[Commentary] Responding to ecological imbalance: Tokugha’s journey in conservation

  • Nagaland has been witnessing a rapid depletion in forest cover and loss of wildlife in the recent decades.
  • Compelled by the changes in his immediate surroundings, school headmaster Tokugha Sumi decided to take an active role in mobilising communities for conservation.
  • Partnering with an NGO Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), he led the formation of the Nanga Greener Zone (NGZ) and the Nagaland Community Conserved Areas Forum (NCCAF), for community-based conservation which now has 23 members in Nagaland comprising 99 villages.
  • The views in this commentary are that of the author.

Many things signal the imbalance of the natural world. For Tokugha Sumi, a school headmaster, a village council member and the son of the headman of Sapotami village in Nagaland, it was the loss of bird sounds and the disappearance of various animals like monkeys, gibbons and hornbills from the forests. While Tokugha’s father and forefathers would rely on bird calls to predict the arrival of rain, wind and sun, newer generations had to abandon this practice. This is due to the dwindling number of birds around the village, and also because the sounds no longer correspond to changes in the weather. “They give the wrong signals,” Tokugha explains. “This is an ecological imbalance. We created this.”

Such observations led Tokugha Sumi, part of the Sumi tribe, to take up an interest in conservation. Identified as being among the richest zones of biodiversity in the world, Nagaland’s natural surroundings have been protected by its people by adhering to certain rules that date back centuries. These include the demarcation of areas to be used for extracting firewood and timber, as well as periodic restrictions on hunting and fishing. Certain forests and water bodies also used to be considered sacred, thereby limiting human interference. “Our forefathers did a great job of preserving the land for us,” Tokugha admits, “but now we cannot preserve it for our children. That is the saddest part.”

In response to the rapid loss of forest cover and wildlife in recent decades, village councils in Nagaland have attempted to acknowledge the ecological and cultural value of their common lands and water bodies by declaring them as Community Conserved Areas (CCAs). This practice, popularised through the 1980s, has not however, been wholly successful in deterring unsustainable extraction. Today, the rules around a CCA are often flouted and there exists a confusion regarding their boundaries. “People just randomly use it,” Tokugha complains, referring to the felling of trees and hunting of wildlife in the CCA of his locality. “So, our conserved area is a degraded one with no trees, no animals and no birds.”

Partnering with an NGO to conserve the commons

Tokhuga first connected with the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a pan-India NGO that works to strengthen community governance over common natural resources, in 2013, during a series of workshops organised towards the conservation of the Dikhu River. This project, called the Dikhu Greener Zone, was initiated by the village councils of Longsa and Ungma and marked FES’s entry into Nagaland. As a workshop attendee, Tokhuga was inspired by the initiative. Taking on board what he had learnt, he decided to mobilise the villages that lay upstream of the river too. “It took three rounds of meetings,” says Tokugha. Following this, in 2014, all 14 villages resolved to come together to form the Nanga Greener Zone (NGZ).

Nanga river. Photo by Alakesh Malla Baruah.
Nanga river. Photo by Alakesh Malla Baruah.

“At first it was only about the river,” recalls Yaranajit Deka, Senior Programme Manager at FES and Tokugha’s friend. In developing the idea further, however, the community realised that in order to protect the river, they must also protect the forest around it. “And once the forest comes into the picture, so does the wildlife and the issue of wildlife diversity,” he says. In this way, what began as a concern for overfishing on one end of the river, ended up evolving into a multi-conservation project that banned forms of unsustainable fishing, hunting and jhum cultivation (slash and burn) within a one kilometre area around the river. This, as Tokugha emphasises, was only possible with the consent of all villages.

Alongside leading the formation of the NGZ, Tokugha is also the current Vice Chairman and one of the primary founders of the Nagaland Community Conserved Areas Forum (NCCAF). As an idea that was floated during the same series of workshops in 2013, NCCAF was formed to provide a common platform in which knowledge and experiences could be shared across CCAs. “Other CCAs might not know what mine does. Similarly, my CCA doesn’t know what is happening in the other CCAs. But, if we form one association, we can educate each other,” Tokugha explains. In addition to organising workshops and exposure visits, as a voluntary organisation, much of NCCAF’s efforts also gooes into increasing their membership. “We were only four or five CCAs when we started,” Tokugha says. “Now we have 23 members in Nagaland comprising 99 villages.”

Challenges in community conservation

Mobilising people for conservation, however, can also be a process fraught with social and cultural negotiation. Since over 90 percent of land in Nagaland is owned by clans and individuals, community conservation entails navigating a complex system of land management with rules that differ from tribe to tribe. “Some headmen would grumble and say that in the name of conservation you are going to grab all my land,” Tokhuha says, recalling some of the initial responses he received. “In addition, it is important to take heed of the fact that Nagas, by tradition are hunters. You cannot simply go to a village and tell them to stop hunting. That will work against you,” he adds.

For Tokugha, much of the solution lies in education. He encourages a closer monitoring of wildlife populations. “If there are 10 wild boars, I tell people you can kill one or two. Then they will breed. But don’t kill them all at once.” Tokugha also believes it is also important to speak on the role of different species in the ecosystem: “Birds are hunters and seed dispersers. If there are no more birds, who will disperse the seeds?”

In attempting to extend this knowledge to younger generations, he has recently been in talks with Church leaders to include conservation as part of the Sunday school curriculum.

Tokugha conducting workshop around NGZ CCA planning. Photo by Yaranajit Deka.
Tokugha conducting workshop around NGZ CCA planning. Photo by Yaranajit Deka.

“Only if people understand the value of conservation will they conserve,” Tokugha states. This understanding is all the more crucial today, in light of the newly introduced category of Community Reserves (CR). Granting the state access into previously closed systems of land management, under CR, joint committees consisting of community members and Forest Department officials are to oversee conservation at the village level. Yet, its implementation, as Deka shares, has already led to disputes since plans are often executed without the prior consent of locals.

Read more: Fish sanctuaries and community support for conservation of Meghalaya’s mahseer

Traditional knowledge and conservation perspectives

Drawing a parallel to Tokugha Sumi’s story and the expansion of the NGO’s reach, Deka states that it is important to see community members as ‘equal partners’ in conservation. “People have their own traditional knowledge, and they are already trying to conserve,” he says. “It is not a one-way exchange of information.” As for Tokugha, his decade-long partnership with FES, initially born out of a desire to respond to ‘ecological imbalance’, has also helped him take significant steps towards realizing his ‘dream’ — which is bringing back wildlife to his CCA.

A view of NGZ protected landscape. Photo by Alakesh Malla Baruah.
A view of NGZ protected landscape. Photo by Alakesh Malla Baruah.

“I just want us to live freely as before,” says Tokugha, whose idea of ‘living freely’ is premised on repairing critical relationships between humans and their fellow species. For Deka, this is a positive sign. Until a few years ago, wildlife conservation was not a priority for local communities. “This is a big change in people’s perspectives, it is a change in the horizon of conservation,” he comments. Tokugha is also positive since his dream is already beginning to take shape — “After two to three years of conservation, I can hear bird songs from my kitchen again,” Tokugha concludes with an ambitious thought,  “I want that for the whole of Nagaland.”

The author is an anthropologist who is interested ecology. She works with the NGO Foundation of Ecological Security. 

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Banner image: Tokugha Sumi leads the community conservation efforts in Nagaland. Photo by Yaranajit Deka.

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