When world leaders convened in New Delhi for the 2023 G20 Summit, they were handed policy briefs by Think 20 (T20) engagement group to inform their decisions, including one led by Associate Professor Rajat Panwar. As a lead author of one of the policy briefs produced by a T20 taskforce focused on accelerating sustainable development goals, Panwar worked in partnership with four other experts to produce the policy brief, “Aligning G20 Industrial Policies with Biodiversity Conservation.” Panwar is also lead author for the “Bioeconomy Assessment for Latin America and the Carribean” conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with Jazmin Tovar as co-author.

Can you tell me a little bit about your research and why you find it so compelling?
My research focuses on sustainable business practices. Current projects explore two key areas: (i) how business practices impact biodiversity loss and deforestation, and potential solutions, and (ii) building a sustainable bioeconomy.

Growing up in India during a period of rapid economic expansion, I witnessed the development-conservation debate come alive. Within a decade, the natural landscape surrounding my village transformed into monoculture plantations feeding newly built paper mills and plywood factories. The region was subsequently designated a “dark zone” due to critically low water levels. Disappointingly, most villagers seemed content. The belief that environmental loss was an inevitable price for escaping poverty, increasing income, and generating local jobs ran just too deep. I recall an elder in the village saying, with a sentiment I now challenge, “Sustainability comes after breakfast.”

These experiences profoundly impacted me. My academic work is dedicated to finding ways for both sustainability and breakfast to be on the table, ensuring a future where meeting human needs does not come at the cost of the environment. It is both daunting and fascinating.

Did you begin your career studying deforestation or did you pivot from something else?
I did not. Actually, my initial post-MBA job was at Coca-Cola. However, only six months into it, I sensed the need for self-reflection. I went on a brief retreat to a quaint Himalayan town, where I resided in a Buddhist monastery. Although my intention was a week-long stay, I ended up remaining for nine months! Within the first week, I decided to not return to my corporate job.

It was during this period that I became engaged with local community members reliant on locally sourced non-wood forest products (NWFPs). We explored various cooperative models for marketing these products, none of which worked. Later, I transitioned to the Forest Research Institute of India, studying community-based forest management in the northwest Himalayas (across India and Nepal). I also contributed to research on ecotourism social enterprises in Asia and Africa.

And then, as any discerning individual would do, I came to OSU College of Forestry to pursue doctoral studies !! Thus, my entry into the world of forests was both fortuitous and meandering. I consider myself fortunate for the journey though.

You have had many accomplishments in your career, including working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, being a Senior Fellow, Sustainable palm oil initiative, at the Center for Responsible Business in New Delhi, India, consulting for the G20 as a member of T20 (Think 20), acting as the lead author for the business and biodiversity assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and recently being selected as a lead author for the National Nature Assessment being conducted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Which accomplishment or experience was most meaningful for you and why?
Not any of those. The most significant work I have engaged in has taken place within classrooms. I have had the privilege to teach in several countries, spanning various levels and settings — business schools, forestry schools, and liberal arts institutions. Much of what I know stems from the insightful questions posed by students, many of which have evolved into my research endeavors. Moreover, my transdisciplinary research is a direct result of my teaching across diverse disciplines to both traditional students and participants in executive education programs.

Your earned your graduate degree from OSU in 2008 and returned in 2021 as an associate professor of responsible and sustainable business. Can you tell me a bit about what the College of Forestry means to you?
This is home. I felt a sense of belonging when I first arrived here in 2004, and it felt like leaving home when I departed in 2008. Despite Thomas Wolfe’s famous assertion, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” returning in 2021 truly felt like a homecoming. Some things have changed, such as this new building, but the essence of the culture—marked by kindness, compassion, and honesty—has remained steadfast and will continue to endure. Being a member of the College is integral to my identity. That is what the College of Forestry means to me.

Who or what has influenced you the most, either during your career or regarding your research?
My professional journey has been profoundly shaped by a cohort of exceptional mentors. Eric Hansen, in particular, has fostered the development of critical thinking skills within me, encouraging a balanced and objective approach to analysis, despite our spirited disagreements on most things. Alix Gitelman’s guidance instilled the importance of intellectual humility and a commitment to rigorous inquiry. Kathleen Dean Moore’s influence cultivated in me a deep sense of empathy. Rob Kozak honed my pedagogical skills, and Michael Barnett helped enhance my writing abilities. Padam Bhjovaid’s mentorship ignited my creative spark, and Jeffrey Sachs’s passionate advocacy has inspired my commitment to social justice.

However, my most profound and personal growth occurred during my time in the monastery and within the surrounding communities. Reflecting on that period holds a special significance— how many of us have spent their formative period in a monastery!

What’s next for you and your research?
My research is moving towards conservation finance, though the specific research streams are still crystallizing for me. The upcoming two years are packed with commitments to IPBES and National Nature Assessment. It has been several years since I have done a book project, so that avenue might also be on the horizon.

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