Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Evolution of Community Forests


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By HH Mohrmen

When Dr BK Tiwari, former Professor of Environmental Science at NEHU, told me that a reporter from the Associated Press, USA, was visiting the state to do a story on the sacred forests in Meghalaya, I was a little apprehensive. Reams of paper have been used to write about the sacred groves in the state, and one wonders if there is anything left to write about these forests. Is there any angle in the story of the sacred forests that has not been explored? The traditional forests kept by the people who live in the Khasi, Jaintia, and Bhoi regions of the state are generally classified as sacred forests, community forests, and even clan forests. However, except for the sacred forests, the purposes for which the forests were conserved differ, and the traditions and regulations governing these forests vary from one place to another. Indeed, many aspects of the sacred or even the community forests in the state have already been studied, but is there nothing more to study and is the list of topics for studying the sacred groves exhausted?
The Raid Buam and Traditional Natural Resource Management
I am reminded of my visit last winter with Donbok Buam, accompanied by Sumer Buam, the Lyngdoh of the Raid, to the many forests of Raij Buam. During that visit, I learned that the Raij Buam has many forests reserved and conserved by the community. According to Buam, the many forests, which have a combined size of no less than 5,000 hectares, were conserved for different purposes. The interesting learning that day was also that the entire traditional system of forest conservation in the Raij is very scientific. It is, in a way, a systematic Natural Resource Management (NRM), albeit in a traditional manner. There is a sacred forest, but there are also forests kept specifically for the people of the Raij to use for firewood; another forest for the community to use as logs and planks for building houses. There is one forest conserved for the wood to be used for cremation, and the larger forest at the entry to the village is kept because it supplies water to the village.
Most Raids have only sacred forests, and some also have forests where the wood is to be used as firewood for cremation. However, Raid Buam is different. Raid Buam is unique because it is the only Raid with detailed and pragmatic natural resource management in place, albeit traditionally. All the forests under the Raid are conserved to meet the common needs and requirements of the people. It is also true that Raid Buam and many other Raids were able to conserve their forests because a significant population in the area follows Niamtre or Niamtynrai, and the forests are respected and not desecrated because religious sacrifices and rituals are still performed to appease different deities. However, keeping sacred forests is not solely the obligation of the Niamtre people; there are cases where keeping sacred forests goes beyond a specific religion.
The Sacredness of the Forest Continues
Another lesson comes from Sohmynting, a village I visit regularly for my work, but I only learned about its unique story when I accompanied my youngest daughter in her research for her master’s dissertation. The story of the sacred forest in Sohmynting village needs to be shared because it is unique when compared to sacred forests in the entire state. It is different from the other sacred groves in the area because most sacred forests are maintained and protected by the Raid or by followers of Niamtre. In most cases, the forest remains intact because rituals and sacrifices are still performed by the followers of the traditional religion.
It is also perhaps not wrong to conclude that in areas where locals have converted to another religion, the forests are not properly maintained, if they remain at all. In some places where there are no followers of Niamtre, sacred groves are encroached upon by neighbours and, in some cases, even desecrated. The case of Sohmynting is different; although the entire village has converted to different Christian denominations, and there is not a single person in the village that follows Niamtre or the traditional religion, the forest is still kept intact by the clan. Despite the fact that rituals and sacrifices are no longer performed in the forest because the members of the clan have adopted Christianity, they continue the tradition of keeping their sacred forests.
The Khloo Langdoh in the village belongs to the Pyrtuh clan, and the clan has kept the forest despite not performing any religious rituals for as long as they can remember. The last ritual they reminisce was performed by the members of the Pyrtuh clan who came all the way from Bataw village in East Jaintia Hills. Even if they no longer follow the traditional religion, the forest in the middle of the village is still intact. The people have converted to Christianity and have distanced themselves from the rituals and sacrifices once performed in the forest, yet they still protect the sacred grove.
In Sohmynting, not only does the Pyrtuh clan continue to conserve their sacred forest, but other clans also protect and conserve their forests. The sacred grove is now managed under the Community Reserve Forest scheme of the Government of Meghalaya. Other forests like Khloo Kyndait, Khloo Moosyiem, and Khloo Nangrim are kept by different clans and the community. Sohmynting is a classic case where forest conservation is not associated with a certain religion only but is part of the culture which is ingrained in the people’s psyche.
The Times Are Changing
An old adage says, “The only thing permanent in the world is change,” and naturally, people will also change with time. The people who live in the Khasi, Jaintia, and Bhoi regions of the state are exposed to the world around them and naturally evolve with time. Culture is not static; it evolves and is influenced by the cultures it is exposed to, and in the process, different aspects of culture change with time. Similarly, the Khasi-Jaintia community is not immune to these changes, and interesting changes are happening with regard to the conservation of forests. We have two cases here where an initiative was started to protect new forests by different organs of the community but for different reasons and purposes.
Khloo Balang or the Church’s Forest
It is a new development found in some villages where, apart from the traditional forests kept since time immemorial, new reserved forests are emerging in these villages. In a very interesting development, new thinking has started in some churches, and although the forests are not called sacred or even considered sacred as such, the fact that some churches have started keeping forests is remarkable. What is the thinking behind the decision to keep the church forest, or why do some churches feel the need to have their own forests? One possible reason for the church to keep the Khloo Balang is to have a good stock of wood to be used as planks for making coffins when a church member dies, or it could be a plan for a cemetery in the future. Whatever the reason for keeping the Khloo Balang, it indicates that forests are integral to the people, and keeping forests is deeply rooted in their minds. Keeping a forest is a tradition that is not old and forgotten, but one that people still take pride in and continue to this day.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
The story of forest conservation in Mustem village is another case that testifies to the fact that people initiate new efforts to protect or start new forests for the common good. The village has many community forests, but this particular forest was conserved by the Dorbar Chnong with a very specific, bold, and far-sighted vision for the benefit of the whole community. The forest is conserved because it is the source of water for the river Sajri, and the villagers are very clear in their vision that they need to protect the forest to ensure that the river continues to provide them with potable water. Indeed, today the dorbar chnong uses the water from Wah Sajri to supply water to the village through the Jal Jeevan Mission project. The story of Mustem village is a one which foresees an imminent problem in the village and addresses the future needs of the community.
Forest conservation is not just the legacy that Khasi Pnars have inherited; they continue to grow and come up with new ideas to conserve forests. The above stories are classic cases where people’s connection with the forest is very visibly demonstrated. In fact, these are stories that we should share every day and every time we celebrate World Environment Day. Next time, rather than planting trees, it is better to share these community conservation stories which could also inspire others to do the same.


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