and how one could demonstrate relationships between rural and urban communities. Daily Dump started with the ambition to provide a solution to the solid waste management issue in urban Bangalore through compositing. Potter communities from near Bangalore were onboarded to make beautiful terracotta composters (Khamba) for the urban dwellers to create a sustainable product that would have less impact on the environment while providing livelihood opportunities to this declining artisan community. I joined them ( Daily Dump) to manage the production of the Khamba and to strengthen and build a community of evangelists who would help us propagate this idea to different parts of the city and the country. In the process I got to uncover some of the nuances of urban and rural communities while understanding the ground realities of implementing sustainable solutions. 

This helped me a great deal when I delved deeper into environmental impact through sustainable economic strategies with the Nature Conservation Foundation, in my next role. I joined as Project Manager for the women led conservation enterprise project that worked on behavioral change towards Snow Leopards and other wild animals in Spiti valley while mitigating economic and psycho-social risks of co-existence. I took up this rather challenging opportunity to learn the interdependencies of the society, economy, and environment. Nonetheless, this community project was one of the most eye opening and introspective ones, that led me to question some of the goals of conservation and development that were being devised without realizing their effect on the ground. It is here that I also realized the similarities between my home state and other forest dependant communities, and the need to work where I first learnt about forests and communities – Nagaland. After spending 3 years at NCF, I decided to work more closely at the intersection of development and conservation with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment by spearheading innovative product design and building a case for economically viable methods of eradicating lantana from the forests of South India through producer centric enterprise and business models. I took a break shortly after joining ATREE owing to personal reasons and decided to briefly work on less field intensive areas to learn more about funders (donors), government run projects and their management while still being connected to social issues of education, livelihoods, and skill development, with a short opportunity to work in Nagaland through one of these projects in KPMG, a corporate I joined to get a sense of business in other sectors. After regaining some stability, I decided to start working intensively with communities in Nagaland and the northeast on forest and community conservation. This led me to join Wildlife Conservation Society – India who have started a new project in Nagaland on conservation and livelihoods. 

Having an engineering degree, I did not have direct access to ecological and conservation circles. But my approach based on interest and building a network in those areas helped me move towards a career I enjoy and am invested in everyday. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break came when I started looking for work that would involve my key skill – community engagement. Once I started looking with an agenda, I found multiple fellowships and opportunities that would support the learning as well as provide relevant work and pay. 

I had initially applied for Gandhi Fellowship and Teach for India, both in the education sector. Having been provided financial support to finish my high school and college education through generous donations by sponsors, I had decided to delve deeper into the issues of access to education within financially deprived communities. This personal motivation helped me get through the interviews of both the fellowships; however I decided to stick to Gandhi Fellowship because of familiarity of the landscape (Rajasthan) and also the structure of the fellowship that was more community immersive than TFI, much to my comfort and liking. 

It is interesting that i could not find other fellowships and opportunities and jumped on the first two that aligned with my then aspirations and needs. 

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

Challenge 1: The main challenge and the one I still struggle with is financial security along with good work culture. There are many reasons for it, but I feel this challenge stops the really interested and relevant candidates from concerned landscapes to look at conservation as a career choice. I am yet to find a solution for that, but what helps me is finding balance, taking up consultancies on the side and sometimes taking a stand and leaving a toxic work culture. 

Challenge 2: Conservation until recently was dominated by academicians who were involved in ecological studies. It was hard for me to be heard as a practitioner and a beginner in the field where scientists and the who’s who have designed and led the way. My work was cut out for me, to read and learn more about conservation from an academic perspective and connect the dots from an implementational and social perspective. I must also say that there are a few people from the same academic community who have helped me gain that focus with their trust and mentorship, along the way. 

Challenge 3: Explaining my work to my family members is an ongoing struggle because even when I go back to my village in Nagaland and speak about my work, they regard it less than a government or a corporate job. Highlighting socio-ecological importance in a forest dwelling community where they aspire to be at par with the fast-paced consumerist economy is a big challenge in these times. It is an ongoing fight, which for me is moving from latency to dormancy because effects in terms of climate change related ecological imbalance are being seen by these communities now.

Where do you work now? 

I work in Nagaland in the Peren district as an Environment and Social Safeguards Manager. The project envisions working with the communities for ecological conservation while trying to mitigate the effects of the same on their everyday life especially livelihoods. This is a project where the communities are intended to take ownership and participate in the designing, implementing, and monitoring of the activities. 

What problems do you solve? 

I am currently engaged in finding out the problem. Overall, there is an understanding of imbalance, but the project activities need to be customized as per ground realities. The current research proposes to gather some local ecological knowledge and evidence along with understanding the willingness of the communities to participate. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

There is a need to be patient and observant in community-based conservation because one deals with two major dynamic systems – flora-fauna and social. There is a need for some academic understanding for the work that has been done so far in a particular landscape, but to a large extent one also needs to understand social structures, power and developmental issues that affect and get affected by nature especially in the forest dwelling communities. I gained some satisfactory academic exposure to conservation through multiple courses on social sciences, conservation and mentorship of some eminent scientists and fellow colleagues. But most of my learning has been experiential and deeply introspective. 

What’s a typical day like? 

A typical day can be based on the field or in the office. When I am on the field, I am with my team and we stay in the community either in a guesthouse or someone’s home. We usually engage in everyday chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing as is the norm in the communities. At the time of work, we engage in discussions with various community people and visit the area in and around the dwellings to understand the place better through the community’s perspective. Often, we have some informal discussions and debates through which relationships are built for the long term; this also depends on the relationship that is already built.

The days the team and I are in office, we engage in various administrative and documentation work. We also have to engage with stakeholders that are not a part of the community but are crucial to partner with for the smooth sailing of the project such as government officials, other CSOs and relevant organizations. 

What is it you love about this job? 

The most exciting part about this work is that we get to learn about multiple perspectives and the new approaches to sustainable living that one may not have thought of. Some of the people become lifelong friends and we share a bond that transcends the work we do. It is also a very humbling experience when a community welcomes you in their homes and hearts while discussing deep thoughts, visions, and issues. It gives us a time to introspect on our work and in personal capacity as well. The travels, various life skills and a lively environment of such communities drive me to work in this space. 

How does your work benefit society? 

There are various levels at which society benefits from our work, not to mention that we as people are also part of that society and in turn get benefitted too. There is a lot of underlying emotional dilemma that leaves the communities torn between conventional development and sustainability. When we give a patient hearing to them and exchange ideas with them, there is a sense of validity and encouragement the community can benefit from. As we are aware of how governance works in the country, the most beneficial thing about community-based conservation approach is the need to involve people from the beginning till the end of the projects, and with the advent of rights-based approach it also makes them the important stakeholders, rights holders so to speak. Often, we find that nature and people have a very codependent relationship that requires continuous efforts, and with community conservation we try to build that potential within the communities by leveraging their history, local knowledge, and pride in their biodiverse landscape. All the while being a support system for them whenever they require technical and network support.

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

One time I had conducted an all-India Potter’s Meet in one of the potter villages. During this meeting, multiple communities from different states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu had assembled to discuss their work and techniques. The interaction was enriched with various technical methods of pottery that each of them shared and later learnt from each other, while talking about differences in the raw materials and their effect on the rivers and soil. They also shared their financial understanding of the composting business and how it could support them and their communities while also maintaining the urban ecological impact. It was one of the first interactions that opened my eyes to facilitating local knowledge in a space that the local communities are comfortable in. 

In another example, I had worked only a year in the Spiti Valley and managed to develop sustainable financial partnerships along with supporting the women to develop a production system that could earn them enough funds and sustain the unique operations of the enterprise as well. It was a novel idea that had women’s wellness in mind, that resulted in co-operation and strengthened the relationship of the women with the organization as well as the conservation ethos. I learnt that community mobilization and empathetic project design were the key to any conservation effort in landscape dependent communities. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

In my experience with community based conservation and sustainability work, the most important lesson I learnt was to keep the community at the center of the project. It is always an uphill task to unlearn and empathize with a group that may be so different from your own, but vulnerability and adaptability will make work easier on the ground. I will also urge anyone with even the slightest inclination towards sustainability to work towards it either professionally or personally that will help you as an individual to get a first hand experience. Since sustainability is an interdisciplinary concept, if you are interested, no matter what subject you have studied you can always contribute and learn and pave your own path. 

Future Plans?

I intend to work closely in my home state, Nagaland. I have a long term plan to work towards nature conservation and sustainable development here, that will most importantly involve safeguarding bio-cultural and indigenous knowledge in a way that suits the current societal needs. I also visualise a time when all indigenous and local communities across the country can have a voice and create a conglomerate that informs decision making and paves the future of conservation and sustainability.