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Green crusaders from eastern India

Mar 10, 2010

In an exemplary effort, the conservation of Subankhata Reserve Forest in Assam has been successfully taken up by the former Bodo militants, who were mostly responsible for destruction of the forest and wildlife during the decade of militancy. Involvement of key stakeholders has brought success to the initiative.

Assam, India: Former Bodo militants have surrendered their guns but are still at war-against poachers and the timber mafia that are destroying the Subankhata Reserve Forest in Assam’s Baksha district.

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With the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam in 2003, the violent armed struggle came to an end and some of those who had taken part in the struggle became part of a movement of a very different kind.

The former militants have taken up conservation activities instead of guns to achieve their objective-a green Bodoland. They have centred their activities on the Subankhata Reserve Forest in Lower Assam’s Baksa district and have already checked illegal tree felling and poaching of wildlife to a great extent and are spreading awareness about the importance of environment and wildlife conservation among the local people.

Located in the Brahmaputra Valley, the Bodoland Territorial Area District comprises four districts of Assam-Kokrajhar, Chiran, Baksa and Udalguri-covering an area of approximately 27,100 sq km (35% of Assam’s total landmass).

It shares an international border with Bhutan to the north and an inter-state boundary with West Bengal on the west and is home to Assam’s largest plains tribes community-the Bodos.

The importance of the Subankhata Reserve Forest, spread over 2,338 hectares, lies in the fact that it is located in the fringe area of Assam’s most famed tiger project-the Manas Tiger Reserve. Till two decades ago, the Subankhata Reserve Forest used to be a contiguous landscape up to the Manas tiger reserve with the same vegetation. It was also an extension of Bhutan’s forest cover.

During the Bodo agitation from the late-1980s to the early-1990s, this was the militants’ transit route to the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan after they had carried out subversive activities in Assam. The area was also extensively used by other northeastern militant outfits to gain safe passage to Bhutan, where most militant outfits had their bases till 2003.

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The Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), formed in 1996, set up its bases in the jungles in this area initially and in the process much of the forest was destroyed. Taking advantage of the lack of law and order, the timber mafia moved in and added to the destruction of the forests. It started paying the militants-who wanted money to run the armed struggle-to allow it free access.

The forest department was unable to police the area, and this allowed poachers to take advantage. They too paid the rebels to allow them to enter the area and kill the many wild animals which include leopards, four varieties of deer, wild dogs, cap langurs, bear, pangolin, rare species of fish, rare birds like the hornbill, and the king cobra and python.

About five years ago, Bijay Choudhury, a senior member of the now disbanded BLT, thought up the idea of saving the forests he and his comrades-in-arms had once been responsible for destroying. Even in the days of militancy, Choudhury says, he used to discourage his armed colleagues from hunting the animals and destroying the forests, but no one listened.

“Forests and wildlife have a great relation with the entire Bodo culture. For centuries the Bodos have been living with nature, which gives us food and livelihood. Once we destroy forests it is like destroying our own culture and tradition. So when our armed movement ended I decided to go back to the forests to heal its wounds-inflicted by me and my colleagues during our movement.” At least six of his colleagues joined him.

Another reason for starting the conservation work, Choudhary says, is to engage the youth of the area in some productive activity. “The poor economic condition of the people and the just ended violent movement created a void and there is every possibility that this void will ruin the upcoming generation of Bodos.

I thought that if I can bring back the beauty of the forests and conserve the wildlife, it will bring tourists, which might in turn give employment to the local youths and they would be engaged in positive activity.”  
Choudhary formed an NGO called Pratiddhani (‘echo’ in Assamese). It has 70 members, many of them former poachers and local unemployed youths.

“I engaged the local youth because I feel no conservation activity will be successful unless the local people are involved.” He reached out to poachers because he believes that it is economic necessity that pushed them into such activity.

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“We identified the local poachers and convinced them about the necessity of conservation. Now some of the dreaded poachers are members of our NGO, and we pay them a monthly remuneration. We also benefit because they know the jungle like no one else. And we use their network to detect the movement of other poachers in the jungle.”

Lohit Boro, a former poacher, says that now that he has a job with Choudhary’s NGO, he protects the trees and animals instead of destroying them for money.

“Now when we catch people inside the forests, our duty is to make them understand what will happen if the forests are destroyed and why they should be protected. And we also help them understand the beauty of nature,” says Mangal Basumatary, also a former poacher.

Pratiddhani paid in cash or kind for any services and soon the local people came out to support the initiative. Almost all the families in the nearby villages send at least one member to the NGO as a volunteer. They are trained in wildlife conservation and paid for any work they do.

An eco-tourism camp was started in the jungles of Subankhata with the help of these volunteers. They also conduct jungle safaris and organise overnight stays inside the forest for interested tourists. Regular jungle patrolling to check poaching and tree felling are also among their duties.

The volunteers also go to remote villages to spread awareness about conservation. They talk to children in village schools explaining the various species of wildlife and the need to conserve them. Villagers are shown pictures of animals, birds and rare species of trees and are asked to inform the NGO if they find anyone selling or destroying the animals and forests.

“Initially we faced problems as hunting is a tradition with the adivasi people and there are several adivasi villages adjacent to the Subankhata reserve forests,” says Himangshu Ramsiary, a member of the NGO. Himangshu hails from a nearby village and has a degree in travel and tourism. He looks after the administration of the eco-tourism camp.

He said that to motivate the adivasis to give up hunting, “we had to think of new ideas. We collected rice through the public distribution system and gave it to the adivasi people provided they stopped hunting. Sometime we also distribute medicines with the help of the government.” Himangshu claims that 80% of the adivasi villagers they approached have stopped hunting in the forests.

Himangshu prefers to work with Pratiddhani rather than in a government job. “Bijay and his colleagues are doing a good job by protecting nature and wildlife. Now when I go to the remote villages to give classes in local schools, I explain to the people that tourism can only flourish if we conserve the jungles and wildlife and that these jungles could bring revenue for all of us,” he says.

Choudhury says that the villagers have now understood the value of conservation and are eager to help.

“A few months ago two civet cats were being sold in the market in Subankhata. I saw it and immediately informed Bijay Choudhury, who came and rescued them,” said David Horo, a local adivasi youth. David identified the civet cats from photographs he had seen during one of Pratiddhani’s classes in his village.

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