Named after the ancient monoliths that adorn the dense Meghalaya forests, the Mawphlang village is home to indigenous tribes and unique cultures that find their calling in the protection of forests. Situated in the East Khasi district, the Mawphlang which translates to ‘grassy stone’ is a part of the largest of the 200 sacred groves in Meghalaya.
Meghalaya has 80 per cent of its area under green cover—over thrice the Indian average. With an average annual rainfall as high as 467 inches, Meghalaya is one of the wettest places on the planet and naturally has dense tropical and subtropical forests. However much the climate may strengthen the wildlife and greens here, a slight human-made interference or climatic change would adversely affect the delicate balance of these biomes.
In a time where population explosion is driving the pace of commercialisation, what remain unabashedly rampant are deforestation, poaching, and uprooting of trees. In such dire times, the ancient beliefs of the indigenous tribes have stood as protective sentinels for these lush yet vulnerable Meghalayan forests.
Local tribes such as the Lyngdoh and Blah pass down from one generation to another folklore focusing on wildlife. These stories, some as old as 700-800 years, share a common thread.
They all speak of the forests as a divine entity protected by a wrathful Goddess ready to curse anyone who dares destroy her domain. Even in these critical times, the humble tales have succeeded in saving close to 27,000 hectares of forests in the State.
In many Indian tribes, the forests are revered as sacred groves—a place where the pantheon of local deities resides. The belief that everything in the forest must stay in the woods, to not invite divine wrath, forms the basis of wildlife conservation. In Meghalaya, conservationists like Bah Tambor Lyngdoh are taking this belief a step further and attracting foreign funding to save thousands of hectares of forested area and simultaneously empowering local tribes through this initiative.
The Better India (TBI) got in touch with Bah Tambor, the Project Director at the Khasi Hills Community REDD+ Project.
The Khasi Hills, incidentally, are India’s first REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) project—a UN-supported initiative that aims to save the earth’s forests and enable local, tribal communities in the process.
“Around in 2004, many international organisations were coming in Shillong and other parts of Meghalaya to fund causes, initiatives, and wildlife conservation efforts. But the lesser known Mawphlang received barely any attention. Finally, I approached them and told them that a wonderful opportunity to preserve wildlife and empower the local community is waiting to be explored. Our village could be a perfect choice,” Bah Tambor said.
Bah Tambor observed the alarming depletion of the sacred groves and forests around his village. The village seniors reminisced over the densely forested hills, and worried about the hundreds of animal and bird species now looking at habitat loss. Concerned over the omnipresent threat to nature and wanting to bring back the green days, the village head worked with two elements—the sentiments of the local tribes and the support of international entities to provide funds.
The project began in Mawphlang in the year 2007 intending to revive the dense forest cover and to check that its produce was left untouched.
In the olden days, many local tribes in these villages believed that the deity Labasa resides in the forest. Anything taken out of the sacred groves incurred the disappointment of the Goddess and thus brought bad luck and punishment.
Right from precious forest wood and animals to a simple leaf—everything belonged to and was protected by the deity. One of the many stories associated with the belief tells the fascinating experience that the Indian Army had in the 1970s.
An Indian Army troop was trying to take out dead wood and trees from the forest. Just as the men loaded their truck with the “pilfered” wood, the vehicle refused to start. It is easy to dismiss the incident as a coincidence that the machine failed, but it is the accumulation of several such events and folktales that the villagers have witnessed and heard of that led them to believe that Labasa protects the forests.
Rather than disproving their beliefs or regarding them with scepticism, one must see for what the beliefs stand. The locals knew that Labasa prevented the army truck from leaving with something that belonged to her. This was affirmation enough for their faith which spawned the successful restoration of 27,000 hectares of the forests today!
By 2011, the conservation project had spread from the village of Mawphlang to 10 other Himas or “kingdoms” in 62 villages in the East Khasi Hills district. From a small village project, the impact could be seen in over 3500 households!
The Mawphlang project is a not-for-profit, charitable organisation registered under the name of ‘Ka Synjuk Ki Hima Arliang Wah Umiam-Mawphlang Welfare Society’ (The Federation of Indigenous Traditional Institutions on River Umiam Sub-Watershed Welfare Society). It is a federation of 10 traditional indigenous institutions (or Himas, like the Lyngdoh, Sirdar, Blah, and Syiem, among others) that work to obtain payments for ecosystem services with an aim to slow, stop and reverse the loss of forests while providing technological and financial support to the preservation of forests.
The project aims to achieve its objective through primary fields of activities: Forestry and socio-economic.
1. Forestry activities:
An example of the forestry activities undertaken in Meghalaya is the rehabilitation of critical and endangered amphibians and epiphytes in sacred groves for their protection. They also encourage the local public to participate in afforestation to restore the lost green covers and initiate campaigns to revive sacred groves.
Yet another activity that they have undertaken is to control the forest fires that kill hundreds of trees and animals all at once. In 2015, Meghalaya reported 1373 forest fires, a 22.26 per cent jump from the previous year. Local communities are coming together to prevent such forest fires with the use of techniques like traditional Khasi methods of controlled burning, making fire lines and erecting signboards.
2. Socio-economic activities:
The socio-economic activities under the Project ensure the involvement of different groups of local communities. Formation of women-run self-help groups and farmers’ club are one aspect of these activities. Apart from that, capacity building, profiling of project villages, and household socio-economic surveys too are undertaken so that the local beneficiaries of the project are in line with the progress of the activities.
For the last eight years, the Himas have seen a considerable improvement in the livelihoods and forest covers, thanks to the Mawphlang project. Of course, it is undoubtedly a boost that they have been successful in securing overseas funding, but at the same time, it is the dedication and strength of the local communities that are doing the groundwork in Meghalaya.
One must take into consideration the importance of forests for the local tribes who, for generations, have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the green world they inhabit. It is not merely the struggle to conserve wildlife or the tag of being one of the greenest States in India that drives them to conserve forests.
For these Clans of Khasi tribes such as Lyngdoh and Blah, it is about saving their homes.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)