The environmentalist researching the difficult choices we need to make

He’s an eminent geographer who “never studied geography”. Bhaskar Vira’s childhood in India and background in economics inform his approach to safeguarding fragile ecosystems. His research focuses on the profound and complex relationship between people and the natural world.

One of my formative experiences was going to boarding school on the edge of the Himalayas. I was there from the age of 12 to 18. Doon School was a six-hour journey by bus from my home in Delhi. It encouraged independence: we did long hikes with heavy backpacks and camped in the hills. Academic standards were high and I did lots of debating. I loved my time there.

In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, environmentalism was just re-emerging. From the school grounds we could see a limestone quarry scarring the Himalayan landscape. Pupils from the school planted hundreds of trees to reforest the denuded hillside. There was a law suit between the quarrying company and concerned citizens: the case went to the Supreme Court which ruled to stop destructive mining in the region.

As soon as I could read, I devoured books voraciously. England, or a version of it, came alive through literature. Initially, it was Enid Blyton, now discredited for her narrowness, then the schoolboy stories of Richmal Crompton’s Just William series and Anthony Buckeridge’s now-forgotten Jennings novels, which eventually led to PG Wodehouse.

These stories took place in a world utterly different to my own with the Famous Five romping through Dorset and the hilarious situational comedies of Jeeves and Wooster. Another of my favourite authors was Jim Corbett, the hunter-turned-conservationist who wrote The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. India’s oldest national park, created to protect the Bengal tiger, is named after him.

My parents actively encouraged my brother and me to engage with the world around us. My dad was a civil servant and my mum worked for an NGO. We often travelled with my dad when he was posted to different places. We drove along hot dusty roads to places where we met farmers and people involved in development activities. It gave me an idea of the extraordinary diversity of India and the challenges that poor people live with.

I’m a geographer who never studied geography — something I always tell my students. I did my first BA in Economics at Delhi University and then came to Cambridge to take a second BA in Economics. I was at St John’s where I benefited from brilliant teaching from Jeremy Edwards, Bob Evans and Luca Anderlini. I stayed on to take an MPhil and PhD looking at the economics of sustainability in forestry.

My work showed that the way forward was participatory environmental management. Rather than employing guards to keep people out of the forest, and protect nature from people, the local population need to be brought into the equation and offered incentives to collaborate with the government. This two-way approach creates partnerships and a sense of trust vital to conservation.

The individual and small group teaching I received at Cambridge was outstanding. Because of this, I make teaching and support for students one of my priorities. It’s very satisfying to see undergraduates progress and then take off into a whole range of careers. Many of them keep in touch and you can see how the small seeds you’ve planted in their thinking have helped to shape their careers. They’re doing some amazing things.

Funnily enough, arriving at Cambridge to study felt like coming home. My parents had spent a year here while my dad did a course in Development Studies at Wolfson College. They were blissfully happy and talked about Cambridge with huge affection. For that year, my brother and I remained in India with our grandparents. Amazingly, they too said it was the happiest time in their lives. Cambridge has become home. My wife and I met here, and our children have grown up in this lovely city.

After my doctorate I got a post at Oxford’s Centre for Environment, Ethics and Society. It was newly established and there was freedom to explore and develop cross-disciplinary thinking. I was able to do a lot of reading and develop my intellectual interests beyond my initial training in economics. I returned to Cambridge to take up a lectureship in the Department of Geography where I began lecturing on environment and development.

My research looks at the ways in which humans interact with the environment — in rural areas and fragile ecosystems in particular. Nature continues to be incredibly important for the lives of people, especially the poor, and it is very important to keep this on the agenda of governments.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve realised that to safeguard natural environments we need to engage with people and work with them, rather than keep them out. Our work in the Himalayas explores some of these partnerships, and how vital they are for protecting these vital ecosystems, their forests and water. It’s an approach that requires specialists to share their knowledge and has brought me full circle, back to the hills and mountains where I spent my happiest childhood years.

In 2013 I became director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI). Our graduate students and postdocs look at biodiversity conservation and the social context within which humans engage with nature. They come from many different fields — zoology, plant sciences, land economy, geography. When they‘re not away doing fieldwork they work side by side. Exciting conversations are taking place in the fabulous David Attenborough Building which is our base.

Effective conservation depends on collaboration between different fields. It’s all about forging relationships with people — policy-makers as well as people who live and depend on the environments that need protection. A lot of my work is creating networks of shared and overlapping interests, and trying to get people to engage with each other in a constructive way.

I’ve lived in the UK for over 25 years, but my research keeps taking me back to India. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is being able to go back to the field, to speak to people and to understand how the world is changing through first-hand observation and engagement — nothing can replace this. For me, the fact that this fieldwork has involved working in some of the places that have left such a deep impression on my mind — especially in India — makes this even more special.

Whatever I’m studying, I always read around the subject. Reading widely is something that Cambridge has long encouraged and I think it’s key to wanting to learn and to challenge your mind to think differently. At the moment I’m loving Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm as a wonderful celebration of the joy that nature provides to humans. His message is simple, and one that I agree with: focusing on the pleasure that we derive from the natural world is probably the best argument for protecting it for ourselves and for future generations.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.



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