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This is the second story in a series of articles documenting ecosystem restoration projects in India.

Featuring the Changlangshu Community Project in the Northeast India-Myanmar pine forests ecoregion.

Wanmei Konyak cannot help his embarrassment while recounting one of his early experiences working with a wildlife conservation organisation. It was the first day of his internship when the field crew he was a part of came across a wild elephant by the roadside. They had stopped the jeep and were photographing the tusker when the animal suddenly turned around and charged at their vehicle. Never before having seen a wild animal in such close quarters, let alone be confronted by one, Wanmei got thoroughly spooked! "It was my first encounter with a wild animal! I got scared and ran out of the jeep without a second thought," Wanmei admits.

A fellow of the very first batch (2015-16) of Green Hub (a filmmaking fellowship for the youth in the Northeast), Wanmei belongs to the Konyak tribe, one of the largest tribes in Nagaland, known for their tattooed faces and infamous headhunters (the last head-hunting incident was in 1990). A former hunter himself, Wanmei joined Green Hub because he was fascinated by the art of filmmaking. But through his experiences with Green Hub and successive internships with the Wildlife Trust of India and Wildlife Institute of India, seeing their dedication towards protecting the natural world, Wanmei fell in love with the practice of conservation. Today, the filmmaker is a dedicated conservationist who is responsible for restoring large acres of forest land in his home village.

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A former hunter, Wanmei Konyak founded the Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) with the aim to restore forest land and conserve wildlife in his home village.

Changlangshu, a small village near the Indo-Myanmar border in the Mon district of Nagaland, is Wanmei’s home. The arrival of American missionaries to the region in the early 90s transformed the Konyak tribe—they gained access to education, abolished head-hunting and adopted slash-and-burn agriculture, aka jhum cultivation, as their primary source of livelihood. Back then, jhum cultivation was an efficient and sustainable agricultural model. In this method of shifting agriculture, the land is cleared by burning the vegetation and cultivated for several years, then abandoned for long periods to allow regeneration of the natural vegetation and nutrients in the soil. But, over the years, as Changlangshu had more and more mouths to feed, more and more forests were converted to jhum lands, resulting in a complete degradation of the forest ecosystem in the region.

Plotting the Battle Plan

In 2018, after graduating from Green Hub, Wanmei wanted to channel his passion for conservation towards his community and village. At the same time, Green Hub was accepting small grants for their alumni interested in conservation work within their community. Along with his friends, Wanmei formed a Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) in Changlangshu to restore forests and protect the wildlife in the region, becoming the first recipient of the grant.

The first thing the committee did was meet with the Sarpanch (the head of the village) to put forward a proposition to ban hunting between April and October. After negotiations with the Nagaland government, by 2019, the law was widely respected by the community, and hunting was banned during the breeding season.

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A two-kilometre square patch of forest was offered to the BMC by a village senior, where hunting and jhum cultivation was strictly prohibited.

Then, following talks with a village senior, a two-kilometre square patch of forest situated 3-4km from the village was donated to the BMC for restoration. The committee had learned from elders that the degraded forest patch was formerly an important resting site for migratory birds en route to Myanmar. With complete control of the site, they banned hunting and felling of trees in the degraded forest patch.

Continuous dialogue with the Sarpanch and the council eventually led to the primary health centre at Changlangshu housing a nursery for fostering saplings of endemic tree species in the region, which would be the fodder for restoring the degraded patch of forest. BMC also created a herbal garden next to the nursery for cultivating medicinal plants, which are naturally found in these forests but have a huge demand in the community and the nearby villages.

Leading the Charge

From the start, Wanmei was keenly aware that restoration and conservation are foreign ideas and that the BMC needs to lead by example for the community to follow through. “By 2019, we had started planting the saplings fostered in the nursery in the donated forest patch,” says Wanmei. “Soon after, we had people donating jhum lands to the cause.”

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Native tree planting drive conducted by the BMC on a degraded patch of forest at the edge of the village.

The two jhum lands donated by the families directly connect to the forest patch already under the supervision of the committee, creating a small green corridor at the edge of the village. Though the pandemic saw operations reach a standstill for almost two years, native tree planting drives on the donated jhum lands began in 2022 and will continue this calendar year.

The constant engagement with Green Hub has afforded regular access to restoration training for both the committee and interested members of the community. “Already, this year, six-seven of us from the village visited a community forest reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, sponsored by Green Hub,” explains Wanmei, “where we gained first-hand knowledge of how the Bugun tribe practices conservation and generates revenue through it.” These periodic training sessions and workshops help propagate the novel ideas of conservation and restoration to the larger community. The core team at BMC, slowly but steadily, has grown to 30+ members.

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The nursery at the Changlangshu primary health centre fosters saplings of endemic tree species, which will be used to restore the forests near the village.

“Now we are also getting support from the official side. Block Development Officer W. Moba, a dear friend, is working to connect water from the village to the restoration site,” says Wanmei. Better water connectivity opens up a lot of avenues for the committee. There is potential to move the nursery closer to the restoration site and even set up a base camp to promote ecotourism in the region, which could prove to be a major economic boost for this growing tribal community. In October 2022, motorcycle manufacturer Royal Enfield started supporting the efforts of the BMC through a small grant.

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Seeds of indigenous tree species from the region. (From left to right) Bumin, Heemuk and Hoanghuh.

The restoration efforts in Changlangshu have been slow and arduous work, but Wanmei stays determined. “We aim to add 1-2 hectares of land every year from here on! For that, we have to meet and negotiate with landowners; some will be willing to donate freely, and others, we will have to pay,” explains Wanmei. "It will take a long time to achieve our ambitions, but now we [BMC] are many, and soon the entire community will share our passion for conservation!"

Visit the Ecological Restoration Alliance website to learn more.