June 11, 2024

Careers in Restoration: The Story of Kiran Baldwin

Mandeep Singh

As part of our Careers in Restoration series, each month we bring you the professional journey of an restoration practitioner from the vast arena of ecological restoration. 

Kiran Baldwin’s restoration journey is an example of success built on dedication and continuous learning.

He grew up watching his parents plant trees in the forests of Auroville. But that doesn’t mean he was determined to have a career in ecological restoration or environmental services.

In fact, after finishing school, Kiran explored his interests in mechanics, metalwork and woodwork, and had embarked on a hands-on course in advanced technology in Holland, but the pandemic changed his trajectory entirely.

Kiran is helping develop and deploy The Global Biodiversity Standard (TGBS), a certification program for initiatives that have a positive impact on biodiversity. He also teaches a class at the Ecological Horticulture Course at the Auroville Botanical Gardens. In addition, he tests different methodologies for projects in different site conditions, and develops protocols for effective rapid biodiversity assessments.

 

Unable to go to university and stranded in a 5 month lockdown away from home, the seed of ecological restoration finally took root. After the pandemic, he returned, this time to the Auroville Botanical Gardens (AVBG) to see if he could do something for the environment, and found himself assigned to a restoration project of an old limestone crusher plant in Ariyalur, TN.

At that point, Kiran was fresh out of high school and had no training in ecological restoration. So how useful could he be at a post industrial restoration site?

Quite.

Apart from restoration, this project had an element of social engagement. Tapping into his knack for building things, Kiran designed adventure activities for visitors to the park – a cycle track, a rock climbing wall, and a zipline – sheltered within decrepit buildings that once housed mining machines. So while not immediately engaged in “ecological” tasks, his skills proved to be useful to the project.

Simultaneously, he had enrolled for the Ecological Horticulture course at AVBG in order to build his technical knowledge. The course gave him insight into the various aspects of restoration, ecology and biology. This is where Kiran slowly discovered his passion for reading landscapes, creating maps, and his love for the local forest type – the Tropical dry evergreen Forests – an ecoregion along coastal Tamil Nadu with a unique set of species adapted to its environment.

Keen to continue learning outside of the course, he also kept in close contact with the team at AVBG and sought out apprenticeships at landscaping projects that they were undertaking.

 

For Kiran, not having had formal training is his biggest advantage…and his biggest challenge. He isn’t a scientist, and has learnt everything hands on. This means his credibility can sometimes come into question. But this does not impede him, and strengthens his resolve to show what can be done without formal training, with passion, dedication, and ambition, and by loving what one does.

 

In a span of a year, he undertook several field visits to these projects and learnt the process of studying the physical aspects of the land – topography, soil type, the state of existing vegetation of a land and the clues it offered for restoration.

“I tried to absorb everything like a sponge, on what it means to work on a restoration project”, recalls Kiran.

As he closed the gaps in his knowledge, he began to read landscapes from the lens of restoration – using his imagination to visualise what the local environment could become, and how to restore it to its beautiful, climax state while navigating the hard physical limits of water and nutrient availability, and ecological threats like logging and fire.

He also began learning how to integrate GPS and computer based open source Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools to visualise and analyse topographic data with ease.

His dedication and expanding knowledge base and skill set eventually paid off. After nearly one and a half years of juggling work and learning, he was among the people given the crucial responsibility of developing The Global Biodiversity Standard (TGBS) – a global certification program that assures that tree planting, habitat restoration and agroforestry practices are protecting and enhancing biodiversity, instead of harming it.

As part of TGBS, today, he works with teams of botanists and other experts on ground.He coordinates tasks and activities with teams on different sites as they test methodologies for projects all over the country – from community owned lands attempting reforestation using assisted natural regeneration, to public parks and private lands at different stages of ecological rehabilitation.

 

Other restoration duties aside, Kiran also monitors the growth of 10 individuals of Drypetes porteri, an endangered species of plants, being raised in Auroville.

 

Streamlining restoration and ecological monitoring for other practitioners has also become a central theme in Kiran’s work. He is developing protocols for effective rapid biodiversity assessments, intended to make restoration easy for beginners. This involves creating a standardised template of ecological aspects and visual tools that are easy to understand and use, and logging observations in a form that also makes them verifiable at a later stage.These assessments are ultimately used by restoration teams to better understand the landscape and plan interventions.

The quest for streamlining fieldwork has also led Kiran to be involved in AVBG’s efforts to develop a mobile application to digitise data entry and species lists. Kiran knows the role this application needs to fulfill, and is working with the developers on the User interface and other features of the app.

As for the notion that restoration happens only in remote jungle, grassland, or abandoned fields, Kiran (along with the larger AVBG team) has also been involved in aspects of ecological master planning for Rajapalayam, touted to be a carbon neutral town by 2040. Among other things, Kiran and team hope to develop an eco park and interpretation centre in the context of the town’s existing vegetation and land features.

Their work shows us that restoration need not always happen after the fact, and its principles can be applied at the town planning stage to create an ecologically sound city!

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