Congratulations to the people of the Chug valley and kudos to the team of WWF-India for declaring the forests of the valley community conserved area (‘Villagers declare their forest CCA’, Arunachal Times, 4 January, 2020). This is a welcome decision, adding another 100 square kilometres to the area of Nyukmadung and Thembang villages already under CCA, thus creating a much-needed contiguous protected area.
In the not-so-distant past, local indigenous beliefs and practices – in the case of Chug the belief in ‘Phu’ and ‘Da’ and a host of other local deities – encouraged humans to maintain respect for and a balance with the natural environment. Only if this balance was maintained would the deities make sure the environment would continue to provide for the people. Hunt and fish, but only as a source of food; don’t hunt during breeding season; cut trees, but only to build houses and light fires at home; allow for regeneration of bamboos through periodical harvest bans, etc.
Fear of natural calamities and contagious diseases if the deities were disturbed, and the societal pressure to prevent this, made people follow these unwritten rules.
With modernization, the belief in ‘Phu’ and ‘Da’ slowly faded away. Central and state legislation, effectuated through the forest department, theoretically became the new authority governing the use of the natural environment. Guns, then electricity, then explosives and chainsaws made their appearance, and in an ever-changing world, money became the need of the day. Increasingly, hunting trips were organised, valuable timber trees were felled and sold, plant and animal species with commercial value were over-harvested and over-hunted, trees useful for firewood were cut and the firewood was sold.
Despite the Chug people’s earlier attempts in the past few years to ban hunting, fishing with explosives, beaching powder and currents, and commercial extraction of timber and firewood, they had only limited success. Individuals easily succumbed to the un-Buddhist trait of greed, to valuing short-term financial benefits over long-term sustainability, and to outside pressure and interference.
The environment became an open access resource in which everyone tried to maximize his own benefits. Because of the small and close-knit community, defaulters could not be punished in accordance with the agreed rules. The forest department, which should have intervened, was understaffed or otherwise ineffective.
In this inability to enforce local rules regarding protection of the environment, the Chug valley mirrored the situation all across the state. CCAs give back some of the power and responsibility for managing the natural environment to the communities themselves. It draws lessons from the situation in the past and prepares the communities for the challenges of the future. If conservation and socioeconomic progress can go hand-in-hand, the people will certainly support it. Community-based natural resource management has proven a successful model all across the earth, and hopefully, other communities in the state will follow the example, too.