Vanastree is an environmental organization based in a small town and on a rural farm in the Western Ghats of Southern India focused on education, sustainability, agriculture, seed conservation, and women’s empowerment since 2001. Located in the midst of a biodiversity hotspot, interns are well-placed to experience the challenges of development first hand and be a part of a sustainable movement to preserve tradition while empowering locals.
Interns have the opportunity for hands-on work, research, and office work to help develop and protect the local environment. Projects include sustainable business management, product design, environmental education, field documentation, report writing, field visits, tree planting and gardening, seed sorting and packaging, event support, web design and media, sustainable architecture, and green technology.
Vanastree, meaning “women of the forest” in Kannada, is a small collective dedicated to promoting forest garden biodiversity and food security through the conservation of traditional seeds.
Founded in 2001, Vanastree works to maintain the traditional, localized food system through the conservation of seeds. The members recognize the importance of traditional seeds as a source of independence and nutritious, plentiful food for those who grow them. In addition, forest home gardens serve as refuges of biodiversity for both cultivated and wild crops, and can serve as an important extra source of income for women and an educational tool for the community.
All members work and farm in the Uttara Kannada (North Kannada) district of Karnataka. The district comprises the Malnad, or hilly region of the Western Ghats, the coastal belt, and parts of the drier regions to the east. Known as the spice capital of India as well as one of the 18 biodiversity “hotspots” recognized by biologists worldwide, this district hosts a variety of landscapes, peoples, and environmental challenges.
The Western Ghats mountain range is covered for the most part by tropical forest and features a number of endemic species, including not only mammals, birds and insects but also food and medicinal plants. Sadly, the region faces many threats to its delicate ecology, such as deforestation, rapid development, and lack of enforcement of existing environmental laws.
Presently, the collective has a modest seed collection, is documenting the home garden diversity of the area, and produces a variety of products through conservation-oriented enterprises (COEs). Other accomplishments and ongoing projects include:
For more information, see the Vanastree website or watch the documentary: “Vanastree: Women of the Forest”
All internships will include an orientation to the area and its environmental issues. Interns will also spend time each week reviewing what has been accomplished and setting new goals. Longer internships can also be discussed, and there are internship openings for graduate and doctoral students.
Many projects will depend on the intern’s background and interests related to opportunities related to environmental studies, agro-ecology, anthropology, green architecture, ecologically sensitive business, women’s studies, design, and art. Interns will also do weekend homestays to learn about the local culture and agriculture. As the organization changes and develops, so will the role of the intern. Tasks may vary according to interest and intern initiation, but possible projects include:
Interns divide their time between Huthina Betta, a homestead and experiential learning center in the village of Karkolli, and the Vanastree office in the nearby city of Sirsi. In addition, interns will conduct field visits with Vanastree members and attend workshops and other events in nearby cities as needed. Interns should be prepared for a significant amount of physical work helping with farming and food prep activities.
Huthina Betta is an effort toward ecologically sensitive living, combining land restoration with agroforestry. It is the home of Sunita Rao, a founding trustee of Vanastree. The homestead comprises nine acres, including a cottage and outbuildings, orchard, and vegetable garden. Most of the land has been reforested, and Sunita is conducting ongoing projects in green architecture and design to make her home as livable and low-impact as possible. Paths running through the property facilitate long, meditative walks, with rest stops overlooking the paddy fields and forest.
Vanastree’s Sirsi office offers a quiet and convenient working environment. Interns will have access to internet here (weather-permitting), although bringing a laptop will be helpful as computer resources are limited. Sirsi is a busy town of over 70,000, and the office is within walking distance of shopping facilities and the main bus stops. From there, connections to Bangalore (10 hours), Goa (five hours), and other cities are easy to make.
Filled with laughter, color, serenity, tempting aromas, beautiful forests, and sobering experiences, life in the village communities of Uttara Kannada provides excellent opportunities to learn about the fragility and durability of life, human relationships with the earth and, simply, what life is like in a certain part of rural India. These are lessons that supplement academic studies well but cannot be replicated in a classroom.
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Additional Expense Information
The housing cost ($600/month) includes lodging, most meals, laundry service, and one or more homestay per month. This fee also helps to provide internet in the office, access to a cell phone, travel for projects and to the office, and support of other staff who are involved in the supervision of the intern.
Meals provided will be mostly vegetarian (can be vegetarian or vegan as needed), with seafood depending on season and availability. Much of the food will be organic and locally grown. The region is famous for its cuisine!
The main housing is at Huthina Betta, the home and farm of Sunita Rao, the program director of Vanastree. As a low-impact facility, interns should be prepared for basic but comfortable living conditions. Interns will also do homestays with collective members and may stay overnight in other cities for work activities.
“As a career exploration, one of my professional goals was to learn more about ecological agriculture and food forests. This has begun through work at Huthina Betta, where I have spent a good amount of time in the soil. I am also learning about Indian Row-Cropping for tropical areas, and this has been a great experience for me. I have also toured and/or stayed at over seven Vanastree Members’ FGHs and have interacted with many members of the collective. I have used this time to explore through photography, ask questions, and have even had some opportunities to harvest and weed in the managed orchards of the area.” - Aliesje, Oregon State University
“Halfway through my internship I was given the opportunity to create two different lessons for post high school aged students at Vanastree’s outreach site. I was excited and nervous at the same time. The first lesson I was to create was about seeds. I am passionate about seeds and was hoping I could express this passion in a way that the students would understand. My fellow intern and I created an interactive lesson that was enjoyed not only by the students but by Vanastree members as well. The second lesson that we created was on food justice. Food justice is a tough enough topic to teach in English so I was worried how I would get the points across to students who spoke another language. We created a lesson that was visual and hands on and to my surprise when the students gave their own definitions of what food justice meant to them.” - Whitney, Oregon State University
“I think that I am more willing to consider a career in the agriculture/NGO sector after this internship. When I first started the internship it was just to explore a new interest of mine and I wasn’t really sure how I would like it. Although I did enjoy my work and learned a lot I do want to explore more of what a career in environmental science has to offer before committing to any one field. The main reason why I am up for considering a career in the agriculture/NGO sector is because of the amazing time I had with Vanastree. I was really able to learn a lot during my internship and am sure that if I had a lesser experience I would not consider pursuing a position related to agriculture.” - Elisa, University of Oregon
“Before coming to India I had a vague understanding of what a truly localized food system looked like. In a town tucked away in the jungle I found my example. Sirsi, located in the Western Ghats of Southern India is proof that a village food system can work and provide for thousands. Its capacity however is rapidly diminishing and the region is experiencing its own set of cultural and environmental of challenges. Vanastree’s main objective is to strengthen the current food system in the Western Ghats, where good farming practices are woven into the fabric of society. I have found even in my short time here that we have much to learn from a small group of empowered women farmers, more than one could have ever imagined. It is a humble grassroots organization with a big vision. The method by which Vanastree aims to empower the “whole” of the surrounding community is through securing seed diversity, especially with the help and work of local women. By focusing their efforts on creating seed banks and seed exchange events, Vanastree is addressing a multitude of issues that are prevalent in the Western Ghats many due for the most part to the darker side of globalization. The Ghats are home to a unique social caste of farming Bahamians that traditionally owned, maintained and worked the land. This has made farming a strong respected tradition among residents from ancient times to today.” - Dana, University of Montana
Fall: April 15
Winter: September 1
Spring: November 15
- Basic knowledge of sustainable business management, women’s empowerment, agriculture, seed-saving, and environmental education preferred
- Ability to work closely with diverse populations in a rural environment
- Experience in rural or rustic environments recommended