Telling Stories, Creating Change

By Aadya Singh, Ambika KaushikonApr. 04, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

SECURE Himalaya Youth Fellowships in Uttarakhand: Filmmaking and Radio

High-range Himalayan landscape; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

Don’t leave your village’ – this is the message that youth from the remote mountain villages of Uttarakhand keep hearing, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic and the return of many migrants from far-flung towns and cities

“There are many young people from my community who study a lot, and then run towards cities for jobs. The valley will not develop like this”, says 28-year old Jayendra Singh, a budding film-maker from Dharchula in Pithoragarh. “Migration has always been a way of life for my people. Historically, people from here have migrated to Tibet as well as Nepal. Seasonal migration is also common – as the weather warms, many move from Dharchula back to the valley.”

Jayendra himself calls more than one place home. Every six months, he shuttles between Dharchula and Darma Valley. He has recently completed the SECURE Himalaya Youth Video Fellowship, which was launched in 2020 for aspiring youth film-makers interested in covering issues that connect Himalayan communities with local ecology. He now has 3 films under his belt, and has begun work on another film on climate change to help create awareness amongst the members of his community – the Rung tribe of Dharchula.

For 20-year old Savita from Uttarkashi, the Youth Community Radio Fellowship came at just the right time as the lockdown had severely disrupted her studies at college where she was pursuing her graduation. She says, “I knew the fellowship would be an opportunity for me to learn new things. Otherwise I would also have been sitting at home not doing much, just like all my friends here.”

Hiking towards Darma Valley; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

The Need for Alternative Solutions for Himalayan Youth

For people living in villages nestled in the central and upper Himalayan ranges, declining agriculture and large distances from urban centres translate to a lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities for those who want to stay back in their villages. “The desertification of agricultural land into barren land as well as the depredation of crops by wildlife is a harsh reality that makes even subsistence, and not just income generation, a challenge”, says Ranjan Kumar Mishra, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Nodal Officer for the SECURE Himalaya project in Uttarakhand.

In addition to the ecological and livelihood challenges faced by communities in these landscapes, young people from the region tend to migrate from their villages for education as well as employment, and therefore are unable to play a substantial role in conservation or the well-being of their communities in the regions they call home.

The vision of creating a platform that could engage local youth in conservation action and build local capacities for communication evolved into the design of a Youth Video Fellowship for Uttarakhand. Following the model of Green Hub, which has facilitated award-winning video fellowships for young people in the north-east for over 5 years, the SECURE Himalaya Youth Video Fellowship programme was designed and launched in early 2020.

Green Hub is a youth and community based video fellowship program on environment, wildlife and people’s biodiversity in North East India. In its fifth year now, the project has 68 youth alumni spread across the region, many of whom have now become ambassadors and spokespersons taking forward the message of environment and social change in their areas. Every year, youth alumni, community leaders, representatives from the state forest departments as well as other diverse stakeholders come together for the Green Hub Festival, celebrating the power of video for building youth engagement for community and conservation issues.

Replicating Lessons from the North-east to Uttarakhand

By itself, video and film-making is a skill that youth gravitate to as a medium of choice for sharing stories and learning about new things. In addition to being an important skill for creative communication, film-making is also an effective tool for engaging with the broader community and improving their understanding of conservation and livelihood issues of their region.

Inspired by the success of Green Hub, the SECURE Himalaya Youth Video Fellowship was independently designed as a 4-month programme to teach youth video-making skills and communication methods. The fellowship is an offshoot of the SECURE Himalaya project, a joint venture of the Indian government through the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UNDP India. With a mandate to protect the pastures and forests of the high-range Himalayas, improving community awareness of ecological issues and encouraging coexistence rather than conflict with wildlife is a key aim of the SECURE Himalaya project.

Vision and Launch of the SECURE Himalaya Youth Video Fellowship

Designed to improve community awareness about ecological security of Himalayan landscapes, the fellowship has been centred around equipping selected youth with the skill sets and tools for creating powerful visual communication through the medium of films. “Only by involving the community can we save the high-range Himalayan ecosystem, which includes the habitat of endangered species such as the snow leopard which is found only in 5 states of India, including Uttarakhand”, says Mishra. “Protecting the apex predator, in turn, will save the habitat of other wildlife species that the snow leopard preys on. By involving youth in exploring alternative models of conservation, we can also promote conservation-based livelihoods such as wildlife tourism and homestays for the local community. This is where the Youth Fellowships play a critical role.”

Gathering video footage during the Internship period; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

Once the fellowship was launched in 2020, 98 applications from interested youth were received for the fellowship from across three landscapes which are highly vulnerable – Darma-Byans, Gangotri and Govind. Following a round of face-to-face interviews, 8 fellows were finally selected for the project, out of whom 6 continue to engage with the program: Jayender Singh and Kavinder Kutiyal from the Darma Valley landscape; Kuldeep Singh and Dharm Chand from the Gangotri landscape and Manbir Singh (Pujeli), Arvind Singh Rawat (Pujeli), Randev (Gangar) and Devraj (Doni) from the Govind landscape.

Weaving Together Themes of Ecology and Storytelling

The Youth Video Fellowship was kicked off with a one-month training prior to the start of the three-month fellowship. The fellows attended a workshop on natural history in Munsiyari in February 2020, following which due permission was taken from the Uttarakhand Forest Department to allow the fellows to shoot in and around local protected areas. Fellows learned how to take photos, edit, use a film camera and gained knowledge about snow leopard conservation as well.

While the topics and themes were selected based on both the interest of the fellows as well as the objectives of the SECURE Himalaya project, the workshops on ecology and natural history served to add an additional new perspective for the youth. According to Jayendra, he was “able to learn about wildlife through the training. Earlier, I had seen my community hunt wildlife but now I am learning how wildlife and tourism can complement each other, and how we can have a positive relationship with wildlife.”

As per the fellowship design, the fellows continued to receive training in editing and post-production techniques throughout the rest of the fellowship period to make their films come alive.

The lockdown situation at the start of the Fellowship; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

While the Covid-19 situation and the subsequent lockdowns did affect plans for shooting (both as a result of the lockdown restrictions as well as connectivity issues), the mentors and fellows continued to work together using whatever means possible despite the challenges. The themes that fellows have created films on range from the local landscape and biodiversity of Harsil village in Gangotri landscape, the architecture of Doni village and the biodiversity of Govind landscape as well as video documentation of weaving practices in the Darma-Byans landscape. 

Engaging Community and Creating Room for Inter-generational Dialogue

Learning how to conduct film interviews during the internship period; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

The process of film-making itself has helped the fellows learn from the elders in their village and create ‘living archives’ of their local biodiversity, cultural practices, traditional knowledge, folk music and tales, art as well as festivals and rituals. In addition to gathering information and footage through inter-generational dialogue, youth have also been learning from each other and about each other’s landscapes in the region.

The films created by the youth fellows have been sparking community-oriented discussions on important issues and spreading awareness locally. By partnering with local NGOs, CBOs and the Uttarakhand Forest Department, the films have been finding a medium for further dissemination beyond the immediate community as well.

Celebrating International Mountain Day on December 11 2020, 8 films made by the youth fellows were launched online. Following the launch, the fellows actively participated in community screenings of their films, using those as a platform to initiate conversations about mountain issues. “Through a virtual community screening in Dharchula on Mountain Day, many people from my community watched my film on the internet and on their phones. They saw the film and said, ‘Yes, this happens in our valley. Our valley is so beautiful, we are able to see that today.”

Youth Community Radio Fellowships

Radio Fellows recording interviews; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

“At the start of the fellowship, I received radio training and learned how to edit, write a feature, interview people and make a program. Then I went back to my village to conduct interviews,” says 27-year old Ankita, a Radio Fellow from Bhatwari in Uttarkashi. “I had never thought about pursuing something in radio before – no one in my area works in radio or film!”

Because of lockdown restrictions, the Youth Community Radio Fellowships (YCRF) evolved into a remote mentorship model where radio mentors from Kumaon Vani team worked with fellows to guide them on drafting scripts and creating a sample radio episode. Between the 6 YCRF fellows, they chose topics such as Traditional seeds of Dharchula, Climate change and Migration, Plastic Pollution in Gangotri Landscape, Ill effects of drugs in society and Life of a Shepherd.

Ankita and Savita, who both come from the same village in Uttarkashi, came up with the idea of working on Plastic Pollution in Gangotri Landscape because of the Gangotri temple close to their home, which sees lots of tourists who come and throw plastic indiscriminately in and around the temple. For 20-year old Savita, who says that she’s seen plastic being used in her village from the time she was a young child, it was a chance to learn from the elders about traditional practices that existed before she (and plastic) came around. “I would never have found out that families here used ‘potlis’ (a cloth parcel hung on a stick) to carry things up and down the hills before plastic use became so common. In fact, through my radio interviews my community members spoke about different ways to deal with plastic pollution and came up with solutions. We would not have gotten this chance to have such conversations were it not for these interviews,” she says. After the two girls conducted their field interviews in Uttarkashi, recordings of their conversations would be saved on a pendrive and sent to the Kumaon Vaani office for airing, where their interviews aired 2-3 times on the Kumaon Vaani radio channel.

Coverage of the Fellowship in the Wildlife Division Quarterly Newsletter; Photo credit: Dusty Foot Productions

What Next? After the Fellowship

“Before the fellowship, I used to hesitate while speaking with people. Fellowships like this are important because mountain youth can learn something new as well as gain skills for their livelihoods. There is no one else in our area who provides training or does something like this”, says Ankita. Jayendra echoes her sentiments, saying that the fellowship gave him knowledge that he can take forward with him – “Another fellow and I are thinking about starting an online vlog together. I am also thinking of making more films that can help my Rung community understand about climate change. One way is to tell them, and another is to show them.”

In addition to equipping the youth fellows with important skills that can contribute to their careers and futures, the medium of film or radio can also help similar mountain communities find each other. “Not only will films about my community help preserve a culture that is slowly being lost, but it will also help us reach other communities that are like us. The people of Lahaul and Spiti, for instance, are very similar to us and I would like my films to reach them as well.”

Contact the authors

Read a story relating to some of the locals – Hill community was losing touch with its language. Then it turned to Whatsapp

and in Hindi उत्‍तराखंड की इस विलुप्‍त होती भाषा को बचाने में वॉट्सऐप बना मददगार

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