2014 - 2017
Sonia Mehra Chawla has been a visiting researcher at MSSRF since 2014. The artists' ongoing project 'Scapelands' is being realized with the support of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation India, which specializes in coastal systems research and sustainable development of coastal communities. The project, through its exploratory work, research and study, will explore the critical workings of vulnerable coastal ecosystems across the length and breadth of India, through visual journeys, documentation and records of vast coastal systems including mangrove belts (healthy and degraded) that span both macro ecologies and micro ecologies. As an artist and researcher Sonia hopes to develop novel ways to interpret and decode academic laboratory and conservative scientific methods into outcomes that challenge the norms of the discipline, moving it into new spaces for artistic exploration. The projects will investigate the role of science and technology in preserving vulnerable ecosystems, and examine how they can be allies towards the sustainable development, livelihood and ecological security of coastal communities. Drawing data and vital information from the fields of Microbiology, Biotechnology and Eco-technology, the artistic investigation also speculates about a future where invisible biological data is uncovered and where the transgenic may becomes vital in species conservation.

"To enlist Science and Technology as Allies in the Movement for Sustainable Development"

The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) was established in 1988 as a not-for-profit trust. MSSRF was envisioned and founded by Professor M. S. Swaminathan with proceeds from the First World Food Prize that he received in 1987. The Foundation aims to accelerate use of modern science for agricultural and rural development for development and dissemination of technology to improve lives and livelihoods of tribal and rural communities. MSSRF follows a pro-poor, pro-women and pro-nature approach and applies appropriate science and technology options to address practical problems faced by rural populations in agriculture, food and nutrition.

These efforts have been undertaken in a participatory manner and in partnership with other knowledge-based institutions, public and private sector organisations and local communities.

From a small beginning, across the years, the Foundation has made its impact felt in various dimensions making a difference to the lives of over 600,000 individuals, impacting livelihood of 100,000 farmers and fisherfolk every day with influence that spreads across 18 countries.

MSSRF is carrying out research and development in six major thematic areas, besides special projects and cross-cutting areas and themes:

Coastal Systems Research
Food Security
Information, Education and Communication
Grass Root Institutions
as well as through the Media Resource Centre
The Coastal Systems Research Programme aims at integrating ecological security of coastal areas and livelihood security of coastal communities, in a mutually reinforcing manner, to achieve sustainable management of coastal resources. The ecosystem chosen for this study is mangrove wetland. It is a multiple-use ecosystem and plays a role in mitigating impact of natural disasters such as cyclone, storm surges and tsunami in coastal zones. It provides livelihood to millions of artisanal fishers and acts as a critical habitat for wildlife.

In 1981, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan proposed, at an International Conference on Global Environment and Sustainable Development, that mangroves could play a lead role in managing the impact of sea level rise and called for anticipatory research in developing saline tolerant crop varieties using salt-tolerant genes of mangrove plants. This led MSSRF to start its twin strategy of conservation of mangrove wetlands and sustainable utilization of their resources, in 1991.

Concept and Genesis of the programme

MSSRF carved its biodiversity programme in 1990 to focus at three levels- at Species level on conservation of the endangered species with those species figured out in various Red Lists and the Indian Red Data Books, at Ecosystem level the fragile Mangrove wetlands, and at Community level the agro-biodiversity. The activities undertaken by the programme were streamlined into three areas such as Research, Education and Development.

The last 20 years contributions fall mainly in the area of education and development. Some of the notable results are (i) the rescue of Rare, Endemic and Threatened plant species, and restoration of mangrove wetlands; (ii) reducing the rate of loss of on-farm genetic diversity in rice, millets and yams, (iii) promoting conservation and cultivation of medicinal plants, (iv) addressing major threats to traditionally managed agricultural landscapes through massive awareness building, and (v) protecting traditional ecological and biodiversity related knowledge by way of documentation.

Equally important contributions were made at the policy level. The initial drafts of both the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act and the Biodiversity Act were prepared at MSSRF. Getting an integrated Act covering both farmers' and breeders' rights has been a major policy achievement, since there is no parallel for this in the world.

Vision, goal and objectives of the Biodiversity programme

Since 1990s, the biodiversity components in focus are in-situ, on farm community conservation of biodiversity, that comprise innumerable number of crops, animals and socio-economically and ecologically important wild plant and microbial diversity found in situ and on farm. The BdP implemented several projects, with support from national and international donors, aimed at mainstreaming some of the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at national, local and international levels. The activities have been implemented through need-based research and issue-based professional networks involving key stakeholders. This helped the biodiversity team to function as a 'Resource Group' in the area of Community Biodiversity Management (CBM) both in the local and regional level. The activities in the area of CBM are streamlined under three heads- the Community Agrobiodiversity Centre in Wayanad, the Biju Patnaik Medicinal Plants and Research Centre in Odisha and the Community Biodiversity Programme in Kolli hills. The programme results have contributed significantly to the MSSRF's mandate of sustainable agricultural and rural development. The suggestions of our peers and external reviewers and community partners also played significant roles in shaping the programme and appraisal of the current work.

The programme has set to acquire therefore, renewed commitment, skills and more intensified forms of thematic and management actions to deal with the different needs and priorities in both conservation of biodiversity as well as the sustainable living aspects of local communities. It is our vision that Farming communities of our intervention sites to follow the agricultural practices that are not inimical to the earth. However, we recognize that effective use of technologies like Bio technology, Information technology and Eco technologies are required to design and implement innovative plans in Sustainable Agriculture and for addressing the new challenges emerge due to climate change impacts.

© sonia mehra chawla