Over almost a decade, the state of Assam, India, has witnessed the rise of a conservation army to protect a rare stork and its nesting trees, and the thousands of women within the army’s ranks are fierce advocates – whose conservation efforts led to economic independence.
“Conservation is all about uniting people and building ownership,” explains Dr. Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army. “I’ve always believed that, if given a chance, women can make a big difference in conservation.”
Assam has the world’s largest breeding colony of the greater adjutant stork. Efforts to save the rare bird – known as hargila in Assam – started at the turn of the last decade when Dr. Barman successfully instilled in the owners of trees a sense of pride as guardians. “Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010.” She then appealed to women through “baby showers” organized during the stork’s breeding season. In 2014, Dr. Barman created the Hargila Army, a group of more than 10,000 rural women from Assam whose purpose is to save this endangered bird species. In Kamrup district, the number of hargila nests in the villages of Dadara, Pacharia, and Singimari went from 28 in 2010, to more than 250 according to the latest count.
As a cultural symbol, the bird is now part of Dr. Barman’s “entrepreneurial vision” to help women improve their economic status. Taking advantage of their experience in fabrics, women directly benefit from an independent income earned through weaving fabrics with the hargila motif and sewing bags and cushion covers. In 2021, Dr. Barman additionally opened the Hargila Learning and Conservation Centre where Hargila members encourage children to protect the bird through songs, art, and games.