This Bengaluru-based biotech startup targets conserving Western Ghats through private forests

Mycelium hopes to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats through private forests

Updated - June 25, 2023 06:27 pm IST

Published - June 08, 2023 11:36 am IST - Bengaluru

Bengaluru biotech startup Mycelium’s team attempts to identify fast-depleting forests and pause that depletion.

Bengaluru biotech startup Mycelium’s team attempts to identify fast-depleting forests and pause that depletion. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Jain

When Bengaluru-based serial entrepreneur Nishanth Prasannan moved to Kodagu with his family in 2016, it was an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

In his own words, Mr. Prasannan, an urban dweller until then, developed quite a “romantic” association with Kodagu, which was all so green and misty. It lasted for about two years. The heavy rains and landslides that shattered Kodagu in 2018 woke him up to reality with a jolt.

Mycelium co-founder Abhishek Jain.

Mycelium co-founder Abhishek Jain. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The problem with India’s State of Forest Report 2021

“The year 2018 made me realise that not everything green is beautiful,” says Mr. Prasannan. When India’s State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 came out last year, environmentalists and conservation experts called out how the report had counted plantations as forests, which was misleading.  “Forest cover is a skewed concept. Our landscape has been abused for years, and the abuse is not visible because it’s all green.”

Mr. Prasannan, along with Abhishek Jain, who is a naturalist based out of Kodagu, then started probing ways to monetise land without exploiting it. This led to the birth of Mycelium, a Bengaluru-based startup that aims to buy private lands outside of protected forests and conserve or restore these spaces.

“We are not buying land for real estate purposes. Our idea is to look at rapidly depleting forests and pause that depletion. We are looking at private lands adjacent to forest or corridors of sorts that are prone to conflicts and then taking them off the market,” says Vinod Chandramouli, who joined as a co-founder in 2022

Collective conservation

Mycelium takes the help of individuals who care for the cause and would invest money into it. They form a “collective”. The money is used to buy the land and develop the habitat. “The collective members do not get demarcated pieces of land, but equity in the company,” Mr. Chandramouli clarifies.

Mycelium co-founder Nishanth Prasannan.

Mycelium co-founder Nishanth Prasannan. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The start-up aims to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats by 2035 and is currently finalising the registration of its first property, a 70-acre land near Pushpagiri. Named Dancing Frog Habitat, it has four collective members as of now.

According to the founders, 80% of the land would be conserved as a pristine forest, while in the remaining 20%, there would be facilities enabling the co-existence of humans with nature. The team is looking at revenue models such as forest experiences for communities, building interpretation centres, organising treks and building a marketplace of forest produce. The private forest would also be open for research purposes.

“The idea is to not attract urban dwellers to come and take selfies but to build a narrative that inspires them. Buying organic honey is considered cool today, but can we shift the narrative from buying honey to adopting a beehive? That’s what we are trying to do,” Mr. Chandramouli says.

The Mycelium team is building an advisory group that would guide the team and build a playbook that the founders hope would enable more people to replicate the same in other parts of the country. The ground-level execution would be with the help of the local community, say the founders.

Mycelium co-founder Vinod Chandramouli.

Mycelium co-founder Vinod Chandramouli. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Not new concept in India

Private forests are not entirely a new concept in India. In the 90s, a group of nature lovers came together to develop Vanvadi, a forest about 90 km from Mumbai. In 2021, Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Suresh Kumar converted 21 acres of barren land in Sagar into a forest with the help of environmentalist Akhilesh Chipli.

There have also been quite a few takers for forests inspired by the Miyawaki method in different parts of the country. Private forests adorned headlines in 2017 when Bollywood celebrities Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor gifted their son Taimur Ali Khan a forest on his first birthday.

Also read | Fast and easy to grow fast, but are Miyawaki forests good for ecological restoration?

Mycelium founders try to marry the concept with their entrepreneurial capabilities, build systems into the process of conservation, and make it economically sustainable. “We are exploring if there are ways to make a for-profit conservation narrative,” says Mr. Chandramouli.

According to the founders, 80% of the land would be conserved as a pristine forest, while in the remaining 20%, there would be facilities enabling the co-existence of humans with nature.

According to the founders, 80% of the land would be conserved as a pristine forest, while in the remaining 20%, there would be facilities enabling the co-existence of humans with nature. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Jain

Government’s earlier proposal

In 2018, the Karnataka government proposed the Karnataka Private Conservancies Rules-2018, which encouraged private conservation lands adjoining national parks and wildlife. The policy was vehemently opposed by environmentalists and conservationists who feared it would lead to encroachment of protected forested areas, circumvention of eco-sensitive zone regulations and increased man-animal conflict. Increased greenwashing attempts by corporates have also been making experts sceptical about for-profit conservation initiatives.

“Be it privately or government-owned land, if the forces are strong enough for changing land use, invariably land use gets changed in India. From a bird’s eye view, such initiatives come with several potential risks as too many elements are beyond the control of well-meaning investors. What are near these private forests? Are there human settlements? What if potentially dangerous animals start coming into these lands? Will it lead to increased human-animal conflict? Who would then be responsible? All these are issues that need to be thought through,” says Ravi Chellam, coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative and CEO, Metastring Foundation.

The start-up aims to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats by 2035 and is currently finalising the registration of its first property, a 70-acre land near Pushpagiri. A file photo of Western Ghats. Image for representational purposes only.

The start-up aims to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats by 2035 and is currently finalising the registration of its first property, a 70-acre land near Pushpagiri. A file photo of Western Ghats. Image for representational purposes only. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He adds it is vital for such initiatives to invest in and empower local communities and not end up dispossessing them of their lands and restricting their access to these lands and the forest resources they offer. “There are also concerns related to justice and ethics at a broader scale because such efforts are in some sense resulting in consolidation of wealth by the wealthy.”

Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist, echoes similar concerns. “Given that the market is a cause of the crisis, trying to solve it again using the market is concerning. Even if your aim is conservation, the idea is essentially profits. There’s an ecological and social crisis here which are both interlinked. Such initiatives marginally address the ecological issue but do not address the social issue.”

The start-up aims to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats by 2035.

The start-up aims to conserve 10,000 acres of Western Ghats by 2035. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Jain

No financial institution funding

Mycelium founders, however, think differently and emphasize that the initiative will enable the locals to engage with them and tap into their knowledge. Prasannan says, “We have been really tight-fisted about the kind of funds we have been using. We are absolutely sure that we will not take financial institutional funding. If someone gives the money and says they want ‘x’% returns, then there’s no investment into the cause.”

Mr. Chandramouli adds, “If we were to let this land become a coffee estate, it would have a larger impact on the Pushpagiri region than it would have if you take it off the market. Any collective member who comes in is heavily gatekept. We tell them from day 1 that this is not a real estate team and to not expect the appreciation of the land to go from ‘x’ to ‘y’. Nor is money going to come in as interest. These 70 acres are for the next 100 to 300 years.”

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