There is the world, and there is us. The world has often passed by as we watch, and we thought the pandemic was just another wave that would bypass us. We couldn’t be more wrong.
In 2020, the novel Covid-19 outbreak sent many of our people packing and homeward bound. The image of thousands of people taking the train was heart-breaking. The media called it reverse migration. The journey of a thousand miles was also the journey of necessity.
In 2021, the second wave pushed the country into another lockdown. In Delhi, where I live, people were dying in thousands. The sirens of ambulances filled the alleys. The scenes on the streets were that of battlefields. I decided to make my escape to a village in Ukhrul District, to the place I call home. Since childhood, we have always been taught to believe that we were to move to a bigger town, get an education and job, and settle down. And that has always been the intended trajectory: looking outward. The pandemic made us look back and within.
Grief and death came knocking on our doors. But our only protection was our remoteness. Here, I have my family for refuge and the mountains for sustenance. There were times when shops in the village ran out of all essential items. But we always had the forests!
After living away in cities, I had a close look at our forest and its ecosystem for the first time in many years. As indigenous people, we have always been self-sustaining. We have always protected our land, and in return, the land provides us. It is a delicate balancing act. This time though, I could not help but be bothered by what’s left of us. The population boom and modernisation have set our land in the path of greed and destruction and with devastating results. We have lost so many flora and fauna already in the last decade alone.
During the pandemic, the forest was our source of food. The mountains have given us so much and have so much more to give if we let it be. The land is sacred to our people. We had no set laws to protect and preserve our land, but we always had the indigenous knowledge and collective-community stewardship to deal with a matter of such importance.
The forest is one place we always run to, our resort. In 1944, when the Japanese fought the allied forces, the shelling continued for days, and our entire village escaped to the forest. I remember as recently as in the 1990s when our elders cut out paths on a ravine, in case we come under attack from the Assam rifles. This was before the GOI and NSCN (IM) signed the cease-fire agreement in 1997. We were to run to the forest. That, fortunately, didn’t happen, but we have always felt protected by the forest. It was no different this time.
We have always lived off the land. That has made us more resilient during these difficult times. There are areas in Ukhrul where farming is still secondary, and people live off the land by selling forest products: almost like a hunter-gatherer situation. The lockdown didn’t have as much impact on the day-to-day activities of the villagers as it did in other parts of the country. Toughened by the remoteness and rustic lifestyle, we are as resilient as they come.
Do we have an efficient mechanism in place or a collective mindset to help protect our natural resources? Did our ancestors do a better job? Or is it just modernisation and population boom taking a toll on our ecosystem?
I hail from the western parts of Ukhrul district. We don’t have as much game as the eastern corridor, bordering Myanmar, but I grew up listening to my grandparents tell stories of leopards and bears, which I never got to see. I have seen animals such as barking deer, gibbon, monkey, serow, etc. dwindle and are now almost driven to the point of extinction by overhunting and land encroachment continuously destabilising their habitat. One of the highlights of my childhood was watching a stag carried home by hunters when I was young. We celebrated such moments. We weave such experiences into our folklore and looked back with pride. Hunting was mostly a social pursuit, and hunters shared the spoil. It has a social bonding element to it. How can we refute hunting and not offend people? There lies the dilemma.
I’ll have a hard time convincing my closest relatives to curb hunting. I have brought this conversation to some hunters in the village, and most of them have the same readymade answer: If we don’t hunt, someone else will. By this, they meant even if we decide to stop hunting, hunters from other villages will exploit it all the same. That’s true! For that reason, conservation has to be a collective effort. But it can’t happen all at once. Someone has to take the lead.
For me, the argument is simple. Wildlife is an exhaustible resource. I want to see animals roaming in our land in my lifetime and beyond. I understand that our ancestors lived a hunter-gatherer life. There is something very pure and beautiful about that simple living. I’m not suggesting we change our lifestyle completely, but that we find a balance between what we have and how far we can exploit without exhausting it. Our resources are not as plentiful as they used to be, and we have only grown in numbers and expanded our farming land.
I’m merely suggesting we start a conversation, that we learn to think of a world without us. What remains of this place when we are gone? Taking away the social aspect, most of our exploitations are often selfish. There’s a thin line between need and greed. And we live on the edge.
All is not lost, and there are encouraging signs. The only river in my village is home to Burmese trout, snakehead fish, eel, shrimp, crab, etc. Just a couple of years back, the village took a major step toward conservation. The village passed a resolution to ban any fishing during the spawning season. This initiative has brought the river back to life, and the river is now teeming with fish. The same could be done for all wildlife. This is a small initiative that goes a long way.
As collective stewards of our resources, do we think of a world beyond us?
Jim Wungramyao Kasom is a photographer and author of, ‘Homecoming and other stories’. firstname.lastname@example.org