Conserving Habitats; Protecting Livelihoods: A Women’s Group in Orissa, India Leads the Way

Conserving Habitats; Protecting Livelihoods

UNDP is partnering with the Orissa government to mobilize local communities to conserve natural resources through building sustainable ecosystem based livelihoods and social capital.

“When communities themselves drive conservation efforts, they can positively impact coastal livelihoods and ensure that conservation efforts are successful,” said Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Orissa. The Chief Minister was speaking at a felicitation ceremony to recognize the Samudram Women’s Federation, one of twenty-five recipients of the 2010 Equator Prize.


  • Orissa’s Samudram Women’s Federation, led by B. Chittamma, receives 2010 UNDP Equator Prize for its biodiversity conservation efforts
  • Orissa’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik felicitates the group at an event organised by UNDP
  • UNDP Equator Prize is a United Nations-led partnership that supports local efforts in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation

At the event organised by UNDP in partnership with the Department of Forests, Government of Orissa, the Chief Minister praised the Samudram Group noting that “what started as a small movement led by 15 women in 1993, has now become a state-wide campaign that holds important lessons for conservation initiatives across the country.” He credited the Equator Initiative for bringing global attention to the community-led conservation efforts in the state. The UNDP Equator Initiative is a United Nations-led partnership that supports local efforts in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. It was a response to the need to improve the livelihoods of people who live among the world’s greatest concentrations of biodiversity, yet often lack the capacity to convert this natural wealth into better health, education, agriculture, and social development.

In its work in India, UNDP has supported efforts to look beyond the ‘protected areas’ to support conservation outside protected forests in community conserved areas. Besides enhancing conservation, these initiatives also strengthen livelihoods of communities. In Orissa alone, a UNDP study has identified over 6,000 community conserved areas.

India is recognised globally as biodiversity rich and is one of the top-ten species rich countries in the world. Close to 275 million people depend on the ecosystem for day-to-day subsistence. Many of India’s poorest households derive income, food, shelter and much more from forests.

As Caitlin Wiesen, Country Director, UNDP India pointed out, “If we are to reverse the trend of depleting environmental assets, much will depend on the abilities of local communities to build sustainable livelihoods while conserving the environment for future generations.” She added, “Initiatives that empower women to build community resilience must be at the heart of our poverty reduction efforts.”

Led by B. Chittamma, the uneducated wife of a fisherman, the Federation, first set up to tackle social problems such as alcoholism, health and education , now comprising 15 women’s groups across 52 coastal habitations across four districts, is a crucial force in efforts to protect Orissa’s coastal biodiversity. Says Chittamma, “Livelihoods in the area can only be sustained if we protect fish production. If there are more Olive Ridley turtles, there will be more fish. The fish are our livelihood, so it’s our duty to protect the turtles.”

The importance of Olive Ridley turtles in protecting the livelihoods of coastal communities has long been established, and since 1997, UNDP has supported Indian government efforts to monitor the migration and conservation of this important species. However, fishery-related practices, coastal development and climate change have resulted in a sharp decline in the population of Olive Ridley turtles over the years. The Samudram Women’s Federation aims to reverse this trend through a sustained campaign to monitor breeding, restore habitats, protect beaches and promote responsible fishing practices.

In Orissa, UNDP is partnering with the state government to mobilize local communities to conserve natural resources, particularly outside protected forest areas through building sustainable ecosystem based livelihoods and social capital. A UNDP project on medicinal plants has demonstrated that plant-based traditional medicines have the potential to reduce healthcare costs of rural communities by 60 percent.

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