HOW INDIA’S FIRST “GREEN PEOPLE” TURNED FENCES INTO CONSERVATIONISTS
In Khonoma, traditional knowledge has led to a boom in ecotourism and sustainable farming practices.
Between immaculate, litter-free streets and a lush backdrop of rice paddies and dense forests, Khonoma, a picturesque village in northeastern India at an altitude of 5,300 feet, provides only a few clues to its bloody past.
The 700-year-old mountain settlement in the state of Nagaland is legendary for its fierce resistance during the British colonial period and for the ancient hunting practices of the indigenous Angami tribe.
But while the skulls of slaughtered animals still adorn the housefronts and the 19th-century warrior fort stands, these are mere historical relics for a village that has become one of the world’s largest community-led conservation projects. compelling from India.
“We have not forgotten the past,” exclaims Vibu Iralu, a local guide, as he climbs the steep stone steps of the fort. “And we have not forgotten our traditions. But I think that’s why our conservation plan in Khonoma has been a success.”
The roots of that transformation go back decades. The Angami had been hunter-gatherers for generations, but in the early 1990s, with the increasing use of firearms, first introduced by the British, subsistence hunting evolved into over-exploitation.
Before long, Khonoma’s hunters found it difficult to catch wild animals such as wild boar, which they had long relied on for food. Then, in 1993, some 300 Blyth’s tragopans, an endangered pheasant with a bright red throat that is Nagaland’s state bird, were killed in a single week as part of a Christmas hunting competition.
The hunt triggered the village elders, leading them to conclude that Angami’s forest goddess Chiikhie-u had cursed them for failing to protect the forest. “We knew that disaster was coming,” says Vilazosie Punyü, an angami angami who was secretary of the Khonoma village council at the time. “With the forest and the animals within it, we would have had no future. That was when the idea of conservation came up.”
According to Punyü, the folklore of the Angami tribe is rich in tales involving the region’s magnificent biodiversity and vast forests. This fueled the elders’ fears that if they continued on the same trajectory, future generations could lose the tribe’s spiritual connection to the natural world around them. The forest is said to be home to several rare species, including the clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear and hoolock gibbon, and is considered an important bird area.
So, in 1998, after many meetings and discussions, the Village Council agreed to the creation of the Khonoma Tragopan and Nature Conservation Sanctuary (KNCTS), the first step in the radical transformation of the village from hunters to conservationists. This 20 square kilometer area of subtropical forest, around one sixth of Khonoma’s land, became the first community-led conservation project in India. In 2001, a complete ban on hunting and logging was introduced throughout Khonoma.
However, this change was not easy. Over time, the City Council invited experts from conservation organizations to conduct educational workshops with Khonoma residents. More pertinently, several men from the village were paid to become game rangers for three years thanks to a grant from the Gerald Durrell Memorial Fund.
“In the first year, there were many difficulties, people complained that the hunting tradition was stopped,” says Punyü. “But it paved the way for communication with the dissident group and we had frank discussions.”
After that, word spread and ecotourists began making the trek to India’s first “Green Village,” a title that recognizes its sustainable governance. In 2006 the first family home opened and today there are about a dozen. Since then, many have come each year: in 2022, there were 2,500 tourists, all of whom paid a registration fee that goes towards forest patrols and village development. Bird researchers and enthusiasts also pay a conservation fee for the activities. Over the years, the funds have been used to build facilities such as a communal water tank and recycling bins.
“Tourism is community; it can never happen in isolation,” says Kevichulie Meyase, secretary of the Khonoma Ecotourism Management Committee, which organizes the team of local guides. “This is how development is made sustainable.”
The influx of visitors has also allowed Angami women to sell traditional hand-woven textiles and homemade delicacies such as candied crabapples, further boosting the local economy. “Now I can earn a living while maintaining our culture,” says Amendo Punyü, one of the weavers who works in the village workshop.
But beyond tourism, which, as the pandemic has shown, can be an unreliable source of income, Khonoma has used the project to become more self-sufficient. More than 20 varieties of rice, as well as millet and maize, are grown in the village, and products such as pumpkins, cabbage and garlic are grown using the traditional rainfed forest-based cultivation known as ‘jhum’. The villagers farm alongside Himalayan alders, which enrich the soil with nitrogen, for two to three years, before moving to another area to maintain soil quality in the long term. “This sustainable jhum cultivation practice has absolutely led to the villagers not being dependent on forest resources for their subsistence needs,” a study concluded in 2018.
Deepshikha Sharma, program manager at the nonprofit Nature Conservation Foundation of India, says a multi-pronged approach like Khonoma’s makes long-term success of community-based conservation more likely.
“Tourism is not bad in and of itself, but it needs to be moderated somehow,” he says. “It can add dependency and trust in landscapes that already have limited resources, like drinking water, livestock, agriculture.”
In December, the UN World Tourism Agency nominated Khonoma to be part of its upgrade program for funding, and in February, Khonoma was part of a showcase of India’s ecotourism successes at the G20 summit. .
“In the larger narrative, communities have been overlooked,” adds Sharma. “It is important to involve communities because they are important stakeholders and their traditional knowledge systems can help protect wildlife.”
However, not everything is perfect in Khonoma. Some farmers complain that due to the hunting ban, their crops are sometimes destroyed by animals for food. As a result, the town agreed to grant three-day hunting permits to those fighting the nuisance.
And even with the fines in place, old habits are hard to die. There are still some reports of hunting, and the Khonoma Youth Association, whose 25 members are tasked with patrolling the forest, complain that they do not have enough resources to properly police the land. “It is our duty, we have to give our work to the village,” says Pelesali Kuotsu, the general secretary. “But it’s difficult. We struggle financially. But we want our next generation to be happy like us.”
But Khonoma’s hunter-turned-conservationists continue to cultivate their community-based approach to protecting their heritage.
“After the hunting ban, I was initially tempted when I came across birds or animals,” says Zaskie Khate, a 68-year-old man who started hunting as a child. “But I realized that the most important thing is to work for the betterment of the villagers.”
First published by Reasons to be Cheerful on May 2, 2023.