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Q&A with Nari Shakti Pushkar 2017 Award Winner Purnima Devi Barman

On International Women’s Day March 8, 2018, Purnima Devi Barman from Assam, India was awarded the Nari Shakti Purashkar 2017 award for her groundbreaking work with the Greater Adjutant Stork, locally known in India as the Hargila Stork, an Endangered species on the IUCN Red List. The award is the most prestigious civilian accolade in India and was presented to her by the country’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, at his home in New Delhi. Barman, who is a member of GWC partner Women in Nature Network, has worked tirelessly over the last 10 years to redefine how her community and culture view the Greater Adjutant, which has traditionally been viewed as a bad omen and carrier of disease. Purnima’s hard work and passion have especially inspired the women of Assam to protect the Greater Adjutant Stork, mobilizing them into the Hargila Brigade, a group focused on conservation for this species.

We had the opportunity to speak with Purnima about her recent Nari Shakti Purashkar 2017 award, her work with the Greater Adjutant Stork, and the role women play in the stork’s conservation story.

Awardees of Nari Shakti Purashkar 2017 with Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi. (Photo courtesy of Purnima Devi Barman)

Q: How does it feel to win the Nari Shakti Purashkar 2017 award?
A: I was very happy! This award is not just recognition for my work with the Greater Adjutant Stork, but for all of the women and communities that support this animal’s conservation as well. More than anything, I am happy that their support was recognized. So much more is possible now as result of this award.

Q: When you started to work with the community, did you know that you wanted to focus on empowering women?
A: When I first started my work this was not my primary goal. My goal at the time was to complete my Ph.D. on ecology and behavior biology of Greater Adjutant, then move on to work in the conservation field. My parents wanted me to find a stable, well-paying job.At the time, I wasn’t aware of the work that needed to be done to protect storks.  I was not even very aware about community conservation and its importance for saving species.

So 10 years ago I was just collecting my data like a normal Ph.D. student and then one day I got a call from some of my volunteers saying that someone was cutting down a tree with six Greater Adjutant Stork nests. As he was cutting down the tree, nine baby birds fell. I felt helpless. At that time, I did not know how to rescue them—where to take them, what to bring, where to keep them as they healed. This was my first experience trying to save the species. I decided to ask the man his motivations for cutting down the tree and harming the birds. Through this conversation, I realized my mission in life is actually to save the Greater Adjutant. I felt like this was God trying to show me an example of the harm to this stork that was commonly occurring. I also came to realize that the man cutting down the tree was not to blame. As an environmental educator and ecology student, I realized that saving a species is more than just collecting data on the species itself. To save a species we also have to work with communities to save the animal and its habitat. My life’s mission started on that day.

Q: How does your award support your existing work with the Hargila stork?
A: The Nari Shakti Purashkar award is the highest civilian award for women in India. I didn’t know that I was going to be a recipient until I got the call on International Women’s Day to attend the ceremony at the president’s house in New Delhi. It was such an honor that the plight of the Greater Adjutant was highlighted through my work. Receiving this award means that the government and policymakers know about my work. They are aware of the threats to the Greater Adjutant Stork and recognize the importance of it’ protection to the people.This award directly connects my work with the Greater Adjutant to the government. This is important because governmental policies are integral to successfully protecting a species.

Q: What have been the most rewarding experiences working with this species?
A: My favorite experiences have to do with working with communities on Greater Adjutant conservation. I particularly enjoy working with women. I am proud to have the opportunity to work with them. Many of these women are not able to write their name, and yet they are a powerful force for conservation. They provide me with the energy and motivation to continue this work. I also enjoy working with the children in the communities; they are very close to my heart. When I visit, I am always overwhelmed by the support they and their families have for the Greater Adjutant. The children show their support in a myriad of ways including school performances, where some wear costumes celebrating the Greater Adjutant Stork. I cannot put into words how it makes me feel when they call me the Hargila“baido.”Baido means elder sister. To have the children refer to me in this way was surprising and an honor.

Purnima Devi Barman interacting with Mr. Narendra Modi. (Photo courtesy of Purnima Devi Barman)

Since beginning my work, I’ve realized that working in protected areas and working in human communities are two different things. To help achieve my goal of protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork, I wanted to incorporate it into community traditions. When I was first starting out 10 years ago, I had no idea how I was going to do this. Fast-forward to today and now communities are including images of the Greater Adjutant on their traditional clothing. This has all been a learning experience and I am touched by the amount of support others have shown for this species.

Q: If you could give women interested in becoming involved with conservation one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Women are integral to the greater conservation narrative. Women are creators—she is a sister, she is a mother, and she plays a large role in our society.If we exclude women from conservation, then we are unlikely to achieve sustainable conservation. Environmental education begins at home and mothers can play a large role in teaching children about conservation. In many villages, women are housewives, but are important household decision-makers, such that they have the power to affect the conservation mindset of future generations. I support and think that women should be a part of conservation education.

About the Author

Kristin Arakawa

Kristin Arakawa

Kristin is the GWC's editorial content intern, helping the communications team share stories of species discovery and conservation. She is a graduate student studying environmental conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is passionate about biodiversity protection and environmental policy.