Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

A green hub in the North-East

North-east India has always felt wronged by the mainstream media's portrayal; finally, here is an attempt to turn the tide by getting the people to tell their own stories

The tribes of north-east India have for long been perceived as “enemies of nature", due to their traditional practices such as jhum cultivation or hunting. Both wildlife scientists and the media have unwittingly contributed to this stereotype.

The truth, as we all know, lies somewhere in between. For instance, we know now that jhum, or the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture, is not harmful, but the frequent shifting from one piece of land to another or the reduced jhum cycle leads to ecological damage. Likewise, some of the biggest threats to wildlife conservation come from habitat destruction to make way for roads and dams, while hunting may contribute only a small portion to that decline. And yet, rarely do we find the impact of large development projects on biodiversity discussed in conservation literature.

The subject of hunting, in fact, has always courted controversy. Take, for instance, a study conducted by research scholars from the Wildlife Institute of India in 2013 titled Losing threatened and rare wildlife to hunting in Ziro valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India, which claimed that hunting was predominant in the area occupied by the Apatani tribe in the state and that it was affecting the long-term survival of the species. Members of NgunuZiro, a community organization of the Apatanis, pointed out various discrepancies in the study and objected to their community being held responsible for the destruction of the species.

It is to dispel these and many more stereotypes that the Green Hub was set up in Tezpur, Assam, as a one-of-its-kind institution to tell visual stories of the people of the north-east. Every year, 20 youths from across the eight states of the north-east are selected for a unique fellowship at the Green Hub—to learn video documentation, especially focused on wildlife, environment and biodiversity.

The brain behind the Green Hub Festival is Rita Banerji, a wildlife filmmaker. Says Banerji, “The idea of (the) Green Hub came up to address two primary things—one, to open avenues for the youth of the north-east to move away from despair and violence; and renew their love and respect for nature, which is (a) stronger assurance for a more equitable future for them."

She hopes that after spending a year at the centre, they will go back to their communities inspired and armed with the technical knowledge that will drive them to action that helps conservation.

Banerji has in the past made a film on the hunting practices in the region that inspired her to build a more long-term engagement with the region. Her film The Wild Meat Trail, she says, “helped us understand the complexities that exist in the region with regard to communities and their natural resources, the dependence on it for their food security, whether it is the agro-biodiversity, the wild meat or wild plants, and the impacts to the indigenous systems with rapid changes taking place with the standard development models.

The time spent with the communities in their village and forest at one level helped us understand the vast knowledge embedded in them, and at the same time made us see the extent of wild meat hunting that was making these forests silent".

To help her take this vision forward, noted activist Monisha Behal, co-founder of the North East Network, offered Banerji her ancestral home in Tezpur as the physical location for the course. At the annual Green Hub Festival to commemorate the students who had completed the course, I met Sital, from the Nyshi tribe, who has made one of the best films I saw, on the Great Hornbill; Tallo Anthony from Arunachal Pradesh; and Hiskiya Sangma, a footballer who regaled the group with his singing skills every evening. The students I met were all from diverse backgrounds, but united by their passion for the visual medium and the natural world.

North-east India has always felt wronged by the mainstream media’s portrayal of the region. Finally, there is an attempt to turn the tide by getting people of the region to tell their own stories. Across the region, there is tremendous work happening in the field of conservation—from wildlife rescue and rehabilitation to the revival of traditional systems and indigenous cultures. Perhaps, the greatest strength of the Green Hub is its geographical location. Here lie stories of the planet and its people that must be told.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World. She was invited to be part of the Green Hub Festival held in Tezpur this month.

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