Indian wildlife biologist Dr Purnima Devi Barman is among the honourees of this year’s Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honour, accorded for their transformative action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation.
Barman has been honoured with the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2022 Champions of the Earth award in the Entrepreneurial Vision category.
A wildlife biologist, Barman leads the “Hargila Army”, an all-female grassroots conservation movement dedicated to protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork from extinction. The women create and sell textiles with motifs of the bird, helping to raise awareness about the species while building their own financial independence.
Barman is also Senior Project Manager of the Avifauna Research and Conservation Division, Aaranyak.
The UNEP website said that at the age of five, Barman was sent to live with her grandmother on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam. “Separated from her parents and siblings, the girl became inconsolable. To distract her, Barman’s grandmother, a farmer, started taking her to nearby paddy fields and wetlands to teach her about the birds there.” “I saw storks and many other species. She taught me bird songs. She asked me to sing for the egrets and the storks. I fell in love with the birds,” said Barman, who has devoted much of her career to saving the endangered greater adjutant stork, the second-rarest stork species in the world.
“Barman’s pioneering conservation work has empowered thousands of women, creating entrepreneurs and improving livelihoods while bringing the greater adjutant stork back from the brink of extinction,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
“Dr Barman’s work has shown that conflict between humans and wildlife can be resolved to the benefit of all. By highlighting the damaging impact that the loss of wetlands has had on the species who feed and breed on them, she reminds us of the importance of protecting and restoring ecosystems.” According to information on the UNEP website, to protect the stork, Barman knew she had to change perceptions of the bird, known locally as “hargila” in Assamese (meaning “bone swallower”) and mobilised a group of village women to help her.
Today the “Hargila Army” consists of over 10,000 women. They protect nesting sites, rehabilitate injured storks which have fallen from their nests and arrange “baby showers” to celebrate the arrival of newborn chicks. The greater adjutant stork regularly features in folk songs, poems, festivals and plays.
Since Barman started her conservation programme, the number of nests in the villages of Dadara, Pachariya, and Singimari in Kamrup District have risen from 28 to more than 250, making this the largest breeding colony of greater adjutant storks in the world, UNEP said.
“In 2017, Barman began building tall bamboo nesting platforms for the endangered birds to hatch their eggs. Her efforts were rewarded a couple of years later when the first greater adjutant stork chicks were hatched on these experimental platforms,” it added.
Barman said on the UNEP website that one of her biggest rewards has been the sense of pride that has been instilled in the Hargila Army and she hopes their success will inspire the next generation of conservationists to pursue their dreams.
“Being a woman working in conservation in a male-dominated society is challenging but the Hargila Army has shown how women can make a difference,” she said.
UNEP said that since its inception in 2005, the annual Champions of the Earth award has been awarded to trailblazers at the forefront of efforts to protect our natural world. It is the UN’s highest environmental honour. To date, the award has recognised 111 laureates: 26 world leaders, 69 individuals and 16 organisations. This year a record 2,200 nominations from around the world were received.