Northeastern region of India with states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim and Tripura is a major biodiversity centre. Geographically it has the low ranging hills like Patkai-Naga Hills and Lushai Hills and Brahmaputra and Barak valley plains. The region is located at the confluence of Indo-Malayan and Pale artic biogeographic realms. Tropical climate has enriched the fauna and the flora of the region. It is the habitat of diverse biota with a high level of endemism says a paper published by Sudipto Chatterjee, Abhinandan Saikia, Pijush Dutta, Dipanker Ghosh, Govinda and A.K. Goswami of World Wildlife Fund (India). The region is also the abode of 225 of India's 450 tribes, the cultures and customs of which have an important role in understanding biodiversity conservation and management issues.
H. Samati and R. Gogoi of Botanical Survey Of India, Shillong studied the sacred groves (SGs) of northeast and brought to light many hitherto unrecorded facts. Using indigenous knowledge or traditional practices different communities of northeast have been able to achieve conservation of forests without government's aid. They have a firm belief that forests are sacred and community in turn protects them as sacred groves. This region being endowed with congenial climate for the growth of trees, the SGs serve as natural habitat for many endemic, rare, primitive and economically valuable plants along with a good number of wild animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, variety of butterflies and insects say Samati and Gogoi.
Local inhabitants of Meghalaya maintain and preserve primary forest patches near their settlements as part of their culture and religious belief. These SGs are known by different names in different areas. Khasis call them as Law Kyntang, Law Lyngdoh and Law Niam and people in Jaintia hills call them as Khloo Blai, Khloo Blai Lyngdoh and those of Garo hills call theirs as Waarangni Biap and Asang Khosi. People firmly believe that their respected deities live in the SGs. Any damage to the plants would offend their deities they believe. So strong is the belief that even fallen branches of the trees are not collected. Certain varieties of trees are not allowed to be cut at any cost. These patches of forests are maintained by the village council. The council has all the powers to even designate new areas as SG.
This is one prime reason why some of the tropical forests in India have escaped the axe of the mankind. This fact is also acclaimed by the Harvard expert William too ('Vanishing forests of tropical Asia').
It has been observed by the scientists that because of community forestry practices, the rich legacy of northeast has considerably escaped the hacker's axe. Though in an endeavor to copy the style of living of other societies has led to degradation of such forests in northeast, yet efforts by organizations like Community Forestry International (CFI) of USAID have helped to restore the degraded SGs. Centre for Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong carried out a detailed study of Community Forestry in Northeastern India under the aegis of CFI.
Impressed by the traditional way of keeping forests intact, CFI sanctioned a number of projects to study the ways and to interact with locals to improve their forestry. Tribal resistance to British colonial incursions into the hills northeast India in the early 19th century resulted in special policies enacted to allow customary system of forest management and respect for traditional systems of governance.
Since it was a unique system, the British did not encroach much and let the tribes manage their resources. After Independence the pockets of tribal forests were given constitutional recognition, so that the locals can manage them easily. Threatened by formal mapping, boundary registration and trends towards privatization of agriculture all have led to deforestation, said the report of the CFI. However, contemporarily several groups are active in an endeavor to bring back the glory of the SGs.
Quoting the data from the State Forest Department, Samati and Gogoi report that SGs cover approximately 1000 sq. km. in the State of Meghalaya. Dr. B.K. Tiwari Head of Department has documented 16 SGs in Garo, 48 in Khasi and 15 in Jaintia Hills as per a report published by S.K. Barik and his colleague from Centre for Environmental Studies, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. In addition 12 new SGs have come up in Khasi Hills. These forests are in fact micro-level hotspots for a variety of fauna and flora. It is estimated that at least 54 species of rare and threatened species of plants are found in the SGs of Meghalaya.
In addition to above Samati and Gogoi were able to identify seven new SGs in Jaintia Hills. The rich ethnobotanical wealth of northeast is something special. They are not merely sacred groves, they are the gene bank of the ecosystem. In the present degraded environment they attain significance. The religious and ritual centric beliefs or taboos of tribal have helped in conservation of this rich floral lineage. Had it been left to usual conservation methods applied by the government agencies, perhaps by now like other forests of the country these too would have been wiped out by now!
But here is a note of warning. The uneducated tribal were guided by their instincts alone and their rituals and beliefs helped in maintaining the forest wealth. However, with the spread of education, and so called 'modernisation of society' the tribal values are losing ground. The trend is not good. Population explosion, demand for more dwellings has tremendously enhanced the demand for timber.
In order to check further deterioration, Samati and Gogoi recommend an extensive awareness programme to educate the locals about the SGs. The State Forest Department and Ministry of Environment and Forests may have to work in tune with local NGOs to develop ways to educate the locals about the significance of the SGs. They recommend the SGs could be developed as a centre of attraction for the tourists as well.
The traditional method of not touching the forests was in fact the best way of protecting the forests and the fauna. The tourism boom will certainly revolutionize the economy of the region but interference by the tourists and the tour operators may lead to further deterioration of the situation.
The traditional practices of northeast need to be developed in the form a compendium for the present day researchers extols Prof Tiwari. He says that traditional ways of management of forests in Sohra, forest gardens of War area, safety and supply reserves of Mizoram, village forests of Nagaland, Bun cultivation of Meghalaya, Apatani system of natural resource management, bamboo drip irrigation of Khasi Hills, disease management of betel growers of Meghalaya, combination of honey bee and orange orchard in Cherrapunjee, rain water harvesting of Mizoram, bamboo groves of the Jaintia of Tripura, sacred groves of Meghalaya etc., are unparallel biodiversity management systems.
The Himalayan Hot Spot needs to be conserved. It can be best conserved by the local people who have inherited the traits of traditional knowledge. Irony is that those poor people do not have barest minimum facilities, like medical facility. It is time for the State to act. Provide facilities to the people educate them about their own traditional knowledge through their own teachers, so that they can manage their resource and keep the 'carbon sinks' of nature alive.