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This case study depicts the conservation efforts undertaken in three villages, namely, Mega, Molo and Dipu, located along the River Siyom in the West Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh. The forests protected by these villages are legally categorised as Unclassed State Forests (USFs), under the Assam Forest Regulation Act, 1891, applicable to the state of Arunachal Pradesh. These stretches of forests have always belonged to the people and the management of these resources has been vested with the Adi Gallongs, the local tribe. USFs are not officially declared; but all forests that do not belong to any of the categories1 of Reserved, Anchal, Village Forest or Sanctuaries and National Parks are considered as USF in law. Large tracts of forests in the state of Arunachal fall under the category of USFs, and are used and managed by the local communities.
Mega village is 40 km from Along district headquarters on the Along-Mechuka road. Moyo is 25 km from Mega village and Dipu is 18 km from Molo. The Siyom River joins these villages and Molo village is situated at the conjuncture of the Siyom and Sike rivers. The state bus is the most efficient means of transport to get to Molo and Dipu villages. Mega has the largest population with 80 households; Dipu has 30 and Molo 25 households.
These villages are inhabited by the Adi Gallong tribe, which is one of the progressive sub-tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. The Adi Gallongs are animists and worship different elements of nature. In Adi society, the tiger is considered to be an elder brother and killing a tiger is considered the biggest sin. Killing of a tiger either by mistake or even in self-defence attracts very serious punishment in the form of a year-long period of penance during which the person has to live in isolation, cook his own food and is not allowed to join the community in various festivals and rituals including hunts. Adis were hunter-gatherers earlier but subsequently took to jhum (shifting cultivation) cultivation. The main occupation of the villagers is farming and the main crops grown by them are maize, mustard, millet, chillies, beans and pumpkin. As the younger generation is getting educated and not interested in farming, the manpower available for jhum is on the decline. Consequently, many villagers have now resorted to settled wet rice cultivation. With the rise in education, villagers have also found employment in government offices.
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The forest surrounding these three villages have been conserved completely by the villagers. According to the village council, the felling of trees for timber is completely unacceptable which has prevented the cutting of trees by any contractors in these forests. Poaching and hunting is also severely discouraged, and many local beliefs and traditions make hunting animals a taboo. Fishing is viewed as a recreational activity and the use of explosives to fish is punished by the village council. NTFP collection was their main source of income but due to a Supreme Court order that banned the collection of NTFP from any forests, they had to find another source of income. Making a policy regarding the collection of NTFP will help this community more.
Prior to 1996, contracting out part of their forests for timber extraction to timber traders was one of the major sources of income for the villagers. These contracts were usually given out for secondary forests regenerating on jhum lands. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India banned extraction and sale of timber from all kinds of forests unless done under working plans approved by the Forest Department. As the villagers do not yet have approved working plans, the ban has resulted in a loss of income in these villages. This had led to a heavy dependence on non-timber forest products from the forest belt adjoining the villages. They collect boulders, stone chips, gravel, sand, toko or multipurpose palm leaves, charcoal, firewood, bamboo, cane and medicinal plants. Animal husbandry is yet another source of income to these villagers, who rear mithun (semi-domesticated cattle), pigs and fowls.
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Close to 200 ha of forests in the vicinity of these villages are protected by the local community. These are dense primary forests, largely comprising sub-tropical evergreen forest species with the presence of some components of tropical forest
These forests are undisturbed due to the decision taken by the ancestors of the present generation. The exact reason for the preservation of these stretches is unknown but has been followed strictly for generations by one and all in these three villages. Even the system of felling of trees under the timber permit scheme of the government is not acceptable to the village council. This decision of these villages is well known and widely respected by all, including the Forest Department officials. It is for this reason that contractors, traders and forest officials have not approached local people for felling timber under the timber permit scheme in these forests.
No specific institution is involved in the protection of these forests. The traditional village councils deal with violation of the regulations related to conservation. Violations are negligible, as people fear the wrath of the supernatural elements. Many taboos are attached to felling of trees and killing of certain animals in forests, which are associated with death in the family. Such taboos prevent local people from violating the socially accepted norms with respect to these forests.
These habitats are also well protected because there exists a buffer area, where people practise jhum and extract resources for meeting their other requirements. The forest adjoining Mega village is located on steep mountainous slopes, thus making the resources there inaccessible.
Regulatory rules are not restricted only to the forests but also extend to the local rivers and streams. Fishing in the nearby rivers and streams is a regular practice and more of a sport and mode of entertainment for the unemployed youth and old men, though it does add to the food intake and nutritional balance. Blasting and explosives are rarely used. People have rights over different stretches of the river. Some parts of the river are community-owned, while others have family or clan ownership. Ownership over the river can be sold within the clan, mainly for fishing purposes. Anyone overexploiting the fish resource by use of explosives is punished by the village council (kebangs). Only traditional fishing equipment is allowed for fishing.
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Another severe threat to the conservation practices in these villages is the erosion of the value system amongst the younger generation due to modern education. This has resulted in the increase in the commercialisation of the economy that has inflicted a commodity approach to the forest resources.
Considering that these forests are under community control and existing practices of conservation are deeply embedded in the customary law, and also considering that the forest cover of the state is nearly 80 per cent (far above the recommended 66 per cent for the hills as per the Forest Policy), a proper policy with regards to collection and processing of NTFP to benefit the local communities needs to be formulated rather than imposing bans of the kind mentioned above. The state needs to make a concerted effort to develop wood-based industry to make opportunities available for the local populace, keeping in mind the attitude and flair of the public.
Transmission of traditional customary laws and social practices related to management and conservation of natural resources to the younger generation is also required with efforts from the government, village elders and traditional institutions, in order that the new generation takes pride and respect in their own systems and carries forward the tradition of forest protection.
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