Language is a powerful thing. The words we use to describe our relationships, often acquire a power of their own, and in many ways determine our attitudes.
For example we talk of exploiting natural resources, harvesting nature’s wealth, extracting, mining, digging, prospecting … all of which seems to give us a sense of ownership and the feeling that these resources belong to us, for us to use as we please.
It was therefore a refreshing experience to spend a few days with the winners of the 2011 RBS Foundation Earth Heroes Award – a group of people whose attitude to nature is defined by the name they have given their organisation Aaranyak : the Sanskrit word that indicates a sense of belonging to the Forests.
This is the story of Aaranyak, and of the villagers whose lives they have touched on the fringe villages of the Manas World Heritage Biosphere.
The story of Aaranyak is really the story of its founder Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, and his colleagues – a remarkable group of Environmental scientists, researchers & community workers, educators, and environmental legal specialists, who are using scientific techniques, public advocacy and goodwill with communities, to preserve the eco systems and wildlife habitats of North East India.
Aaranyak was set up by Bibhab in 1989, when he was an MSC student at the University of Gauhati, studying zoology. At the time he intended it to be no more than a student run nature club under the aegis of the WWF.
In 1990, when searching for a topic for his doctoral thesis, he discovered that Govt was leasing out lakes in the Dibru Soikhya wildlife sanctuary to fisheries. These lakes were the home of the White winged wood duck, which was becoming highly endangered as the fisheries were poisoning the ducks to preserve their catch. So the students, with the help of a local advocate filed a PIL against the State Govt. To their surprise, the Govt responded swiftly, withdrew the leasing order and subsequently went on to declare the White winged wood duck the state Bird of Assam. (Bibhab also went on to complete his PhD thesis on the White winged wood duck !)
In 1993, the Assam Govt decided to de-reserve 3 Reserve Forests. Though official records show Assam’s forest cover as high as 30 %, ongoing agricultural encroachment and illegal felling of trees has effectively reduced this to 16-17%. The Aaranyak team, fearing the worst, called a Press Conference declaring “De-reservation would be a bonanza for encroachers“. Justice UL Bhatt, Chief Justice of the Guwahati High Court, took the report in the next day’s newspapers as the basis for a PIL – which Aaranyak gladly supported.
Six years later in the year 2000, the Guwahati High Court issued a landmark judgement in response to this PIL, stating that :
– No reserve forests could be de- reserved
– Encroachers on forest lands should be removed
– forest lands should be re- forested.
The judgement provided good forest officers with a powerful tool to act against vested interests in protection of the Forests.
During this period Aaranyak acquired an institutional shape and attracted a talented team of full time staff. Today it is a registered society and recognised as an SIRO (Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation) by the Department of Scientific & Industrial research, Govt of India. As a Member of National Wildlife Board and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature & natural resources) it ranks amongst the foremost Conservation NGOs in North East India.
This journey is all the more remarkable because it was undertaken at a time when Assam was reeling under the combined impact of the Assam & Bodo agitations. The mission of the Aaranyak team is simply to protect the North east which is a biodiversity hot spot. They are going about this in a highly scientific and organised manner, through 6 main programs :
Net scope : North East Threatened Species Conservation Program : which addresses
1) Rhino conservation & translocation ( 22 rhinos have been translocated from Kaziranga to re- populate Manas),
2) Saving elephants by empowering communities through ecotourism, protection squads, replenishing degraded habitats, and the Aweleys Red Caps program to reduce man animal conflicts
3) Tiger research & conservation : monitoring , camera Trapping in Orang (where 12 tigers have been identified), Kaziranga (68 tigers), and Manas(12 tigers)
4) Studying the hereptofauna of the North East : particularly frogs, turtles, tortoises, and the gharial
5) Studying and protecting the highly endangered Gangetic dolphin in the Brahmaputra
6) Reviving and protecting habitats of Avifauna particularly the endangered Bengal Florican & Greater Adjutant stork
7) Studying the Primates of the North East
Education outreach & capacity building : Working to build awareness amongst children around national parks, and capacity building of volunteers in Bodoland which is home to the Manas & Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Legal & Advocacy : continuing to file Public Interest Litigations as well as training forest guards on procedural aspects of filing FIRs against offenders (as procedural lapses often lead to dismissed convictions)
Water, Climate & Hazard watch program : to monitor and assess the impact of climate change on fragile Eco- system habitats
Geo-spatial technology program : A complete biodiversity related GIS database MANTRIS (Manas Tiger Reserve Information system) has been compiled for the Manas bio-sphere.
Wildlife genetics : Noninvasive genetic techniques of individual identification from dung and scat samples have been developed to map the population genetics of the Greater one horned rhino (Rhinoceros Unicornis) and Royal Bengal Tiger (panthera Tigris Tigris). This helps validate census data for these endangered animals.
The Manas Tiger Reserve, comprising 2837 sq km, which is a World Heritage site, became a focus area for Aaranyak, due to the tremendous damage it suffered during the Bodo agitation. As poachers and encroachers had a free run of the park, the entire Rhino population was wiped out, ungulate populations were decimated, the elephant population was depleted by approximately 300 numbers and several tigers poached.
Working with the BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) and Khampa Borgoyari Executive member in charge of Environment & Forests, Aaranyak have introduced their scientific Program approach, to protect and revive the Park. The husband and wife team of Dr Bibhuti P Lakhar and Namita Brahma are the scientists responsible for the Manas project. As they went about their task, they began to feel that no sustained protection was possible without involving the village communities that live on the fringe of the Park.
Manas is unique amongst wildlife nature reserves in India, in that it is contiguous to the north, with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan which itself comprises over 3000 sq km. This provides the animals of Manas a large protected forest area comprising a variety of habitats ranging from the grasslands of Assam to the alpine meadows of Bhutan. More importantly it provides secure corridors for animal movement across international boundaries.
To the south, the Reserve is bordered by 62 fringe villages. There are also 210 villages within the precincts of the Reserve, some of which are settlements dating back to Colonial times (for the extraction of timber) and some of which are more recent encroachments. These villagers depend on forest products for their livelihood, thus placing pressure on the forest and giving rise to man animal conflicts.
Namita, who is presently working on her doctoral thesis on the endangered Bengal Flourican and a Bodo herself, felt strongly that if women in these villages could be provided with alternative livelihoods, they would become as passionate about the conservation of Manas, as she was.
After conducting a base line analysis of local skills and market linkages in the fringe villages of Manas, Namita identified 2 groups of women who seemed to have the drive and spirit she was searching for. The first a group of housewives in the Mazrabari village, who were good cooks and keen to try their hand at food processing. The second a group of talented weavers in a neighbouring village, who were willing to experiment with contemporary designs and market their products to a wider audience. Thus, in 2010, were born the Maidangshri Self Help Group for food processing and the Sonali SHG for weaving.
The food processing group is led by Krishna Bhusamatary. An energetic housewife with 3 children, who formerly went into the reserve forests everday to collect thatch, fire wood and wild herbs, she participated in the Aaranyak training program for making making jams, jellies, squashes, sauces and pickles. She then organised a group of 9 of her neighbours and in turn trained them. Helped by Aaranyak with bottles and labels, and guided by Namita, Krishna and her friends started with a range of 7-8 products that found a ready market in the weekly bazaar.
Encouraged they participated in the Assam state level fair and won the 2011 prize for best SHG. More importantly all their products were sold out ! Beaming, as she shared this story, Krishna said to me, “Now we don’t have the time to go to the Forests – we don’t even need to. We are business women !”
Sunila Musahari President of Sonali SHG, is an elegant lady who has chosen not to get married yet as she has not found the right person. She and her Group weave the traditional products worn and gifted in their community, but are also experimenting with new motifs – such as the endangered species of Manas. They too have participated in state level fairs and won awards for their work. Smiling gently Sunila said, “We are doing good business – personally this means I am independent and no longer subject to family pressures”
Separately Bibhuti, who had been working with local volunteers on awareness and capacity building programs, was approached by a group of Bodo youngsters who were keen to start an Eco-tourism project. He assisted them to formulate a plan and approach the WWF and the BTC for seed funding.
Starting with tents, this young group that calls itself MEWS (Manas Ever Welfare Society), has now set up 6 very comfortable Eco- tourist cottages overlooking the Manas National Park, a few hundred metres away from the Manas river. Trained by Aaranyak they are capable guides for the park and have just acquired a jeep to take tourists on Park Safaris. Musicians and Dancers from the neighbouring villages are encouraged to stage performances for guests thus widening the positive eco system impact. Last but not least, they are training local village children on the flora, fauna and habitat of Manas, so that a young generation of conservationists is created.
In the time that I spent with the Aaranyak team at Manas and with the villagers they are working with in the Baksa district of Bodoland, I saw how powerful a sense of belonging can be. It has created a paradigm where growth and development are moving hand in hand with the protection and rejuvenation of a fragile Eco system.
Perhaps more of us should take a leaf out of Aaranyak’s lexicon, and start talking of belonging to our villages, cities, countries and to our Planet itself.