Co-existing With Nature - The North East Way Of Life

For generations, the tribes of India’s North eastern states have led by example as stewards of the environment. Here’s what the world can learn from them.

Angami tribals gathering around a fire
A gathering of Angami tribals in Nagaland | Pinterest

In a 1987 report by the UN titled “Our Common Future”, the organization recognized the role of indigenous tribes in safeguarding the world's forests, environment governance and wildlife preservation saying,

“These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience, (and) larger society…could learn a great deal from their traditional skills in sustainably managing very complex ecological systems.”

The above especially holds true for India’s North Eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, just to name a few. Indigenous tribal groups in these states such as the Mizos, Karmis and Nagas have professed through history the interdependence of nature and human life. They emulate this same belief in their practices, art and rituals. In a constantly expanding society, solutions to a lot of environmental problems can be found in their laws of human-nature interdependence.

One major factor that the North East attributes its success in sustainable living to is Schedule 6 of the Indian Constitution. Schedule 6 of the Indian constitution contains the provisions over the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The schedule states that each of these states can establish autonomous district and regional councils. Members of these councils must be elected from the local tribal communities with certain members being elected by the Governor. This allows the people of these states to enjoy autonomy and self-governance at a local level. Local councils have significant legislative, executive and judicial powers functioning almost as separate states.

Such district and regional councils, constituting the local tribes have continually professed sustainable living. They do so by reserving the power to legislate over land use, management of forests, tribal customs, personal laws and succession of committee headmen. These councils have enabled the direct involvement of people in forest management and environmental governance. Some of these legislations include: The Mizoram Forest Act, 1955; The Karbi Anglong Forests Act, 1957 and The United Khasi-Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Management and Control of Forests) Act, 1958 and its subsequent rules of 1960.

Deriving from local customs and laws, these legislations divide the forests into 8 categories such as private forests, sacred forests, green block forests, village forests, etc.Thus, the management of these forests is transferred from the hands of the central legislative body to the hands of the people, creating community involvement. In simpler terms, the legislations give the forests in the hands of the people, to protect and to maintain as their own. This in-turn benefits not just the forests but also the people. It increases the income and livelihood of the local tribes while restoring water sources and biodiversity in these regions. An example of this is the Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) initiative in Meghalaya’s Mawphlang region, where 3,500 households from 62 villages successfully managed to conserve and restore over 27,000 hectares of sub-tropical hill forests.

The success of environment management in these states serves as a yardstick for the involvement of locals in the protection and conservation of nature and natural resources not just in India but around the world. Amendments in current laws to involve active community engagement may prove extremely beneficial to curb rapid deforestation, poaching, misuse of resources, poverty and unemployment in areas where it is missing. Introduction of such incentivised programmes in the country by the centre could prove to be extremely beneficial for the quality of life as a whole.