Idu Mishmi protect ancestral land through community conservation

  • In June 2022, members of the Idu Mishmi community of Elopa and Etugu villages, Dibang valley, declared 70 square kilometres of their ancestral customary land as a community conserved area (CCA).
  • This CCA serves as a way for the clans to protect the land, wildlife and cultural traditions from being threatened by deforestation and large hydroelectric projects along the Dibang river. It also provides employment for the indigenous youth, who work as rangers and guides for tourists.
  • While still in its initial stage, the Idu Mishmi youth hope that the CCA model will sustain their indigenous culture and preserve the rich biodiversity of this hotspot.

Iho Mitapo grew up hearing stories about how his elders made long journeys every day from their homes in the Elopa and Etugu villages in the hills, crossing forests and encountering herds of wild animals, to reach their farmlands. They cultivated and harvested crops and took the same route back to their homes, said 30-year-old Mitapo who now lives in Roing town of Lower Dibang valley district in Arunachal Pradesh.

Over time, to make things easier, residents from the villages moved closer to their farmlands, Mitapo said.

Around the 1980s, due to deforestation, floods and the river changing its course, the riverbanks got washed away and the clan members of the Elopa and Etugu villages were forced to resettle in other areas across the Dibang valley. “What you see in place of farmlands in that area are now grasslands,” Mitapo told Mongabay India.

In order to protect their land, the wildlife and cultural traditions from dwindling even further, in June 2022, people whose families belonged to the Elopa and Etugu villages, comprising the Pulu, Mitapo, Linggi and Menda clans of the Idu Mishmi community, declared a part of their ancestral customary land as a community conserved area (CCA).

Iho Mitapo is one of the members of the Elopa-Etugu Eco Cultural Preserve which was declared a Community Conservation Area. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj.

The CCA, which measures 70 square kilometres, has been named the Elopa-Etugu Community Eco-Cultural Preserve (EECEP). “About 35 square kilometres are grasslands, and the rest consist of forests and mountains,” said Abba Pulu, one of the members of EECEP, who is also an assistant professor of Geography at the Indira Gandhi Government College in Tezu town of Arunachal Pradesh.

Pulu added that the acronym EECEP, when pronounced as a word (ee-see-ee-pee) translates to “a place we left long time back” in the Idu Mishmi language. “The name holds deep value for Elopa-Etugu’s clans’ members who were forced to leave their ancestral land between 1980-1990s as the Dibang river (Talõ) changed course, following years of felling of trees, and our agricultural fields were destroyed,” Pulu said adding that the following two decades also saw a rise in “hunting activities and resource extraction”.

The need for a CCA

A CCA is an area conserved by indigenous communities for their own cultural and livelihood practices. CCAs differ from wildlife sanctuaries and national parks as local communities take the lead in protecting their own land.

According to Pulu, CCAs remain a policy challenge in India’s existing legal framework for forest and wildlife conservation, but they are a rapidly rising global phenomenon.

The northeastern state of Nagaland, for instance, has close to 700 CCAs, where village councils have legal rights over forest land.

The Community Conservation Area measures 70 sq. kms. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj.

EECEP has been declared a CCA following the customary practices framework which is an accepted form of local governance in Arunachal Pradesh, and which is recognised by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to which India is an official signatory.

Within India, the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006) recognises forest dwelling communities’ rights over forest resources to protect their land by gaining legal titles. But the implementation of the FRA in Arunachal Pradesh remains a challenge, Pulu explained.

Currently, within the CCA, “there is a total ban on hunting for ten years and we are monitoring that,” Mitapo said, adding that, “only those who belong to the Elopa and Etugu villages can institute and apply their rules in order to protect the area.”

Initially, Mitapo said, it was difficult to convince all the clan members but eventually they agreed and their ancestral land was declared a CCA.

According to the official declaration, the land will initially be a CCA for ten years and will be extendable after consultation with the clan members.

The declaration also stated that it “is a way of going back to where the clans’ roots lie. Through this CCA, we plan to conserve, research, manage and use [forest resources] sustainably — in accordance with the Idu Mishmi traditions.”

Importance of Elopa-Etugu Community Eco-Cultural Preserve

Numbering around 14,000 people, the Idu Mishmis’ lives are intimately connected to the forests. But like so many indigenous groups around the world, their way of life is threatened by developmental projects.

Dibang valley is part of the Eastern Himalayan Global Biodiversity Hotspot, which is one of only 36 such hotspots in the world. It is home to a range of flora and fauna and is known to be one of the richest biogeographical provinces in the Himalayan zone.

However, the region has witnessed a host of changes. “Earlier, in this single river basin, they proposed 17 dams. A few months ago, five MOUs were signed and some more dams are coming up in the uphill,” Abba Pulu said.

Out of the several dams that are coming up, the Etalin Hydro-Electric Project and the Dibang Multipurpose Project have garnered the maximum attention.

The multipurpose project is adjacent to the EECEP or the CCA in the lower Dibang valley. This project, pegged at a capacity to yield 2,880 megawatts, has been touted as India’s largest hydropower venture, and work has already begun.

“Community members feel that they need to protect their land because of these huge infrastructural developments as it will affect our community land and animals in various ways,” Pulu added.

Camera traps inside the CCA 

One of the main features of the CCA are camera traps that are installed across the area to document the wildlife in the forests. Animals such as clouded leopards, three morphs of Asiatic golden cats, marbled cats, leopard cats, Asiatic wild dogs, Himalayan black bear, large Indian civet, hog deer, and yellow throated marten were photographed on the camera traps.

According to Mitapo, red serow and Malayan sun bears have been recorded for the first time in the region (in 2023 and 2021 respectively). The highly endangered Chinese pangolin, which numbers less than 7,000 in the world, were also found.

“There are so many animals that our village folks also hadn’t seen such as binturong and crab eating mongoose. For us, endangered species are considered misu (inauspicious) such as the gibbons. Hunting of these animals would bring a curse upon us in the Idu Mishmi traditions,” Mitapo said.

He also noted that a camera trap study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India in the nearby Mehao wildlife sanctuary found 24 mammal species as compared to EECEP where the community has recorded close to 50.

The CCA is located a few kilometres away from Roing town, about an hour’s jeep ride. Once inside the CCA, another five-kilometre-drive leads to a camp built by the community members with natural materials collected from the forest, such as bamboo, wood, thatch and cane.

The camp is also meant to have accommodation facilities for tourists, researchers, hikers and other knowledge-seekers. People who want to trek the entire EECEP route can stay at the camp. A circular trek starts and ends at the camp and is done during the winters from October to March.

The jeep safari, however, entails a brief halt at the camp and then a drive towards the pristine riverbank, which is known as Eme-wu (Nizamghat).

Generating employment for the Idu Mishmis

Besides being able to protect their ancestral land, another aim of the EECEP is to generate employment for their clan and tribe members. Mitapo said the whole model is based on tourism and research. “We collect a fee from the visitors      that goes to our joint account. We are trying to generate revenue from that. If someone comes to experience the riverbank, or researchers stay for a longer duration, there are different kinds of fees, and that will help our people,” Mitapo said.

The rangers and guides at EECEP are all from the community.

Eha Tacho (26), for instance, is also from the Idu Mishmi community, and has been benefitting from the EECEP model.

Tacho works as a researcher on the Gibbon project led by EECEP. Gibbons are considered a taboo for the Idu Mishmis, therefore, the gibbon survey was conducted by EECEP after consultation with their shaman. “My mother was born in Elopa. I didn’t even know Elopa existed until my mother told me much later and that’s when I got interested about where my forefathers came from. Through this research, in some way, I can trace back my own ancestry,” said Tacho, who finished his Masters in Zoology from Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar.

Eha Tacho has been working on a survey on gibbons for Elopa-Etugu Eco Cultural Preserve. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj.

EECEP is trying to ascertain the population of gibbons inside the CCA. They are also conducting interviews with local people who have knowledge about gibbons to study and analyse behavioural patterns. Categorised as Vulnerable, according to the IUCN, eastern hoolock gibbons are mostly found in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

But for Tacho, it isn’t just his interest in primates that led him to join EECEP as a researcher, he wanted to work for his own people. “Large corporations with the aim to start hydro power projects have come into our area, and many areas have been given up for dam projects,” Tacho said.

According to Mitapo, the CCA is still in its initial stage. They plan to focus more on the protection of animals including monitoring through camera traps. “We want our younger generation to also protect this place, and we want this knowledge to be passed on from one generation to another.”

Read more: Why are Idu Mishmis resisting a proposed tiger reserve in Dibang Valley?


Banner image: The Nizamghat river bank. A CCA is an area conserved by indigenous communities for their own cultural and livelihood practices. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj.

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