In a four-part series, 'Mint' captures the change in Nagaland as its villages wake up to the importance of conservation
Khonoma (Nagaland): The story began two decades ago, in Khonoma, with the slaughter of around 300 Blyth’s tragopan, a pheasant with stunning ocellated plumage and the state bird of Nagaland. The massacre stirred the consciousness of a few village elders, or Gaon Burahs, as they are locally known.
The elders were already in a troubled state as the timber trade was taking its toll on the environment, shaving off large swathes of pristine sub-alpine evergreen community forest from the hillsides. According to the village elders, notably Tsilie Sakhrie, who led Khonoma’s conservation movement, there was only one way to stop the slide. Khonoma is blessed with natural beauty, and if there was anything to be left for future generations, logging and hunting had to be banned, a Herculean task considering hunting is a cultural and traditional right of the people of the land. Khonoma banned hunting, unprecedented in Nagaland where people hunt and consume animals, birds as well as insects at will. From elephants to insect larvae, nothing that moves is spared.
Sakhrie had been trying to convince his community of the need to conserve a portion of the community forest since his days as a contractor with the forest department in the 1980s, but only after he was elected to the village council in 1995 could he make any headway.
In 1998, the Khonoma village council (the apex governing body of the village) declared 20 sq. km. of forest area as Khonoma nature conservation and tragopan sanctuary (KNCTS). The village council banned hunting not only in KNCTS but also in the entire village, extending over 125 sq. km.
As KNCTS comprises community forest land, it is not a legally notified sanctuary under the forest department. But the Village Council Act of Nagaland gives powers to the local village councils to take up conservation measures, and the sanctuary was established under that provision. By default, all residents of Khonoma are members of KNCTS.
Left alone, nature has its own way of rebounding, and KNCTS, which was formally notified in 2001, is one such example.
The forests, which had gone silent, are now alive with bird calls. But the ban on hunting remains a sore point in the village. Ironically, the pressure is from the youth, for whom the elders had put down their guns. They forced the council to open a hunting window in the last two years on the pretext that some birds and animals had increased so much in numbers they had become pests to the farmlands.
Crop-raiding by birds and animals has indeed led to human-wildlife conflict in Khonoma, posing a new challenge to the village council after a decade of conservation success. How it will address this issue remains to be seen. Already, there is pressure from youth groups to allow hunting for longer periods.
Hunting is a Naga way of life and even today every house in Khonoma has a gun. Some people estimate there are at least a thousand guns in the village. Today the young of Khonoma feel restless, especially when hunting goes on outside their village jurisdiction.
In earlier days, Khonoma used to celebrate a couple of hunting festivals where the status of young boys was measured by the number of wild animals they shot. Therefore, despite the ban (with a penalty of ₹ 3,000) the desire to hunt is omnipresent. “Nagas eat everything that moves. When a Naga sees a bird or an animal, the first thing on the mind is how tasty it would be. I want to change that perception into how beautiful the creature can be," says Michael Sophi, conservationist and former president of Khonoma Village Youth Organization.
Quaint wooden houses and tombstones stand side by side in this charming little village. Perched on a hill overlooking terraced paddy fields, Khonoma is home to the Angami Nagas, an indigenous warrior tribe. A winding cobbled path runs through the spick-and-span village. The name Khonoma is derived after the plant Gaultheria fragrantissima—locally known as Khwunoria. The village is divided into three Khels (hamlets), with each safeguarded by its own fort. Each Khel has several clans.
Khonoma is also known to practise a unique form of agriculture. Shifting cultivation or jhum (slash-and-burn) is a well-known practice in the hilly northeastern states, where forest patches are cleared for agriculture. In earlier days, jhum cultivation had a cycle of 20 to 25 years, when vegetation was allowed to grow before the same plot was reused. Today, with an increasing population, the demand for more food has decreased jhum cycles to around 5 years, putting enormous pressure on the forest and leading to large-scale deforestation. The extensive practice has led to soil erosion and acute water shortage in some areas. In Nagaland alone, it is estimated that more than 90,000 hectares are under jhum cultivation.
Khonoma’s form of jhum, in which Nepalese Alder trees are grown with the crops, is more efficient. The trees serve a dual purpose: they recharge the nitrogen levels in the soil quickly and prevent soil erosion; they are also used as firewood and light construction material.
Some of the Alder trees are said to be more than 200 years old. During the cultivation period (fields are cropped for two consecutive years and left fallow for about two-four years), the trees are not felled but pollarded at a certain height. This allows farmers to return to older plots sooner instead of creating new jhum fields. “Our lives are not rich and we must work hard, but we never go hungry; our lifestyle and environment would be envied by many lowland city dwellers," says Khrieni Meru, a farmer.
Nagaland prides itself in organic agro products; agrobiodiversity is rich though poorly documented. Khonoma claims to produce 60 varieties of rice and 30 to 45 types of crops.
At a crossroads
“Our pride is in being a Naga, our intimacy with the soil, the forest and the seasons. For more than 600 years the people of Khonoma have practised the cultivation of wet-rice terraced fields and jhum cultivation in the forest. My paddy fields grow rice and my jhums grow potatoes, pumpkins, soya beans, garlic, maize, cucumbers, chillies, Job’s Tears, cabbages and ginger. Everything grown here is organic as we don’t use any fertilizers. We believe that if we put chemical fertilizers or pesticides it will not only kill insects but also will destroy the soil," says Meru.
According to a study published in Protected Landscapes and Wild Biodiversity, by conservationists Neema Pathak Broome and Nandita Hazarika in 2012, “The forest is seen to be intimately connected to the sustenance of farming, providing both water security and nutrients. Farming has remained organic and diverse, with an explicit understanding that this is good for local people and the soil. All this has made the village a model for emulation in many parts of Nagaland."
But today, Khonoma, India’s first ‘Green Village’, Nagaland’s pride and conservation showcase, is at a crossroads. The pride in organic agro products is declining with changing socio-economic needs. Some farmers are getting into cash crops like tea and rubber that fetch better returns but for which pesticides are a necessary evil. “This new trend will certainly lead to loss of agricultural biodiversity. Already cultivation of millets has gone down. Ironically, due to an increase in bird population owing to conservation, the birds come and feed on them, destroying crops," says Hazarika.
Today, the Angamis, known for their heroics in the last Naga resistance against the British (Battle of Khonoma; 1879-80), are fighting the enemy within.
The battlelines are clearly drawn, between hunting and sustainable organic agriculture. Will Khonoma win the war on conservation? Time will tell.