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Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD),
Mr. Ibrahim Thiaw, on Cauvery Calling

Cauvery Calling

Revitalizing the Land, the Water and the Lives of 84 million people in India

1.0 The Problem: Soil, Water and Livelihood challenge facing 4.7 billion people

Our collective mismanagement of Earth has manifested itself in myriad symptoms – climate change, loss of topsoil and fertility, dwindling water resources, and related farmer distress around the world. At risk is the world’s food and water security, as well as the livelihoods of billions of people linked to the agrarian economy – especially in the tropical world that is home to 4.7 billion people. India is one of the worst affected regions – with a 40% or more decline in its rivers in just two generations due to more than 70% loss in green cover in the river basin areas. As a result, soil fertility is declining, there are more droughts and floods, and there is acute agrarian distress with a rising tide of farmer suicides. Lack of organic matter is turning soil into sand. Not surprisingly, 24% of the world, and 32% of India, is turning into a desert.

Given this backdrop, Cauvery River, which has been a lifeline for southern India for many millennia, is now dying. At stake is 83,000 square kilometers of the river’s basin, which until recent years had been one of the most fertile lands in India, and is today home to 84 million people.

2.0 The Solution: Creating the world’s largest farmer-driven ecological movement

At its heart, the core idea underpinning Cauvery Calling is breathtakingly simple and scalable. In heavily populated tropical countries like India, large tracts of additional land to put under more forest cover simply don’t exist. Therefore the solution is to bring tree cover onto the vast tracts of private farmland - via the adoption of tree-based agriculture by farmers.

Importantly, the entire approach is based on the insight that impoverished rural farmers will adopt tree-based agriculture only if there is a strong market-driven financial incentive to dramatically improve their livelihoods. Consequently, this entirely voluntary adoption of tree-based agriculture by farmers is underpinned by an underlying economic model where by farmer incomes are going up between 300-800%. It is, therefore, evident that in a country where 690 million people live in relative poverty, Cauvery Calling is a ground-breaking eco-restoration movement that marries ecology with economy.

Given the movement, at its heart, is voluntarily propelled by farmers for an underlying economic rationale, large-scale change becomes possible. This movement, therefore, is addressing the ecological and economic concerns of the entire Cauvery River basin area,propelled by 5.2 million farmers in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in southern India. The target is to help these farmers bring their land under green cover by planting 2.42 billion trees.

Watch Cauvery Calling: A Race To Save a River, a documentary film by Discovery Channel

3.0 Unprecedented Scale-up in Recent Years:

The Cauvery Calling approach has been painstakingly developed and refined on the ground for more than two decades, starting from 1998. The initial decade was spent developing the model, building the capabilities, creating the people linkages, and generating favorable word of mouth through widespread on-ground farmer success stories. With that in place, the last six years have been devoted to scaling the program up to its full potential.

In 2017, this scale-up of the tree-based agriculture model got dramatic impetus when Sadhguru, the Founder of Isha, created a nationwide peoples’ movement, Rally for Rivers, to ensure the long-term sustainability of this holistic way of addressing our soil, water, and livelihood challenges. This encompassed both the rural farmers, who adopt tree-based agriculture, as well as the urban population, which supports the cause through funding. An unprecedented 162 million people in India actively expressed their support during this month-long on-ground rally.

In 2018, a key additional focus was to facilitate various changes in government policy necessary for large-scale rural adoption of tree-based agriculture. These were done on the back of a comprehensive set of technical recommendations that were submitted to the Government of India, which formed the cornerstone of the Government River Revitalization Advisory in June 2018.

In 2019, with the various building blocks in place, the geographic scope and scale of the initiative dramatically expanded to cover all 83,000 square kilometers of the Cauvery River basin - an area that supports 84 million people. The objective was to bring tree-based agriculture to 5.2 million farmers. A massive on-ground mobilization was done in Sep 2019 by Sadhguru, who rode over 9,000 km across the Cauvery basin. In doing so, a people’s movement was shaped across the length and breadth of the river basin.

Despite the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, our committed, on-ground volunteers garnered the support of over 100 grassroot organizations, conducted 1800+ events in 1785 village councils (gram panchayats) to promote tree-based agriculture, and complemented the effort with a dedicated helpline, social media, as well as event coverage on TV and radio.

In the year 2022, Cauvery Calling enabled the planting of 23 million+ trees across 46 districts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with the overwhelming participation of 48,700 farmers. Out of this, the Government of Karnataka produced and distributed 13 million+ trees where Cauvery Calling volunteers were able to support in creating the necessary on-ground awareness and assisting farmers as they transitioned to tree-based agriculture.

In the year 2022, two more opportunities for farmers to get involved being introduced: farmer-driven sapling production and farmer-driven sapling distribution. This step in farmer empowerment means that they will own both the supply and demand in coming times.

Further, in 2022, Conscious Planet - Save Soil, the largest ecological movement on the planet with a reach of over 4 billion people, has brought the world's attention to the soil crisis. It aims to driving policy change in all 193 nations to safeguard, nurture and sustain soil by raising organic matter in soil to a minimum of 3-6% based on regional conditions.

Since Sadhguru undertook an arduous 100-day, 30,000-km lone motorcycle journey across 3 continents, 81 countries have initiated the process of framing soil policies and the movement is growing stronger by the day.

4.0 Why This is a Game Changer: Scalable and self-sustainable solution for land restoration and river revitalization

Cauvery Calling is a game-changer for the following key reasons:

  1. Scale:The immense scale of this on-ground effort which involves helping 5.2 million farmers to bring their land under green cover by planting 2.42 billion trees across the Cauvery basin.

  2. Unique building blocks:The movement’s ability to achieve its ambitious long-term goals is underpinned by two game-changing building blocks:

    1. The required scale-up of vegetative green cover is not constrained by the limited availability of forest land as the movement targets the vast tracts of privately-owned agricultural lands.

    2. The long-term sustainability of the initiative will be market-driven because it is propelled by significant increases in the incomes of impoverished farmers. Therefore, this movement will not be constrained by the availability of charitable contributions.

  3. Popular support:A broad-based and all-inclusive people’s movement has been shaped on the back of a national-level 2017 public campaign that elicited the support of an unprecedented 162 million people, followed by another campaign in 2019 to mobilize farmers and urban support. This movement encompasses farmers, civil society, the Union and relevant State Governments, and NGOs. And all of this is underpinned by 25 years of concerted on-ground work.

5.0 Impact on Humans and the Natural World:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines that land-related restoration initiatives should be evaluated across five key areas - climate change adaptation, climate change mitigation, combating desertification and land degradation, food security, and sustainable development. Cauvery Calling is one of the few projects that addresses all five areas. It is harnessing a powerful nature-based solution – tree-based agriculture - to address ecosystem restoration (both soil and water), reversal of biodiversity loss, climate change mitigation, improved food security and nutritional value, crop diversification, and risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and better livelihoods for millions of small-hold farmers.

As of December 2023, the project has enabled the planting of 97.5 million living trees. Further, 192,000 farmers have transitioned to tree-based agriculture. The project impact is summarized below:

  1. Climate change adaptation:

    1. Farms have become more resilient to floods and droughts, as evidenced by low water stagnation during excessive rains and reduced loss of yields during droughts.

    2. Livelihoods of impoverished farmers have been de-risked due to:

      1. a 300-800% increase in their incomes.

      2. Having the safety net of possessing marketable trees.

      3. Needing less time for cultivation allows farmers to develop alternative skill sets and related earning opportunities.

  2. Climate change mitigation:

    1. The plan of planting 2.42 billion trees is expected to result in the sequestration of 200-300 million tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to 8-12% of India’s NDC for 2030.

    2. Reduced pressure on forests for tree produce.

  3. Combating desertification and land degradation:

    1. The goal is to restore organic matter in the soil to at least 3-6%.

    2. Planting 2.42 billion trees is estimated to help sequester 9-12 trillion liters of water - revitalizing the soil, groundwater, and Cauvery River.

    3. Many farmers have reclaimed their fallow lands.

  4. Food security:

    1. Increased soil fertility due to tree-based agriculture has significantly improved the yields and the quality of various intercrops.

    2. Enhanced availability of fruits and improved soil quality result in an increased nutritional content for impoverished families.

  5. Sustainable development:

    1. The initiative addresses no fewer than nine sustainable development goals of the United Nations - i.e. goals number 1,2,6,8,10,12,13,15,17, as described in the graphic below.

    2. The required intensity of irrigation has significantly reduced due to enhanced moisture retention in soil.

    3. Biodiversity is rising, as evidenced by increased populations of beneficial insects and earthworms and the return of birds and small mammals.

    4. The initiative could slow down the adverse trend of rural-to-urban migration in the future.


No Poverty

Cauvery Calling promotes tree-based agriculture, which is more profitable to the farmer than the conventional method of monocropping. Farm households in the Cauvery Basin currently earn an average of ₹58,800 ($800) per year.

Farm models developed by the farmers in the last decade in Tamil Nadu have shown that farmer incomes have increased manifold due to changes in agricultural practices and adopting tree-based agriculture. On average, farmer income has increased 300-800%. Conversion of at least one-third of farm area into tree-based crops has ensured financial stability for the farmers.

Since farmers will be the major stakeholders of the movement, their economic sustainability will ensure the sustainability of the entire project.

Zero Hunger

More than 60% of the population is in the agriculture sector in India. The improvement in soil quality will lead to improved yields in terms of volume and nutritional content. Increased tree-based agriculture, including horticulture, also means higher production of fruits to supplement the diet in rural areas, where the poverty levels are much higher than in urban areas. Also, if economic upliftment happens for the farmer as a result of sustainable farming, it will naturally address hunger and malnutrition. Tree-based agriculture also affords greater resilience to extreme fluctuations in climate and increases the organic and moisture content of the soil under the tree canopies, which, in turn, results in sustainable food production.

Clean Water and Sanitation for All

The planting of 2.42 billion trees will result in sequestration of more than 9 trillion liters of water and ensure better availability of water across the basin throughout the year. The filtering of pollutants by tree roots and reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers due to tree-based agriculture will also result in cleaner water in the area.

Decent Work Opportunities & Economic Growth

Tree-based agriculture will free farmers from labor intensive farming and give them time to develop allied income streams related to the agriculture sector through value-added products and innovative marketing. This will reduce migration from rural to urban areas, offer better living standards to the farmers’ families and communities, and create more jobs in the rural agriculture landscape.
SDG 10

Reduced Inequalities

As of December 2023, Cauvery Calling has enabled the planting of 97.5 million living trees. Further, 192,000 farmers have transitioned to tree-based agriculture. This has increased farmers' incomes, de-risked them from the uncertainties of mono-cropping and water-intensive agricultural practices. In addition, prosperity in the farming community would help slow down and reverse rural-urban migration, and boost the rural economy.
SDG 12

Responsible consumption and production

With increasing population and consequent rising demand for timber and other products, cultivating forest produce in agricultural land is the only way to save our forests from being destroyed. Tree-based agriculture is the future of a sustainable balancing of production and consumption of tree-based products.
SDG 13

Climate action

Tree-based agriculture is the best option in a country like India where more than 70% of the land is owned and cultivated by farmers. Trees are the best carbon sinks known to man which are directly related to climate action.
SDG 15

Life on Land

Tree-based agriculture enhances biodiversity in the soil and above earth as well. It is a well known fact that soil biodiversity has been enhanced manifold with tree-based farming. Trees create a habitat for insects, small reptiles, and birds, which support the web of life. The perennial river flow, expected as a result of the additional 9 trillion liters of sequestered water, will ensure the protection of the Western Ghats - a global biodiversity hotspot. An abundance of timber supply from tree-based agriculture will reduce deforestation and make the timber industry more sustainable, triggering an impressive domino effect in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and climate change.
SDG 17

Partnership for the Goal

The entire Cauvery Calling project is based on the key premise that only an all-inclusive peoples’ movement will shape and sustain long-term change. To that end, within India, the program has forged partnerships with farmers, the civil society, concerned government bodies, and local NGOs. In addition, with a view to eventually scale this effort up to the entire tropical world, the following international partnerships have been shaped:
  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) accreditation (2019)
  • Isha Foundation was granted observer status with UNCCD at COP14 in 2019. As one of the leading NGOs globally engaged in soil and water restoration, an active collaboration is being planned.
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) membership (2020)
  • IUCN has formally extended support for the work of Isha Outreach and offered to provide technical assistance for the Cauvery Calling project. Isha Outreach was accepted as Member of IUCN in February 2020.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) accreditation (2020)
  • Isha Foundation was granted observer status to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) of UNEP in July 2020.

6.0 Potential to Be Replicated Globally:

Our solution can replicate across the entire tropical world, which is home to 4.7 billion people, because:

  1. It is a paradigm shift wherein the Ecology and Economy work together rather than being at odds with each other. In our approach, reviving the ecology is a financially rewarding process for impoverished rural societies. In addition, social benefits, in the form of improved livelihood, and climate resilience are achieved.

  2. The all-inclusive nature of our movement, that brings together farmers, civil society, governments, and NGOs, creates a powerful catalytic process that is replicable.

  3. The movement is not constrained by availability of land to afforest, because our tree-based agriculture model targets farmers and their privately-owned agricultural lands.

Not surprisingly, Ibrahim Thiaw, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in his Sep 2020 public telecast said, “I sincerely hope that countries around the world see the potential of this solution - as land restoration and revitalization are solutions to support our planet.”