The past can be the future
(Time to look into the traditional watershed and landscape management practices for sustainable development in the Northeast)
Usually in a traditional society, people, through their everyday experiences, are able to understand critical relations between the elements of nature and accordingly design different land-based activities such as agriculture, settlement, forestry, etc. All these practices are not sporadic but follow a systematic landscape concept and reflect the prioritisation ofthe watershed principles to a greater extent. Largely, these practices also vary with the terrain, soil, weather condition and climate regime. All of these together frame, what we call, the traditional knowledge system of a community which gets embedded to the cultural system of the community over the generations.
Such traditional knowledge based practices of water management and harvesting are vital inthe present context of climate change and other environmental threats that we are increasingly facing. They may provide us the way to adapt better and develop a resilient system to face these challenges.
The north eastern part of India, with ten agro-climatic zones,is a storehouse of traditional practices around water and land use. These practices vary from region to region. It may well be the conservation of a sacredspace in the alpine zone (above 3500 meters mean sea level) like the sacred lakes of Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, or a community managed space in temperate sub-alpine areas (between 1500 to 3500 meters mean sea level), or a community water harvesting structure such as the one inUkhrol or in the scared rivers of Garo Hills, or it may also be a community managed shared space under certain common rules in a sub-tropical high land plain ( between 400 to 1000 meters mean sea level), like that of the Apatanis in Zero or the Angami Nagas of Jakhama. There are alsowater management practices with the common principle of sharing it in the mild tropical hills (between 200 to 800 meters mean sea level ), such as in the villages of the Khasi Hills or in Karbi Anglong or Dima Hasao and also in the mild tropical plains ( bellow 200 meters mean sea level), like in the plains of Assam. These are wonderful examples of water-based traditional knowledge systems where only the management regime and tools and techniques change as per need.
Already, the practices of sometribes, like the Dong, Jabo, etc., are widely discussed in conservation and water management literature. But there are more complexitiesin the region that need to be reflected upon and harnessed for wider use. For example, use of bamboo pipes for water transportation is very common in the entire NER but the pattern varies. While half open bamboo pipes are used in the high rainfall areas like Meghalaya, it is the round bamboo pipe with bigger holes that is used in areaswith moderaterainfall, like in the Bhutan–Assam border area. Then, round bamboo pipes with small holesthat give the scope for dripping of water through overflow are used in the Longsor irrigation system under the rain shadow zone of Karbi Anglong, Assam (plate-1).
In fact, there are many villages in the Northeast where the entire land use reflects the adaptation of watershed principles. While the high altitudinal areas within the village havea green cover under the concept of community/village forest which helps in water harnessing and reduces soil loss and erosion, many marshes in the plain areasare maintained as community wetlands. Some areas which get seasonally waterlogged are used as a good source of fodder too. The rest of the areas are used for agriculture and homestead. One of the best examples of such a practice can be seen in the Bodohapur village,a inhabitation of the Rabha community under the Balijana development block of Goalpara in Assam (plate-2). It is noteworthy that in Bodohapur, there are two community managed water bodies used as fisheries, where there are restrictions on fishing. Only twice a year is community fishing organised there. One portion of the total catch is kept for the committee which looks after it. The committee usually sells it and the money is deposited in a fund, which is used for the maintenance of the water bodies and at times also for community work (like, after the 2004 floods, the community repaired the school building with this fund so that their children can resume school going).
Similar principles are also adopted in the Karbi village of Rongchek under the Chingthong development block of Karbi Anglong where only because of the watershed principle base, their traditional Longsor irrigation system is alive (plate-3). Here, the community maintains a sacred forest on top of the hill, the agro-forestry system in the intermediate height, and wet paddy cultivation in the valley part. This land use categorisation helps in harnessing water. Similar practices are seen in the agricultural fields (wet paddy terraces) of Angami Nagas in the Jakhama village of Nagaland (plate-4). It is noteworthy that Angami Nagas are one of the prominent Naga groups who practice wet terrace cultivation traditionally. In Jakhama, the surrounding forest cover around the wet paddy fields maintains the watershed regime critically. This is also seen in the practices of the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh. The surrounding forest and bamboo groves help the Apatanis to protect their soil and supply water with nutrients to the paddy fields where the paddy-cum-fish farming practice isprevalent. Such practices are most pulsating in the Hiza village of Zero in Arunachal Pradesh (plate-5).
In Meghalaya, two distinct practices are observedin variations of slopes -- the dry high land terrace (where bio-char application is traditionally practiced which helps to maintain moisture in the soil) and wet terrace where paddy is the priority crop. The Moblang Khasi village in the West Kashi Hills district of Meghalaya uses it vibrantly (plate-6). Similarly, there are water harvesting practices through small water structures on the difficult high altitudinal hilly areas (as in plate 7) which create links of water between different areas under different height and slope categories.
It is worth mentioning that the practices also vary with the variation of landscape conditions, cultural practices and religious beliefs. For example in Sikkim, particularly in Northern Sikkim, there are sacred lakes like Sango lake, the Elephant Lake, etc. The Sango Lake is also called Tsmgo in Bhutia language, where Tso means lake and Mgo means head, meaning the source of the lake. It lucidly reflects the placement of the lake and its surrounding landscape (plate-8). Similarly, in west Sikkim, the Ranthong Chru tributary and its associated landscape is considered a sacred one and called Demajong, the land of the hidden treasure as per Tibetan Buddhism.
It is worth highlighting here that an interesting practice has evolved in Rombagre in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya through intelligent use of traditional values. River Simsang flows by Rombagre. The river, which originates from the buffer area of the Nokrek biosphere region, runs through both East and West Garo Hills. It flows through South Garo Hills to enter Bangladesh where it is known as Someswari. The river is a haven for many aquatic freshwater species which are endemic to the region. Along its stretches, there are many freshwater fish breeding pools which harbour different species of fish when the river becomes shallow during winter. The fish then typically gather in these pools in search of deeper and suitable places for breeding. Rombagrehas one such natural breeding pool. In olden days, people considered such places as unique creations of the almighty, so some sort of restriction in fish catching was there, which became a part of the local cultural ethics. But with times, people began to break the values to catch the fish. Interestingly, through an intervention under the North Eastern Regoionl Community Resource Management Project for Upland Areas (NeRCOM ), which caters to conservation of biodiversity and generating livelihood, people were sensitised and the old traditional ethics and values were revived. The area was declared a fish sanctuary, a community conserved area, and it was converted to a tourist spot. There is a view point located in the river in Rombagre where from people can observethe fish (plate-9). One has to pay an entry fee to the area and the money collected from it is used mainly for maintenance of the site including the breeding ground of the fish. Some locals are engaged by the community to look after the site.
What has begun in the surroundings and along the road leading to the site is a new means of livelihood for the villagers. They have opened tea stalls and rice flakes sale outlets (used by the visitors to feed the fish). Women sell vegetables grown in their homestead gardens or in jhums, etc. A new way of conservation has not only helped the community to revive their cultural values but use it to create new livelihood opportunities.
New systems are evolving in some other placestoo. For instance, near the Sitabakow village of East Khasi Hills, people designed and constructed a new water harvesting structure with community contribution (plate-10). These structures have been designed in such a way that it is maintained by vegetative covers at an altitude of around 1064 metres. Water reservoirs have been built at an altitude of around 962 metres with outlets to release water in a controlled way to the down slope areas. Village darbars play an important role in building consensus among the villagers to maintain the land use in the up slope so that the watershed principles are maintained. The water reservoirs are also usedto rear fish. Thewater is also used for domestic purposes.Every individual of the village have the right to fishthere but they have to pay a fee of Rs. 25 to the community each time they make a catch. The fee is deposited in the community corpus fund and used for maintenance of the structure, and also for other community related workif required.
These are more such examples where various communities of NER use their traditional knowledge system to maintain the traditional watershed practices. But these traditional practices are facing many modern-day challenges because of policy and development programme interventions which usually overlook traditional knowledge. One such example isthe promotion of cash crops like rubber, promoted as a self-help group venture. Rubber plantation creates conflict with the traditional community institutions over sharing of common land under community ownership, which in turn introduces mono cropping. It changes soil biota and also brings in the changes in the traditional watershed based landscape management principles. The traditional practices face similar challenges with the promotion of stone quarrying, mining etc.in the region. With these challenges sweeping through the region, it has become very important to document such traditional practices along with their economic viabilityin the light of contemporary environmental economics. Efforts should be made to develop a new management and development agenda in the entire region as it was once tried through the NeRCOM pattern of initiatives. Simply because such practices are steeped on the principles of sustainable development that catersto the environmental, economic and social pre-requisites and requires only certain scientific interpretation and improvisation.
Jayanta Kumar Sarma
(Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM.)