Spotlight Series: Q&A with Srini Sundaram

We caught up with Srini, CEO and Founder of Agvesto, a platform to mobilise parametric insurance and climate investments worldwide. 

What is your ethnic and professional background?

I was born in India and have lived in the UK since the early 2000s. I hold a doctorate in Electrical Engineering. 

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share? 

I am passionate about natural resources and how we as a community are using them. With climate change posing challenges to the communities worldwide, sustainability is a topic that dominates every country’s policy, objectives and implementation programmes. 

For me personally, an ability to transform a community using a business idea is fascinating and most of my startup businesses have had strong focus in micro-finance, poverty alleviation and sustainability.  

When I grew up, I noticed how monsoon season cyclones can destroy communities who have very little protection for their livelihood. As a result, the children especially face huge disruption in their education and it is something that struck me about the need to create resilience for everyone.

Can you tell me a bit about your work in the agricultural/ insurance industry via Agvesto? 

Agvesto started with a mission to transform the way capital markets and insurance markets interact with Agriculture as a sector. We have mobilised alternative insurance protection products to farmers worldwide, to protect their crops and build resilience against climate related threats.

The biggest learning till date has been the ability for our business to be able to differentiate different parts of the agricultural value chain and crops, to create bespoke parametric insurance offerings.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about your career choice from family, friends or society at large?

Agvesto was born by blending the skills I have learnt with engineering, science, finance and technology towards sustainability and environment.

South Asians are known for their affinity towards food. So we had nothing but positive feedback from the family, friends and society to ensure that businesses enable farmers and food producers to achieve sustainability and longevity.

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Sustainability starts with the general recognition that the consumption of resources needs to be optimal and should come at a win-win basis. The resources we consume from the planet do have natural support systems and when they are under distress, our lives will change for the worse. 

In order to ensure that we promote sustainability, we have not only adopted good business practice, but on a personal level I’ve made changes by:

  • Sourcing renewable energy supplies for my home
  • Practice recycling
  • Purchasing sustainable focussed food products and clothing.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

South Asian communities very much appreciate the need for climate resilience especially with recent floods in 2015 and 2017 in southern India and increased heatwaves and droughts. The priorities at a micro level still focus heavily on social sustainability i.e. communities.

With climate change at the forefront in recent years, the interlink between environmental and social sustainability has become stronger. At the consumer level, this awareness needs to be increased with policies that are SDG (sustainable development goal) focussed and also in long term resilience building.

You touched on change needing to be inclusive and relevant to each group of the population. How would you practically implement this?

I’d implement this by reaching lower socio-economic groups for example and empowering their lives by bringing capital and insurance to them, providing the protection everyone deserves. This is what drives Agvesto and my journey as an entrepreneur. 

Implementation of ideas targeted towards rural and marginal group empowerment requires patience and business ability, to create simple minded innovations that work for them and are truly effective.

We spoke about your thoughts about the carbon-intensive nature of the Bollywood/Tollywood film industry – what are the solutions? Who needs to be engaged?

The movie and entertainment industry has been laggard in embracing sustainable practices compared to the other industries. 

However, they have the potential to transform millions of lives with their messaging and appeal. There are opportunities to assist the entertainment industry with sustainable instruments, so that their overall contribution to the green economy in India can be increased. For this change to happen, active engagement needs to happen at an industry level.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

The younger generations have the advantage of learning various new trends and technological developments via the internet, faster than previous generations. 

Their ability to appreciate the needs towards a sustainable planet for everyone will continue to be the most important theme in the coming years. If they are able to inspire the community around them with their talent, we as a nation will undoubtedly achieve our sustainable development goals.

Connect with Srini on LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with PhD Climate Change Researcher, Zarina Ahmad

We spoke to Zarina about her climate-equality based community projects, creating pathways for diverse groups in Scotland to have an active voice in sustainable solutions

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I was born and brought up in Newcastle and moved to Scotland when I was 16. ​Both my parents were born in India and after the partition were displaced to Pakistan. I hold a BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow and worked briefly with the Education Department. However, for the last 10 years or more I have been working with diverse communities to help tackle climate change.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?  

As a child I was always one with nature, a child that spoke to plants. I believed that trees had souls (still do), never ate meat however, growing up I wasn’t aware that my passion for the environment would lead to a career in this field.

Approximately 15 years ago I was at crossroads in my life and knew that I wanted a career change, one that would allow me to follow one of my passions; either care for the environment or Psychology and human behaviour. I had to weigh up my options in terms of retraining, looking at costs involved and the time it would take to get into a job. After some consideration, taking into account all the factors, the environment sector won and that’s how I ended up following a career in this sector.

Can you tell me about your recent role at CEMVO? What sparked the choice in career change? 

There was an incident at a Hustings where a candidate from a political party made a racist remark to me, the comment he made was “your kind don’t grow do they?”. This remark made me reflect on how white the environmental sector was.

At this time, I thought naively we lived in a society which was zero tolerant towards racism, we had moved away from a racist society and we were accepted and integrated into the wider society. Hence led me to working with a race equality organisation addressing both environmental justice and race justice.

My role developed into 4 main areas:
a) I support BME community groups to develop climate change projects, help access the climate challenge fund and ensure projects are implemented and delivered well.
b) I sit on a number of stakeholder and working groups which help influence policy change and decision making.
c) I help to diversify the environmental sector and environmental NGOs through collaborative work and representation.
d) I set up and run the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network across Scotland which provides peer to peer support, upskilling and training and opportunities for collaboration to individuals and organisations who are interested in environmental work.

Zarina speaking at community event. She's wearing a beige long cardigan and standing holding a mic.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/ unfamiliar path, particularly midway through your career? Has it been challenging?  

The biggest backlash I’ve received, and this goes back to my childhood, was my choice of following a vegetarian/vegan diet which didn’t sit right within a Muslim family. Regarding a career path I think the biggest issue was that it was not a recognised or valued career. It took my mum years before she was able to explain to her friends what I actually did. Even some of my friends still struggle to conceptualise my job as it doesn’t fit in with a traditional or known career path. 

Also being an environmentalist in the third sector isn’t a well-paid job, at least it’s clear that I do this job for passion and not money. Some people find this difficult to understand, as growing up we are taught that success is measured on a monetary level. 

I think taking a step out of this competitiveness has its challenges as I can’t afford the same lifestyle as others but at the same time, I’m aware that I don’t want that lifestyle as it has environmental consequences. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

My biggest success and learnings are both linked as I have been fortunate to have been in a position to create space for many people across the country from various diverse backgrounds (age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sex, education and socioeconomic backgrounds) to have meaningful and relevant (to them) conversations on climate change. 

From these conversations I have learned so much about the global impacts of climate change, traditional, religious and cultural sustainable practices, which have been passed down many generations. I’ve also learned about community resilience and adaptation to climate impacts and how there is still a lot to be learned from grassroot movements.

Never underestimate someone’s knowledge and ability to influence change. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable? 

There are a few things that I try to do. I only buy items that I need, I’m not a fan of shopping, and I try to mend and repair as much as I can. I’m a vegetarian and have been for all my life with only limited dairy in my diet, therefore I do try to source produce locally and cook from scratch. I try to source items that have less plastic packaging and look for non-plastic alternatives. There are more things that I would love to do but access and affordability are huge barriers. 

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? 

I don’t think there is a lack of understanding. In fact I think there is more understanding of what a climate crisis can actually look like within a South Asian context.

I think the issue is more to do with the narratives, discourse and jargon used by policy makers and campaigners which can come across unfamiliar, high level or irrelevant to South Asian communities. 

What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues? 

Some of the blockers are the climate language and jargon which is used, especially terms like carbon emissions and carbon footprint. This is too abstract a concept unless you are a climate scientist, or your work involves measuring carbon impacts. 

The other big blocker is embarrassment of and undervaluing of traditional sustainable behaviours, which have been passed down in South Asian communities. For example, reusing plastic ice cream or butter containers to store leftover food, growing your own herbs and vegetables in your front garden, no waste attitude – reusing and recycling wherever possible; however, these practices once in the west were looked down up i.e. perceived as behaviour of people who were unable to afford a better lifestyle. Unfortunately, a better lifestyle equated to overconsumption and a disposable society.  

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone? 

If we consider small steps to sustainable lifestyles then this is accessible to all, however some of the bigger steps such as installing solar panels, driving an electric vehicle or even buying organic may exclude a lot of us, simply on the basis of affordability. The easy steps we can take are just trying to be conscious of what we buy, what we use and need and what we eat. Try and reduce our waste by buying less, recycling and reusing more. Sharing with others instead of competing with others. 

You touched on feeling a lack of representation and your work since has been about amplifying voices and engaging more diverse communities. Can you tell me more about this and why it’s particularly important for there to be greater representation in the sector? 

When I started out there was very little to no representation from any person of colour within the environmental sector.

A whole portion of society was being excluded from any discourse on climate change, mitigation, adaptation measures and looking at sustainable behaviours and lifestyle.

If we live in a democratic society, surely all people should be included and opportunities for all voices to be heard should be created. 

Firstly, it is important to recognise that one approach for certain communities will not be fit for another community. Secondly acknowledge that there is diversity within diversity; having one person from a BME background to represent the views of all the ethnically diverse communities of the country, is simply not good enough nor is it appropriate or fair. 

Then there is the issue of climate justice – those that are being most impacted by climate change are the ones least contributing, but also have the least power to influence change.

Climate justice is also a racial justice issue similar to what we have unfortunately seen over the recent months with the pandemic. If we want systemic and structural changes, we need to see and have different diverse voices around the table. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Firstly, you need to understand how we are connected to nature and the environment in order to understand where our produce, clothing and other consumable items come from. Look at nature-based solutions not just techno fixes going forward. Secondly, become active citizens, realise that you have power and are able to influence change by using your voice and actions, become more politically involved, don’t shy away from being involved in campaigning and activism. Lastly don’t be passive consumers become conscious consumers and try not to be influenced by fast trends or buy into the disposable culture. 

You’ve had much exposure to government processes in place, working on policies and engaging with grass-root organisations. Based on your experience, what do you believe the most important and effective methods are to have the largest climate impact? 

For me being interconnected in terms of dialogue and action is important i.e. policy makers, communities, industries and academics should all be working side by side, sharing knowledge and experience.

We should work less in silos and work more collaboratively to find solutions that fit the needs of society. 

Communities should be adequately resourced if they are expected to take local action. Adding to this, I also think it is important to act locally but think globally, we are connected to other parts of the world and what we do here does have an impact somewhere, our carbon emissions contribute to global warming – the UK is not in a bubble. 

Your example of actively using ‘positive environmental change’ rather than ‘behaviour change’ is really striking. Why do you believe our choice of language is important? 

The language we use is important as this is our main means for communicating and bringing people together however, it can also lead to pushing people away. Simply put, language can be inclusive or exclusive.

In the UK and indeed in the West, the narrative on climate change and sustainable behaviours very much focusses on “behaviour change”. From my experience of working with communities this terminology isn’t helpful because people become very defensive when they hear behaviour change. 

With the narrative of change as the premise, you are telling someone that how they previously lived and behaved was wrong and now they are going to be told how to live and behave better. The agency over their choices is not taken into consideration. Therefore, simply using a term such as “positive action” is more likely to result in people embracing change and steps to a better world for all. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you? 

Early in my career I was working with a Muslim woman’s group and engaging them with activities to build their understanding of climate change. One day I was taking this group out on a trip to see a demo house with a number of energy efficiency measures adapted into its construction. 

One of the elderly ladies (probably in her 70’s) thanked me. I thought it was for taking them out for the day on a trip, but she said it was for raising awareness about climate change. Her son is a frontline journalist who was posted out in Pakistan and covered stories about the floods caused by the ice melting on the Himalayas, which in turn caused huge devastation.

Many lives and homes were lost as a result of the vast amount of water and ice sheets hitting villages. She told me there were weeks, even months when she would not hear from her son and would worry that one day she would get the sad news of him passing away. She knew this was because of climate change and wanted others to be more aware and realise through our actions we can change these outcomes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

I also think it is important to be connected to nature, be aware of our ecosystem, and understand the role we play within this system. Unfortunately, colonisation and capitalism have removed us further and further away from our connection to the land.  Only when we fully appreciate this, will we stop exploiting resources and relearn how to live as one with the planet.

Zarina on a boat, touching the ripples of the lake. In the background mountain ranges can be seen. She's wearing a tan coloured jacket

Find out more about Zarina and connect with her on Instagram and LinkedIn

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Dr Poshendra Satyal PhD, AFHEA, MPhil, BSc (Hons) Ag

Read our deep dive into Dr Poshendra’s academic journey, with key interests in environmental development, agriculture and conservation in the Global South

What is your ethnic and academic background?

I identify as a Nepalese and South Asian living in the UK (for the last nineteen years). I was born and raised in the foothills of Nepal Himalayas (near Mount Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world). Our family later moved to Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) where I completed my secondary schooling and A-level education. I also did my BSc there before going to Haryana in India to study for my 4-year BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree (1994-1996). After finishing my degree I went back to Nepal, taught for a year in a private agricultural college and got involved with a couple of environmental NGOs working in the issues of sustainability and natural resource management. 

I came to study for my MPhil in Environment and Development at the University of Cambridge in 2001. Since then, I have been based in the UK. I continued for my PhD in Environmental Policy at the Open University (2005-2009) and then worked at various universities, institutes and organisations, broadly on different areas of environmental development (including climate change, forest governance, conservation and natural resources management). 

I now work as Global Forest Policy Coordinator with the Policy Team of the BirdLife International (an environmental NGO), based in Cambridge. Prior to that, I worked for five years as a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s School of International Development (2014-2019). I also serve as a Trustee of the Mount Everest Foundation (Royal Geographical Society), an affiliate fellow with the UEA’s Global Environmental Justice Group and a visiting senior fellow of South Asia Institute of Advanced Studies (Nepal). I have also worked as a research fellow at the Warwick University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (2018-2019) and Crichton Carbon Centre and ClimateXChange – Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change (2012-2014). 

In the past, I worked as a researcher, lecturer and consultant with a number of institutions and organisations in the UK (The Open University, UNEP – World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Fern, and Forests Monitor) and Nepal (Himalayan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Forum for Sustainable Development Nepal, and Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Nepal). I was also an affiliate fellow of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (2014-2018), University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies (2012-2014) and Open Space – Centre for Geographical and Environmental Research of the Open University (2009-2012).

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

Having spent much of my early childhood in a tiny remote village of Hedangna in Sankhuwasabha, a district of Eastern Nepal, I had witnessed the local villagers’ very close relationship with nature. The place was very rich in biodiversity, forests and other natural resources (the area later became the Makalu Barun National Park).

While the local indigenous Rai communities had a very simple lifestyle, most of the villagers had very basic standards of living, with no electricity, no proper medical facilities and other services (which we take for granted in the West). I also witnessed (and experienced myself to some extent), poverty, underdevelopment and spatial inequity arising from the remoteness.

This made me hyper-aware of the circumstances that make people vulnerable, due to a range of social and environmental issues (e.g. socio-political marginalisation, climate change and natural hazards). This sparked my interest to explore the dynamics of social, environmental and climatic issues that can impact local livelihoods. More particularly, my concern about injustices in the context of natural resources. This was the beginning of my interest to study and research these issues in greater depth.

Having studied and worked previously in the field of agriculture and natural resource management in India and Nepal, my interests, concerns and desire to understand the underlying causes of injustices in the natural resources context; based on what I had witnessed in the field, had a bearing on the choice of my research in environment and development. 

In fact, I began to realise and question the limitations of my own technical knowledge in agriculture that I had gained through my BSc (Honours) Agriculture degree in India when I returned to Nepal. I started to question whether natural resources and farm management involve not only technical and scientific issues, but also a number of other socio-economic and political issues.

I had concluded that, in order to solve problems in agriculture, forest management and natural resource governance, issues of justice should come to the fore.

This led me to apply for the MPhil in Environment and Development degree at the University of Cambridge, which would equip me with social sciences approach to environmental analysis in my chosen career. 

Can you tell me about your research over the years in conservation and what has interested you the most? 

With a background in natural and social sciences, I have a long-standing interest in interdisciplinary and policy relevant research in environment and development issues, particularly conservation, forest governance, and climate change in the context of developing nations. 

My interest in engaging with the theoretical debate on social and environmental justice and in exploring the empirical understanding of environment and development problems is related to my academic, personal and professional background.

In that sense, my work has a biographical connection. The underpinning research interest on various environmental and development challenges faced by the developing world, is primarily rooted in my background as a Nepalese and South Asian. While this was a starting point for my interest, there are also further reasons for choosing a research topic in social and environmental justice. 

My interest in exploring North-South differences in tackling the twin challenges of environment and development, progressed more prominently during my MPhil degree in Cambridge, exposing me to a broad range of ideas and concerns regarding the debate on environment and sustainable development.

As a new researcher and practitioner from the “developing world,” but studying in the West, I was constantly confronted with new ideas, including those on justice, in my participation in academic discussions; which further pushed me to engage in research that could explore the real tensions and differences in priorities between the developing world and the developed world, in terms of social and environmental dimensions involved in sustainable development and sustainability. 

Reflecting upon these issues led me to conclude that a productive research avenue would be to use an environmental justice framework. My PhD project thus worked on and developed theories of social and environmental justice, drawing from in-depth field research on community forestry and natural resources management in the Terai of Nepal; looking into issues of social equity and forest ecology in the context of environmental and socio-political change in the region. 

Building on my PhD, I have further used the environmental justice framework in policy research and analysis in the context of climate change adaptation, forest governance and water security, with various organisations in the UK.

The most recent role that I have in BirdLife involves supporting our Policy Team and advising project partners on forest policy issues. Forests have received renewed attention in recent years (particularly in the debates around Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and climate change policies) due to their potential for a ‘triple win’ in terms of addressing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change and providing other local and global ecosystem services. 

Ending deforestation, advancing forest conservation and restoration and sustainable management, of all types of forests and trees are vital for the purpose. Hence I see that there is an important role for advocacy and policy work on forest, biodiversity and climate change issues, at global and national levels to help develop and operationalise effective environmental policies across different scales of governance. 

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

There have certainly been various milestones, but I do not consider that I have achieved any big successes as of yet. Also, it depends how we define and measure ‘success’. I believe that we need to continue doing our Karma with persistence, trust in ourselves, and success will appear in different guises and degrees. In my case, the progress has been gradual as I have built and continue to build on some of my achievements. 

To begin with, I consider two of my early achievements (before coming to the UK) as the ones that still guide my passion for learning and hardworking: (1) in 1991 I stood among the top three positions during the national School Leaving Certificate exam (GCSE equivalent) among more than 150,000 students taking up the exam in Nepal; (2) I was also a gold-medalist scoring highest marks among more than 400 students in the BSc (Honours) Agriculture programme in India. 

In retrospect, my turning point was when I was selected for my MPhil degree in Cambridge, which I consider a significant milestone that opened subsequent opportunities and shaped my future. Coming from a remote Nepali village, I felt quite lucky to be selected for Cambridge Overseas Trust Scholarships for my postgraduate study in Cambridge, among many competent candidates from around the world. My MPhil degree laid a foundation for my interest in further studying the environment and its development.

My selection for a fully funded PhD studentship was another milestone in my life. My PhD and post-doctoral research at various institutions further provided cumulative and progressive impacts, towards my personal and professional development. For example, building on my original doctoral research on social and environmental justice, I developed a climate justice framework for policy research and analysis in Scotland, which was very well received by the Scottish Government. 

I also consider my wide-ranging academic and professional experience, working on various projects and in different organisations useful experience. Through these works, I now have a good record of publications and my published items have ranged from peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, to policy reports, briefing papers and general articles. 

I have also widely presented in various forums and meetings involving a variety of audiences (e.g. international conferences, workshops, interaction programmes, and policy engagements).

I see my unique position as a South Asian researcher based in the UK as a strength. I’m placed in a prime position with exceptional potential for North-South collaboration and trust. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash for choosing to work in environmental research from family, friends or society at large? You originally wanted to study medicine – what changed?

When I did quite well in my GCSE exam in Nepal, the expectation from my parents, family and wider network of relatives in Nepal was that I choose some high-demand career such as medicine and engineering for my further study. 

Everywhere you go, people would ask you what you want to become in life. Most children in Nepal are still taught that “they will become a doctor or engineer and serve the society”. With such societal ‘pressures’, I also naturally aspired to become a medical doctor. However, there were only a few medical colleges in the country at that time and the competition was very high.

I did not manage to get a place and was feeling very low, thinking that my dream was shattered. It was only after that, I began to consider other subject areas for further studies, and I decided to go for an agriculture degree with a scholarship from the Indian government. 

Even then, many of my friends and family would sometimes tell me that I could have done better choosing medicine or engineering. In their minds, medicine and engineering subjects would land you a secure job and high salary, while those preferring agriculture, forestry or environmental studies would not have comparable future prospects. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

While wider policies and plans are needed across different sectors and scales of environmental governance, these would not be successful if we do not feel responsible to operationalise, practice and monitor, in whatever way we can. In that sense, every individual has the responsibility to change their behaviours and actions and adopt a sustainable lifestyle, while also engaging in some form of citizen activism. 

The reason for this is because every day we make choices in our lives that can affect the environment, the climate and biodiversity. From what we buy and what we eat to how we travel to work, there are a lot of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and environmental impact. 

On a personal level, I have been conscious of all aspects of my daily life (e.g. how my shopping behaviour can impact the environment, going plastic free, switching off the lights when not in use, reducing unnecessary water use etc.). While this may seem a very small effort, individual actions are important to collectively address the enormity of the challenge we are facing.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

South Asia as a region is vulnerable to climate change. While rising sea levels and flooding threaten the coastal states of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives, landlocked Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal face rising temperatures, drought, and glacial melting. 

The climate crisis can further exacerbate environmental degradation, natural disasters, extreme weather events, food and water insecurity and economic disruption. As high temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and climatic variability and change have already started to impact people’s daily lives and livelihoods in the region, I think South Asian communities living in the region (and also South Asians living in the UK, to some extent) are aware of the climate crisis. 

However, when it comes to individual actions to mitigate climate change and environmental issues, there certainly seem some cultural barriers. For example, while simple measures like using public transportation more often, reducing energy consumption, becoming more eco-friendly can help reduce our environmental impact and make this planet a clean and safe place, our society seems to have a tendency to ‘respect and value’ those who drive fancy cars, wear ‘big brands’, own big houses and earn and spend more. 

I also think that there is very low uptake of a ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ culture among us, as many of us feel hesitant to go to a charity shop and buy second-hand clothes. This is generally true for both South Asians living in urban or peri-urban areas in the region, as well as British Asians living in the UK. Having said that, I think it will be unfair to point a finger and put a blame just on South Asian communities, because the behaviour is common across all of us.

We all as human beings are responsible for this crisis and we need to work collectively to address the challenge. 

While our South Asian culture is generally considered to be based on the ethos of sharing and caring for each other and a common respect for the Mother Nature (e.g. there are references to this philosophy in most of the major religions in the region, including Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism), our modern lifestyle has made us more greedy and needy, as we are attracted to materialistic culture and consumerism. 

South Asian culture is also considered to take a more collectivist and holistic approach on social relationships and, supposedly, by extension on environmental issues. However, we have now become more selfish and individualistic and such dichotomy of culture does not seem to be valid anymore, both for urban and peri-urban South Asians and British Asians.

You mentioned your experiences in Africa and how you were misunderstood for working in a different profession. Why do you think South Asians are underrepresented in the environmental sector? Has it been challenging for you over the years?

I’ve had an interesting mix of experiences in the sector. My work experience has been both intellectually challenging and enthralling. In a good way, this experience has also changed my way of life and thinking as it has taught me to think critically and out-of-the box, at times. 

Of course, there have been a lot of challenges too. As an immigrant exposed to new culture, getting used to the new way of life in the UK was one of my initial challenges. I also found initially that there was a lot of competition in the job market and I had to get myself prepared to compete amongst the best in the subject area. 

Once in the sector, I realised that there are only a few South Asians with whom you could relate to or look up to for a ‘role model’.

The reasons for under-representation of South Asians in the environmental sector may be, as I highlighted earlier, due to the cultural preference over high-demand and well-paid STEM subjects (such as medicine and engineering) and more importantly, due to lack of diversity in the sector in the UK. 

Many of the organisations and institutes have not yet embraced diversity and inclusivity in policy and practice, hindering access and participation of BAME (Black, Asian and and Minority Ethnic) communities. 

In my personal case, there has also been a funny side to it. As part of international development research projects, I had to travel to new places, often in remote areas and countries. At times, I have been misunderstood for coming to set up a business or work as a medical doctor (in Uganda and Kenya, as many Indians go there for the purpose) or as a field support or research assistant to our research team (which mostly consisted of UK British White colleagues and local country partners). 

In some cases, I have been interrogated extra in immigration (e.g. Mexico – a country where many South Asians are trafficked for illegally entering into the USA) or sometimes being let go easily: in Liberia, when an immigration officer checked my passport and I said I am a ‘Nepalese’ but he heard ‘Lebanese’ (as Lebanese and Indians go there to set up businesses, the officer was quite relaxed on further checking). 

Similarly, I was once on a 16-hour road trip to a research site in Southern Ethiopia from Addis Ababa and we had to stop at a few places for meals. As the area was quite remote, local people were not accustomed to seeing ‘brown’ people traveling to their area for research or tourism. A waiter in a small motel came to me and said: “I think I have seen you before…probably in Bollywood movies” – I took that as a compliment!

Leaving aside the funny part, the upshot of my experience is that the area of international development and environmental sector is still massively underrepresented for South Asians and BAME communities in general. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

I agree – there are some barriers to practice sustainable living at an individual level. For example, public transport is not timely and sometimes it can be costly too (e.g. train travel is sometimes costlier than driving or even flying in the UK). Similarly, organic products are more expensive than other products on the shelf. Theoretically, sustainable farming, shortening supply chain, cutting down water and energy consumption, reducing packaging etc, should also lower the cost in the long run. 

In order to change attitudes and behaviours into positive actions, we need some incentives and penalties (e.g. financial contribution to switch to renewable energy). Also, we need increased awareness and a socio-cultural shift towards sustainability, which will make consumers conscious about the climate emergency and damaged ecosystems; so they understand and are willing to pay a little bit more to help the planet (e.g. carbon tax added to our airfares). We also need to recognize, embrace, and reward sustainable values and actions of environmentally conscious consumers in ways that increase the uptake of sustainable consumption more widely.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

For younger generations, I would like to encourage them to reflect on the urgency of saving the planet and embrace sustainability, making it more ‘mainstream.’ Sustainability, in essence, is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. In that sense, it is an intergenerational issue.

The younger generations have both the responsibility and power to change the world for the better so that we can bequeath the planet to our future generations safely, respecting their right to a healthy planet. More specifically, I would like the younger generations to see sustainability as a justice issue in our relationship to the nature: intragenerational justice (poverty alleviation and social justice); intergenerational justice (justice to future generations); and inter-species justice (justice to non-human nature, including other species and biodiversity). 

As younger generations also have the power to change the status quo and make the world a better place to live, I encourage them to actively engage in some form of environmental activism. We have already seen a number of youth role models in recent years (e.g. Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Licypriya Kangujam from Manipur, India) and their activism has started to bring some positive results in terms of increasing awareness on the issues and bringing some policy change. 

Networking and partnership with like-minded individuals and organisations would help maximise the impact of advocacy, hence I would like to advise everyone to work together in this collective goal. With a right mix of inspiration, aspiration and networking, I am sure we can make some real impact. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

I guess my roots and early childhood experience have impacted me deeply to continue working on areas of justice and sustainability.

As I elaborated earlier, my growing up in a small remote village of Nepal, witnessing local communities’ proximity, dependence and respect for nature, their sufferings and simple lifestyle had an empowering impression on me. 

Additionally, as I see similar circumstances that a majority of people in the developing world experience (pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya, indigenous Batwa peoples in Uganda, ethnic minorities in Vietnam, community forest users in Nepal), I am even more determined to continue working to understand and bring to the fore their specific needs, concerns and priorities; so that their roles and rights are recognised and respected in global and national policies. 

There have also been some unique insights and experiences gained through specific incidents. For example, in my trip to Southern Ethiopia, I saw how long and harrowing a journey (sometimes up to 6 hours) that agro-pastoralist girls have to make to fetch one to two gallons of water for their household. This made me more conscious of my own use of water for daily use. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I do not have more to add but would like to thank you for providing this platform and opportunity to share my experience to fellow South Asians. I hope this was interesting and useful. I want to engage with young South Asians in the region as well as British Asians living in the UK on efforts to raise public awareness and activism in areas of sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity conservation in the coming days. I wish you all the best for your campaign and efforts. I look forward to working together.

Connect with Dr. Poshendra and follow his work on Instagram

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Climate Change Journalist Sharlene Gandhi

We spoke to Business, Climate Change and Food Systems Journalist, Sharlene about her insights and experience covering stories from the point of view of marginalised communities

What is your ethnic and academic/professional background?

I am a Hindu Gujarati Indian, and I am a journalist with a focus on small business, climate change and food systems.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

In my final year at Lancaster University, I was chosen for a special bootcamp-style module to attend the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s liaison-delegate meeting. Before this, I hadn’t had any specific interaction with the environmental sustainability movement, but I had always been involved in social justice and grassroots community initiatives. Going to the liaison-delegate meeting was so eye-opening because it not only revealed the science behind the climate crisis, but also all the many social, economic, cultural and community impacts it will inevitably have. That was in April of 2018, and I’ve since been enthralled with the subject, reading widely, going to talks and eventually embedding it into my journalistic practice.

Can you tell me about your career in journalism and how you got into writing about climate change and environmental injustice/race intersectionality? 

It was really a matter of luck – I had always wanted to be a journalist because I loved writing, but often struggled with the difficult question of whether to become a specialist journalist or stick to general reporting. I decided to start specialising as a climate and business journalist on a freelance basis, mostly to also be able to learn about some of the work that was being done on the ground by communities and small / micro enterprises. 

The more I researched and reported, the more I started to learn about the intersections between the climate crisis and marginalised communities and came across the term climate justice as a result. That’s been one of my key focus areas ever since, because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

I’ve been involved in writing about agricultural justice, housing inequality and land redistribution, as well as Indigenous rights. 

Find Sharlene’s Portfolio here: https://muckrack.com/sharlene_gandhi

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date?

For me, I’ve always been deeply inspired by the work of Indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities around the world. There is just a wealth of information to learn from them and how they have championed an approach to living that is in harmony with nature. 

My biggest successes have just been people giving me the opportunity, time and time again, to write about, speak about and explore this deeply intricate and important topic. I was super honoured to be part of shado magazine’s editorial team for their Climate Justice issue, which was published in September this year, and earlier in the year, I also researched and wrote up an investigation about the design and psychology of emission tracking apps for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. 

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for choosing to take a niche/unfamiliar career path? 

I was luckier than most in that I didn’t face any particular backlash when choosing my career path, but I think being from an immigrant family – particularly one where money wasn’t always floating around freely – means that you have financial security in the back of your mind. So while I wasn’t pushed into medicine or engineering or law, I was certainly gently encouraged to do a degree that would lead me to a job. That is how I ended up with a business degree, because it would lead to a financially stable career.

And my parents weren’t wrong – I spent the first two years of my career as a consultant, with a very healthy paycheck attached. But ultimately I wasn’t happy with myself in that role and wanted to transition into a career that meant more to me in due course. 

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Shopping locally and from small businesses has been a large part of the shift for me. It takes more time and more effort, but at least I know that I’m contributing to someone’s wellbeing and financial stability much more directly than if I were shopping from a larger supermarket that squeezed margins for their farmers and producers to make sure the end retail price was as cheap to the consumer as possible. 

Nearly three years ago, I also gave up all fast fashion and high street shopping, favouring secondhand, vintage and charity shop purchases for clothes, accessories and shoes. That hasn’t been easy, particularly because of the convenience and speed that fast fashion affords you as a consumer, not to mention the attractive pricing. But for me giving up fast fashion is crucial not just to planetary health, but also to climate justice. It signals to these companies that we can’t put up with the terrible conditions that they expect their garment workers to produce in.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

I wouldn’t say there is a stigma more than there is a lack of understanding. But that is highly ironic because a lot of the things that South Asian families do naturally are sustainable. It generally starts with low-income, immigrant families championing these practices, with the most famous example being using containers repeatedly to store curries and daals. South Asian cooking often involves using entire fruits and vegetables in order to minimise waste. South Asian culture is slower and more deliberate than capitalistic, time-driven Western culture, and a slower lifestyle impacts our surroundings less. South Asian food practice has always been about buying local and supporting grassroots shop owners, where possible.

Religions and cultures that are prominent in South Asia favour a lifestyle that works in conjunction with nature as opposed to extracting from it.

So, in other words, sustainability comes to South Asian communities easier than we might think, but the way that modern day sustainability is wrapped up and packaged makes them feel like it’s far away and unattainable. 

Being carbon conscious in a practical day-to-day sense can be quite costly – how can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

Naturally, being sustainable is supposed to be accessible to everybody, because it actually requires us to live slowly, more locally and more deliberately. A plant-based or vegetarian diet can be cheaper than a meat-based diet. Shopping locally shortens the supply chain from raw materials / ingredients to the final consumer, which reduces the end price and makes sure that the original producers are adequately compensated for their effort.

However, the marketisation and mainstream branding that has now been attached to sustainability has meant that there has been a premium price attached to it, which has also in turn made it unaffordable for a lot of people to make sustainable choices. Starting small and stripping back your routine is a good place to start though, rather than thinking you need to invest in additional products or services at a cost to you. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?

Personally I think younger generations are much more knowledgeable about social justice and environmental sustainability than we are, simply because they don’t have a choice. So there is probably more than we can learn from them than they can learn from us!

I think for those interested in making a difference, I would advise starting small. Start with yourself and your sphere of control, extend that to your social circle, then to any impact you can make in your local community through conscious consumption, volunteering and raising awareness. Only then can you learn about the issues on the ground, on a grassroots level, which help you understand the system at large and why it functions the way it does. Otherwise, starting with the system and its flaws can seem too monumental and overwhelming to be able to make a tangible change. 

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

I’m just humbled that I get to do so many wonderful things and continue spreading the word about sustainability! In the last couple of years, I’ve been so honoured to speak at the Almeida Theatre, at Global Action Plan, at Amnesty International, for IKEA, and for various smaller organisations looking to educate and inspire change. I’ve been able to interview amazing people, including Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Sana Javeri Kadri from Diaspora Co.

In one of my earliest pieces of work, while I was working with the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, I got to interview Arctic climate scientist Dr Oran Young. He has dedicated his whole life to the study of climate and spoke so passionately about the links to aspirational lifestyle and the worsening climate crisis. It really hit home then that this is more than scientific. It’s about how we define happiness and success. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

For South Asians, there is an absolute wealth of literature to delve into in terms of prominent writing about environmentalism, anti-capitalism and racism. Two perhaps obvious voices are Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy – they give a great introduction, in the content of South Asia, of why environmental sustainability needs to tie into social justice.

Find some of Sharlene’s work here:

Supply Chain Transparency: https://mailchimp.com/courier/article/building-transparent-supply-chain/

Carbon Tracking Apps: https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/app-design/how-carbon-tracking-apps-are-designed-to-foster-responsibility-and-why-this-might-be-flawed/

How Green is UK’s New Deal?: https://www.ourstosave.com/feature?id=ckda46h78000p07234osxdkme

IKEA project: https://lifeathome.ikea.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/IKEA_Life_At_Home_Report_2020-2.pdf

Follow Sharlene on Instagram and LinkedIn