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Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD),
Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw, on Cauvery Calling

Cauvery Calling

Revitalizing the Land, the Water and the Lives of 84 million people in India

1.0 The Problem: Soil, Water and Livelihood challenge facing 4.7 billion people

Our collective mismanagement of the earth has manifested itself in myriad symptoms – including climate change, loss of topsoil and fertility, dwindling water resources, and the related farmer distress around the world. At risk is the world’s food security, water security, and the livelihoods of billions of people linked to the agrarian economy – especially so in the tropical world that is home to 4.7 billion people. India is one of the worst affected regions – with a 40% or more decline in its rivers in just two generations, due to more than 70% loss in green cover in the river basin areas. As a result, soil fertility is declining, there are more droughts and floods, and there is acute agrarian distress with a rising tide of farmer suicides. Not surprisingly, 24% of the world, and 32% of India, is turning into a desert.

Given this backdrop, the Cauvery River, which has been a life-line of South India for many millennia, is now dying. At stake is 83000 square kilometers of the river’s basin, which until recent years had been one of the most fertile lands in India, and is home today to 84 million people.

2.0 The Solution: Creating the world’s largest farmer-driven ecological movement

At its heart, the core idea underpinning Cauvery Calling is breathtakingly simple and scalable. In heavily populated tropical countries like India, large tracts of additional land simply don’t exist to put under more forest cover. Therefore the solution is to bring tree cover onto the vast tracts of private farm land - via an in part adoption of tree based agriculture by farmers.

Importantly, the entire approach is based on the insight that impoverished rural farmers will adopt tree agriculture only if there is a strong market driven financial incentive of dramatically increasing their livelihoods. Consequently this entirely voluntary adoption of agroforestry by farmers is underpinned by an underlying economic model where-by farmer incomes are going up between three to eight times. It is therefore evident that in a country where 690 million people live in relative poverty, Cauvery Calling, is a ground-breaking eco-restoration movement that marries ecology with economy.

Given that this movement at its heart is voluntarily propelled by farmers for an underlying economic rationale, the possibility of large scale change becomes self-evident. This movement therefore is addressing the ecological and economic concerns of the entire Cauvery River basin area – a massive geographic expanse of 83,000 square kilometers, with 84 million people, and an economy propelled by 5.2 million farmers in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in Southern India. The target is to help the 5.2 million farmers bring the land under green cover by planting 2.42 billion trees in a span of 12 years.

Watch Cauvery Calling: A Race To Save a River, a documentary film by Discovery Channel

3.0 Unprecedented scaleup in recent years:

The Cauvery Calling approach has been painstakingly developed and refined on the ground for more than two decades starting from 1998. The initial decade was spent in developing the model, building the capabilities, creating the people linkages, and generating favourable word of mouth through widespread on-ground farmer success stories. With that in place, the last three years have been devoted to scaling the program up to its full potential.

In 2017, this scaleup of the agroforestry model got dramatic impetus when Sadhguru, the Founder of Isha, created a nation-wide Peoples’ Movement to ensure long-term sustainability of this holistic way of addressing our soil, water and livelihood challenges. This encompassed both the rural farmers who adopt tree-based agriculture, and also the urban population which supports the cause with funding. An unprecedented 162 million people in India actively expressed their support during this month long on-ground rally.

In 2018, a key additional focus of effort was to facilitate various changes in government policy necessary for large scale rural adoption of tree based agriculture. These were done on the back of a comprehensive set of technical recommendations that were submitted to the Government, and which in turn formed the cornerstone of the Government River Revitalization Advisory in June 2018.

In 2019, with the various building blocks now in place, we dramatically expanded the geographic scope and scale of the initiative to cover all 83,000 square kilometers of the Cauvery River basin - an area that supports 84 million people. Our objective was to now bring tree-based agriculture to 5.2 million farmers. A massive onground mobilization was done in Sep 2019 by Sadhguru via the medium of a motorcycle rally. In doing so, a People’s movement was shaped across the length and breadth of the Cauvery river basin.

In 2020, partnerships with 200 local NGOs were created to propel onground momentum. In the summer planting season, the efforts of the previous few years paid off in a big way when an unprecedented 11 million saplings were taken up by farmers in spite of being in the midst of the Covid pandemic with all its attendant constraints. It is now evident that we are now firmly on the long-term trajectory to realize the full potential of this movement.

In recognition of this ground-breaking movement, the organization was awarded India’s highest environmental award, the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar, instituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India in 2010.

4.0 Why this is a game changer: Scalable and self-sustainable solution for land restoration and river revitalization

Cauvery Calling is a game-changer for the following key reasons:

  1. The immense scale of this onground effort which involves helping 5.2 million farmers to bring the land under green cover by planting 2.42 billion trees over 12 years.

  2. The movement’s ability to achieve its ambitious long-term goals is underpinned by two game-changing building blocks:

    1. The required scaleup of vegetative green cover is not constrained by the limited availability of forest land - as the movement targets the vast tracts of privately owned agricultural lands.

    2. The long-term sustainability of the initiative will be market-driven because it is propelled by significant increases in the incomes of otherwise impoverished farmers. Therefore this movement will not get constrained by availability of charitable contributions.

  3. A broad-based and all-inclusive People’s movement has been shaped on the back of a national-level 2017 public campaign that elicited the support of an unprecedented 162 million people, and then having another rally in 2019 to mobilize farmers and urban support. This movement encompasses Farmers, Civil Society, the Union and relevant State Governments, and NGOs. And all of this is underpinned by 23 years of concerted on-ground work.

5.0 Impact on humans and the natural world:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines that land-related restoration initiatives should be evaluated across 5 key areas - climate change adaptation, climate change mitigation, combating desertification and land degradation, food security and sustainable development. Cauvery Calling is one of the few projects that addresses all 5 areas. It is harnessing a powerful nature-based solution – agroforestry - to address ecosystem restoration (both soil and water), reversal of biodiversity loss, climate change mitigation, improved food security and nutritional value, crop diversification and risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and better livelihoods for millions of small-hold farmers.

The project impact can be summarized as below - and is based on having already enabled the planting of more than 50 million trees, of which 17 million trees have been planted by 107,639 farmers.

  1. Climate change adaptation:

    1. Farmers have become more resilient to floods and droughts as evidenced by low water stagnation during excessive rains, and reduced loss of yields during droughts.

    2. Livelihoods of impoverished farmers have been de-risked due to:

      1. Three to eight fold increase in their incomes.

      2. Having the safety net of possessing marketable trees.

      3. Needing less time for cultivation allows farmers to develop alternative skill sets and related earning opportunities.

  2. Climate change mitigation:

    1. The plan of planting 2.42 billion trees will result in sequestration of 200-300 million MtCO2 which is equivalent to 8-12% of India’s NDC for 2030.

    2. Reduced pressure on forests for tree produce.

  3. Combating desertification, land degradation:

    1. Organic content of soil has increased substantially.

    2. The 2.42 billion trees plan will sequester 9-12 trillion liters of water - revitalizing the soil, groundwater, and the Cauvery river.

    3. Many farmers have reclaimed their fallow lands.

  4. Food security:

    1. Increased soil fertility due to agroforestry has significantly improved the yields and the quality of various intercrops.

    2. Enhanced availability of fruits and improved soil quality result in an increased nutritional content for impoverished families.

  5. Sustainable development:

    1. The initiative addresses no fewer than nine sustainable development goals of the United Nations - i.e. goals number 1,2,6,8,10,12,13,15,17, as described in the graphic below.

    2. The required intensity of irrigation has significantly reduced due to enhanced moisture retention in soil.

    3. Biodiversity is going up as evidenced by increased populations of beneficial insects and earthworms, and the return of birds and small mammals with the trees.

    4. Slow down or reverse the current adverse trend of rural to urban migration.


No Poverty

Cauvery Calling promotes tree based agriculture which is more profitable to the farmer than the conventional method of monocropping systems. Farm households in the Cauvery Basin currently earn on an average ₹58,800 ($800) per year.

Our farm models developed by the farmers in the last decade in Tamil Nadu have shown that farmer incomes have increased manifold due to change in agricultural practices and adopting tree based agriculture. On an average farmer income has increased 3-8 times. Conversion of at least one third of farm area into tree based crops have ensured financial stability for the farmers.

Since farmers will be the major stakeholders of the movement, their economical sustainability will ensure the sustainability of the entire project.

Zero Hunger

More than 60% of the population is in the agriculture sector in India. The improvement in soil quality will lead to improved yields in terms of volume and nutritional content. Increased agroforestry including horticulture, replacing cash crops like paddy and sugarcane also means higher production of fruits to supplement the diet in rural areas, where the poverty levels are much higher than in urban areas. Also, if their economic upliftment happens for the farmer as a result of sustainable farming, it will naturally address hunger and malnutrition. Agroforestry also affords greater resilience to extreme fluctuations in climate and increases the organic and moisture content of the soil under the tree canopies, which, in turn, results in sustainable food production.

Clean Water and Sanitation for All

The plantation of 2.42 billion trees will result in sequestration of more than 9 trillion liters of water, ensure better quality of water across the basin as the increased river flow, and reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers due to agroforestry will promote the filtering of pollutants by tree roots.

Decent work & Economic growth

Tree based agriculture will free farmers from labor intensive farming and help in developing allied livelihood related to the agriculture sector in value addition of produce and marketing related activities. This will bring back rural migration and offer better living standards with their families and communities. This is also envisioned to create more jobs in the rural agriculture landscape.
SDG 10

Reduced Inequalities

So far, more than 107,639 farmers have been empowered to plant over 17.2 million trees on their farm lands. This has increased farmers' incomes, de-risked them from the uncertainties of mono-cropping and water intensive agricultural practices. In addition, prosperity in the farming community would help slow down and reverse urban migration, and boost the rural economy.
SDG 12

Responsible consumption and production

Cultivating forest produce in agricultural land is the only way to save our forests from being destroyed for timber and other products. With growing population and increased demand for forest produce, tree based agriculture is the future of sustainable agriculture balancing production and consumption of tree based products.
SDG 13

Climate action

Tree based agriculture is the best option in a country like India where more than 70% of the land is owned and cultivated by farmers. Trees are the best carbon sinks known to man which are directly related to climate action.
SDG 15

Life on Land

Tree based agriculture enhances biodiversity in the soil and above earth as well. It's a known fact that soil biodiversity has enhanced several folds with tree based farming. Trees create habitat for insects, small reptiles and birds which support the web of life. The perennial river flow, due to the additional 9 trillion litres of sequestered water, will ensure the protection of the Western Ghats - a global biodiversity hotspot. An abundance of timber supply from agroforestry will reduce deforestation and make the timber industry more sustainable, triggering an impressive domino effect in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity and climate change.
SDG 17

Partnership for the Goal

The entire Cauvery Calling project is based on the key premise that only an all-inclusive Peoples’ movement will shape and sustain long-term change. To that end within India the program has forged partnerships with farmers, civil society, concerned government bodies, and local NGOs. In addition, with a view to eventually scaling this effort upto the entire tropical world, the following international partnerships have been shaped:
  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) accreditation (2019)
  • Isha Foundation was granted observer status with UNCCD at COP14 in 2019. As one of the leading NGOs globally engaged in soil and water restoration, an active collaboration is being planned
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) membership (2020)
  • IUCN has formally extended support for the work of Isha Outreach and offered to provide technical assistance for the Cauvery Calling project. Isha Outreach was accepted as Member of IUCN in February 2020
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) accreditation (2020)
  • Isha Foundation was granted observer status to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) of UNEP in July 2020

6.0 Potential to be replicated globally:

Our solution can replicate across the entire tropical world, which is home to 4.7 billion people, because:

  1. It is a paradigm shift wherein Ecology and Economy work together, rather than being at odds with each other. In our approach, reviving Ecology is a financially rewarding process for impoverished rural societies. In addition, social benefits in the form of improved livelihood and climate resilience are achieved.

  2. The all-inclusive nature of our movement, that brings together farmers, civil society, governments, and NGOs creates a powerful catalytic process that is replicable.

  3. The movement is not constrained by availability of land to afforest, because our agroforestry model targets farmers and their privately owned agricultural lands.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in his Sep 2020 public telecast said, “I sincerely hope that countries around the world see the potential of this solution - as land restoration and revitalization are solutions to support our planet.”