Changemakers for the future

Rajeev Goyal, Vertical University

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series ‘Changemakers for the future’, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Rajeev Goyal, one of the directors of Vertical University Project in Nepal.

‘The greatest tool against climate change is a tree’

My first trip to Nepal was in 2001 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was a teacher in a little village in the country’s eastern hills, where I observed how nature was seen as holding people back from development. The focus was on building roads, paving over landscapes, electricity. Afterwards, I worked in Nepal for about a decade, during which I witnessed much of Nepal’s biocultural fabric eroding. When I returned to my home state of New York, I got a Master’s in international agriculture and rural development. That degree and my teaching experience in Nepal got me thinking: what role can government, schools and children play in protecting biodiversity? This led me to the concept of ‘learning grounds’ – figuratively speaking, fields of study, but also in terms of the actual ground beneath our feet. Then the idea of verticality took root.

Farmers as professors
The Vertical University project began in eastern Nepal in 2014. The core concept was for people living and producing food on the land to be the professors. Whether yak herders, farmers, foragers or fisherfolks, these individuals often know every leaf of their landscape, but their knowledge is rarely harnessed to understand how we can save biodiversity.

The Himalayas are home to many divergent life forms all within a 120-mile corridor that rises up. Along the plains, elephants roam and tropical birds fly; the highlands have red pandas, blue sheep and snow leopards; rhododendron forests abound in the middle hills. We identified these last jewels of biodiversity, sometimes just a half-acre nestled in the mountains, as public learning grounds. Over the last six years, we similarly identified and purchased small, strategic land parcels so they cannot be overrun with roads, as much of Nepal’s forests already have been. My co-founder Priyanka Bista, an architect, designed discarded shipping containers into classrooms. In 2019, we started to invite 6th to 8th graders every week for a few hours. The container space let children watch documentaries and learn about forest ecosystems. They would get so passionate about things like monitor lizards and go home telling their parents about why they shouldn’t hunt pangolin.

Legislative creativity

Trying to bring this very idealistic project alive has not been easy. Take what happened in Papung, at the top of the Vertical University. Situated between the world’s third and fifth tallest peaks, this area has several hundred high-altitude lakes and important wildlife, including the iconic snow leopard. Because of water richness, various hydropower projects were planned and many companies were trying to get in.

We established the learning grounds to try to prevent that. Along the way, we also angered a lot of very powerful people. At some point, the community leaders were also unsure; maybe it was better to allow the hydropower, they thought, for development in their communities. During this time, Greta Thunberg was all over the news. We were showing them video clips of her, and some of the Nepalese community leaders in the room started weeping, saying: “It’s our turn to do something.” They started to lead. I am very proud that we protected highlands to stay roadless forever. To compete with those high-stakes corporate projects, we provided a model for a viable alternative: building a roadless ecotourism network that involved local leaders and benefited the community. Such as our ‘glamping’ model for eco-tourism. In the past, an average tourist might pay $15 or $20 for a day of trekking; now we organise deep, wild nature experiences and ask several hundred dollars a day, to offset preservation costs  with a bio-cultural tax. We passed our proposal by leveraging new local powers embedded within the new federal governments. This kind of legislative creativity makes me proud too.

Dreams for the future

Vertical University will have more challenges ahead, but I am hopeful that in 20 years, several hundred children will be coming to the learning grounds. Once a week, I hope they find themselves taking classes at different elevations, touching soil, smelling leaves and learning all about biodiversity.           

If I had 10 minutes to speak at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, I would remind world leaders that nature is very powerful. Solving climate change is possible if we give nature the space it needs and respect it as our ancestors did. It’s simple: the greatest tool against climate change is a tree.

This story was based on an interview with Rajeev in January. Click here for the long read.

Rajeev Goyal is co-founder and co-director of the Vertical University in Nepal. His organisation KTK-BELT was a Climate Action Challenge winner of our partner What Design Can Do in 2017. Rajeev’s first book, ‘The Springs of Namje’ details the story of his work in the Himalayas and for the Peace Corps.

The Vertical University Project seeks to create a continuous bio-cultural heritage corridor from the plains of Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve all the way to Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-tallest peak. Besides catalysing new models of biodiversity conservation and environmental learning, its objective is to address land use change and deforestation issues Nepal faces.

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