Updated: Sep 2, 2019
A Story of Community Conservation Efforts of the Zeliang tribe in Nagaland
Historically home to the Zeliang tribe, Benreu village in the Peren district of Nagaland is the abode of clouds and rains. The average rainfall in the area is 2056 mm, making it one of the favourites of the Rain Gods in the country. Perched at a height of 1950 metres, the surreal Benreu faces the third highest peak of Nagaland, Mout Pauna. From a decent vantage point, one can see the shimmering rice fields in the foothills and the Teipuiki river dividing the glassy landscape into Nagaland and Manipur.
The sub-tropical forests of Mount Pauna are home to some of the most globally threatened species of flora and fauna. Mount Pauna is listed as an Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and Eastern Himalayas Endemic Bird Area (EBA) for its unique avifauna. Besides its natural bounties, the Mount Pauna holds a very special place in the cultural history of the Zeliangs. If the local folklore is to be believed, the 3500 feet high mount Pauna is inhabited by a guardian spirit called Mireuding. Mireuding was siezed from his dying mother’s womb by an old spirit- Sepai to guard the inhabitants of Benreu. Ever since that day, perched atop Pauna, the benevolent spirit of Mireuding hovers over the forest and looks after its village.
Benreu has a good supply of water, almost every household has piped water. However, the picture was starkly different before the pipes were laid by the PHE department here. The sources of water in the village were its springs, which were central to the social and cultural lives of the Zeliang community.
Heipeuding, our guide for the day takes us on a tour through his village, showing us the springs of the area. The first spring that we stopped by has a well built around it, it’s the famous old Heleimeile Tho-u Tekwa. It was constructed when the Benreu village was founded. It’s named after the wife of one of the co-founders of Benreu. Water from this ritual well was used for performing all ritual rites in the village.
Whenever stones, pebbles or mud fell into the ritual well, either from sides or slope above, the following day Meikhle rite was observed by the Benreu villagers to cleanse the ritual well. On this day it was a taboo for the villagers to work.
The healing water spring
In total, the village has eight springs, but the most popular of them is the healing water spring. As the name suggests, the spring has some astounding healing properties. Appau, an 88 year old villager tells us how earlier people used to go and take a bath in the healing water whenever they had any kind of ailments. “It is a cure for all, but it really helps one if they have Gastritis. This water is different, it’s lighter. But nowadays, nobody really goes to the healing spring anymore", he adds. The social mores around springs are now only present in the anecdotes of the old villagers. Older generation people like Appau seem to ascribe this largely to the advent of piped water supply as also the spread of Christianity in the area. Over the years, the nature of relationship of the Zeliangs with the springs has significantly changed. The Zeliang tribe, originally a tribe of head hunters followed the natural religion until they embraced Christianity. The village will be celebrating 125 years of Christianity in 2022.
The Forests of Mount Pauna have been responsible for ensuring water security in the village. Majority of the Benreu villagers are farmers, growing rice in the fields fed by the streams from Mount Pauna. The farmers also cultivate snails and fishes in the standing water of these paddy fields. Unlike Benreu, the neighboring villages face water shortage. People have to fetch drinking water from water sources that are far off. This has a lot to do with the changing rhythm and cycles of jhum cultivation, a common practice in the area.
Jhum cultivation involves clearing of forest area which is then burned and cultivated for few years. This process may result in high yield initially, but continuous cropping of the area results in decreased soil fertility. Jhum cultivation involves long period cycles, whereby farmers cultivate an area for some time, then shift to a new forest area and repeat the same process. Traditionally, a cultivated area is left fallow for 50-60 years allowing it to replenish soil fertility. But this has reduced drastically, as with increasing population farmers have been returning to the same site within 3-6 years. As the jhumming cycle is disturbed, many negative consequences follow.
Heiguineule, a 60 year old Zeliang farmer shared some of the traditional practices pertaining to jhum cultivation as she winnowed the rice while speaking to us. She tells us that during the cultivation period, people would abstain from having salt fearing that the produce will not be good. The villagers celebrate Langsimyi to pray to the spirits to bless the cultivators with a good harvest. Most of the traditional tribal festivals revolve around agriculture, as a vast majority of the population of Nagaland is directly dependent on farming.
Some years ago, the jhum fire caught the entire forest upto Mount Pauna which left the forest burning for three months. It destroyed the catchment area and the streams feeding the terrace fields. Indiscriminate logging and hunting were also other issues that were worsening the health of the eco-system of Mount Pauna. The community decided to take the matter in their hands, by announcing a complete ban on jhum cultivation, hunting and logging within the Mount Pauna range in 2002-03. In 2012, with guidance and support of NEPD (Nagaland Empowerment of People through Economic Development), the “Pauna Range Conservation Committee (CCA)” was formed and strict rules and regulations were framed for the management of Mount Pauna CCA. The CCA has also prepared a management plan with the support from FES. The Zeliangs want to scale up this unprecedented noble initiative of conservation in other areas too, for the same they have been conducting village level seminars on conservation. The villagers also participate in different exposure programmes conducted by FES within and outside Nagaland.
Just like the Zeliangs, communities in different parts of the world continue to have a critical linkage with their natural ecosystems for a variety of purposes; spiritual, cultural and economic. Today, Benreu has been declared as a tourist village by the Nagaland’s Ministry of Tourism. Mount Pauna with its breath-taking views is now a living showcase of conservational practices of these highlanders. Not only will Benreu be always remembered for its picturesque beauty, but also for the unwavering efforts of the Zeliangs for sustaining it so well.
A video documentation by Green Hub on Mount Pauna - Community Conservation Area
This is the first article in the three part series of travel accounts of the WPN Team in North East India.