Green filmmaker Rita Banerji finds solace in wildlife and environment

THUMB PRINT CHANGEMAKER SERIES

RITA BANERJI, FILMMAKER

Winner of multiple Green Oscars, Rita Banerji heads Dusty Foot Productions, a wildlife and environment film-making and communications agency. She has recently started Green Hub – a community and youth-based fellowship, and video documentation centre for work related to the environment and social change in North East India, in collaboration with North East Network.

What made you start Green Hub?

I have been involved with wildlife and environment films since 1991. Most of the films have been around people and animals, and the issues around them. While some of the films we did had significant impact in terms of saving a species – like ‘Shores of Silence’ which stopped the killing of Whale Sharks in India, there were some like ‘The ‘Wild Meat Trail’ which made us realize that just films are not enough. If we want to bring about actual change on the ground it was important to work directly with communities, especially the youth,

With every shoot, with every film – the feeling that video documentation of indigenous knowledge is invaluable only grew stronger. Every time we were in the field, we heard incredible stories. The arrival of a bird predicting a good crop, the positioning of stars helping to locate reefs in the middle of the sea, estimating the length of the ladder made of forest vine for honey collection on steep cliffs. These were not just stories, but were deeply linked to the livelihood cycle and rooted in nature. And at the same time there were many stories of consistent disappearance of practices, loss of stories which have left with the earlier generation. How could we use the video to bridge this gap?

These are the thoughts that which over the years spurred things on, and everything one did was to build towards that step by step.

We began with ‘Under the Canopy’ – an education initiative involving teachers and community members in 2009, developed by Payal Molur of Go Wild Workshops.  And with the help of North East Network (NEN), an NGO working on women’s issues, it expanded to an Eco-Club Program in Chizami village, Nagaland. This was a three-year program for children between 10 -14yrs to observe their ecosystem through video, photography, field learnings as well as creative writing and music. This model then just grew in an organic way with more collaborators like the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT) and Conservation India.

In a region where violence and political conflict has ruled for the past six decades, the youth need new avenues, to perceive the world differently and play a role in building their region back. Natural resource and community forests form the backbone of the village communities of the northeast. Critical ecosystems are disappearing due to misplaced ideas of development. We need to look at creation of livelihood by protection of natural resources rather than destroying them.

Video is a strong tool for storytelling and conservation action. But at the same time how do you make this process more democratic, systematic as well as accessible not only to the community but to a larger audience so that it becomes a web of information and action? Can we create more space for local narratives and local stories? Can we use it to bridge the gap between generations, to absorb the past and use the knowledge for an effective future?

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Green Hub is an integration of all these idea, working with the youth and community, using the visual medium to engage with their own natural resources, look at new paradigms of conservation, and become the changemakers for tomorrow, not only for conservation and social change, but also for the peace process.

How has been your experience so far?

Green Hub has two core areas. One is the fellowship we offer 20 youth across the northeast region, especially from remote areas and marginalized communities, the other is the video documentation of the work being done by various organizations on the ground. Both the aspects integrate to create a very dynamic and symbiotic conservation movement – something that over the years will only expand and connect more people.

In the two years of Green Hub we have received a great response, with more than 420 applications, across the eight states, 16 partner organizations for the  internship program. About 60 short films have been done on a range of subjects from biodiversity, community conservation initiatives, agriculture, traditional healers, songs, weaves, indigenous knowledge.

There is definitely a gap that we are bridging between community, organizations both government and non-government as well as civil society where visual information is concerned.

However, one of the most significant experiences for us has been to see the friendships that have developed between the fellows from across the states. Where there is learning and perception change about each other’s regions, there is collaboration, there is respect. There is also a lot of cross-learning about the northeast through watching each other’s videos. The hope is that these friendships help to transform the thinking among the youth and take them away from despair and violence.

Every day there are new aspects to think of, in terms of how to make the space more valuable. One of the key areas of our work now is to work with the alumni, find support for their projects at the grassroots.

Please tell us more about your students? How are they faring? Can you give us some examples?

Our first batch had representations from 5 states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland. The age group was from 21 to 40 and the profile ranging from youth from remote areas, forest frontline staff, fellows who were unlettered but fantastic field people working with NGO’s,  NGO workers, as well some from urban spaces.

Post the fellowship – fellows from the first batch have fared quite well. Four of them formed their own company – Genesis 4. All 4 belong to different states – AP, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.  Their film won the best film award at the Arunachal Tourism Festival.  Tallo Anthony and Sital Dako got invited to Nature in Focus Festival in Bangalore, as speakers. Tallo managed to raise funds for his films during the presentation.

Four other fellows – Tsuseki, Limthure, Anoko and Zakhuma received the Sanctuary Asia Small Grant for continuing their conservation work with their communities. Longso has been employed by Aaranyak as a video documentation officer, and Franklin worked with a Phd Scholar for 6 months on a project on shifting cultivation .in Karbi Anglong, and now has received a further fellowship from Assam State Biodiversity Board. Two of the fellows Hiskiya and Geeta are continuing with Green Hub as training assistants.

The second batch who are about to graduate are also getting plugged into new opportunities in their own states like starting media stations for their community, as well as organisations.

While the first batch has fared well, it’s only with time we will know the real impact as well as challenges. The idea of Green Hub does not really end with the one year fellowship, but how this space can be a support, an incubator for the fellows beyond the fellowship. That is the core vision. It should become a place which is led by them.

What do you think is the future of Green Hub?

I think the first thing is to make the program stronger, constantly adapting to the needs and new things that are emerging. Since it is the first program of this kind here, at every step there are new engagements, ideas as well as possibilities. The future of Green Hub lies in the continuation of the core intent. As long as it is driven by that, there will be growth.

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The two strands that are developing interestingly is the work that the fellows are doing post the fellowship – whether it is with on-ground conservation, films, getting employment, social enterprise or incubating new ideas. This part while being organic to some extent, is the most dynamic in terms of the future, as it’s in some way afforesting a landscape with positive and innovative thinking.

The other is the value of video documentation where the scope is increasing day by day not only in terms of what we are documenting – biodiversity, music, traditional knowledge, indigenous festivals, research – but how it can be used for multiple platforms – education, science, archiving, digital textbooks and much more.

Also there have been requests to begin Green Hub in other parts of the country as there are similar issues in other landscapes like the Nilgiris, Uttarakhad etc.

What are your main objectives?

Green Hub in the northeast is a partnership between North East Network (NEN) and Dusty Foot (DFP).  NEN has over the last 20 years and more, done ground breaking work with gender in the region, and DFP has made its mark in wildlife and environment. The partnership I think brings with it a unique perspective of looking at the environment as connected with every aspect of our life, and not in isolation.

One of the key objectives of Green Hub is to give strength to this synergy.

While women and youth are key stakeholders, they are the most vulnerable to conflict and invasive development. Protection of natural resources, their community owned forest areas are essential to the survival of their equitable growth, preservation of traditional values and livelihood security. While it is important to bring in the roads, the electricity and the good aspects of development, losing their natural wealth will be a disaster.

Green Hub’s objective is empowering the youth to become the changemakers for positive action. Open avenues for wider exposure and integration with livelihood options – triggering ideas and action for a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable future in the region.

And secondly to share with the world the incredible work happening ‘on-the-ground’ in the area of conservation, traditional knowledge, gender and enterprise in the northeast by different individuals, groups and organizations; and in this way creating a web of learning and action.

Also read:

http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/jail-is-a-correction-home-nayama-ahmed/

http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/utsah-has-created-a-support-system-for-vulnerable-children-in-guwahati/

http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/a-school-principal-in-assam-crusades-against-child-marriage/