About 15 years back, working as a travel agent in Delhi, Jibi Pulu would ferry eager tourists to picturesque Arunachal Pradesh set amid the lofty Eastern Himalayas with rich and varied flora and fauna. But the mindless destruction of the ecology prompted him to return to his roots to save the environment. Today, his conservation efforts have transformed the local community from exploiters of natural resources to protectors of Mother Nature.
Jibi’s endeavours have resulted in the establishment of a community conserved area (CCA) covering two villages of 90 households of the Idu-Mishmi tribe in Lower Dibang district of east Arunachal.
Jibi says while there are community conserve areas in Arunachal, they are all in the western part. The conserve area set-up by Jibi is the first in the eastern part of the state and is the first grassland CCA in the country.
About 26 major tribes and 100 sub-tribes reside in the state. Among the main tribes are Adi, Nyshi, Mishmi, Singpho, Galo, Tagin and Apatani. The Mishmi tribe has three sub-tribes, namely Idu-Mishmi, Digaru-Mishmi and Miju-Mishmi.
Jibi, who himself is an Idu-Mishmi, says he was often vexed with the thought of how to mesh conservation with economic opportunity.
“It’s easy to talk of conservation. But it’s not possible to wean a person away from exploiting natural resources or hunting down animals unless you can provide an economically-viable alternative,” he says.
Jibi believes that development brings its own hazards such as the exploitation of resources, unregulated growth and construction and cheating of locals.
Being from the travel trade, Jibi worked on linking tourism to conservation so that the locals could earn a sustainable livelihood.
Over years of study and interaction with other environmentalists, he zeroed in on the eco-tourism model that was a win-win for the community as well as the environment. “For centuries, the indigenous people have been living in harmony with nature. In our culture, we do hunt but for our sustenance and we do not sell meat,” he says.
However, with western education and a modern lifestyle, people moved away from their cultural roots. “They began to hunt for commercial purposes and poaching of animals became quite common. Felling of trees was also widespread,” he says. This provoked him to begin his conservation drive.
His idea is to promote voluntourism and research tourism along with other activities that will make the local community stakeholders in its development.
Voluntourism will involve volunteers from all over the world visiting Arunachal and living and working with the community and paying for the experience.
Research tourism will involve students from schools and universities visiting the area and learning about the flora and fauna, and conservation efforts.
From exploiters to protectors
The concept of a community conserved area is not new in Arunachal. There are nine community conserved areas in the state that have been declared over the past 15 years, covering about 1500 sq km of forests. The concept of a community conserved area is found in the provisions of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
It is a protected region in which the flora, fauna and culture and traditions of the local community are preserved.
The community conserved area gives the local community custodianship and user rights over the area’s natural resources.
The local community gets direct livelihood benefits from activities such as tourism, operating homestays, promoting local art, culture, handicrafts and cuisine, treks and nature trails. The reserve is managed by a Community Reserve Management Committee with representatives of the local community.
After his return to Roing in 2008, Jibi started meeting with his tribe people and holding interactions with the young and old, men and women and reasoning with them to turn their area into a protected area for preserving the ecology of the region.
The community had many doubts, especially regarding how they would earn their livelihood. Most people in the area do subsistence agriculture and contractual jobs for the government.
To convince them, Jibi took a few young men and community elders to Kaziranga to show them how the conservation model would work.
He even sent one of his brothers to study a conservation model in Malaysia so the good practices could be adopted here. Eventually, the community agreed to his exhortations and gave their consent.
In the traditional culture of the Mishmis, nature is part of divinity.
“We revere animals and forests. There is no group hunting and there are prescribed codes for hunting that are laid down by the Shaman (priest),” he says.
Even after hunting, the meat cannot be sold. It is to be shared with the clan. “I am trying to revive our traditional knowledge and wisdom and encourage people to adopt the old, eco-friendly way of living,” he says.
Creating a community of conservationists
In his work, Jibi has associated with several other organisations that are working in Arunachal on environment protection.
Jibi has several volunteers and researchers from all parts of India and even abroad who work under his guidance.
The researchers conduct a count of wildlife in the Lower Dibang area and document the flora and fauna which is an important part of the conservation effort. The researchers are paid by the NGOs with whom they are associated.
The volunteers are local boys from the Mishmi tribe who are working under the field biologists and researchers in their documentation work. They help in collecting data, monitoring the area and go for patrolling, setting up camera traps that captures photos of the animals.
Jibi’s efforts on the ground won him the gold medal at the Indian responsible tourism awards 2020. However, Jibi did not go to receive the award.
His logic is simple. “I am not doing this to earn a livelihood. This is my passion. I am doing this because I care for the environment, for the planet.”
Within the conserved area, Jibi plans to start tourism-related activities such as homestays, food art and culture shows, handicrafts exhibitions, treks and nature trails through which the locals will benefit.
The community conserved area has a management committee to look after the overall management of conserved area as well to liaise with collaborators and funding agencies. Team of experts from various fields will assist the management committee as technical advisor.
Jibi also brought in experts to educate the locals on the flora and fauna and ecology of the region, trained them as tourist guides, in management and operations to run homestays and other skills to provide jobs to the locals and earn a sustainable livelihood.
Jibi has also set up the Mishmi Hill Camp in Roing, a small eco-lodge where nature lovers can stay and experience the wildlife.
The lodge has five rooms built in the traditional style where visitors can revel in the lap of nature. They can learn about the local people, culture and cuisine and go for treks, walks or bird watching.
Jibi conducts awareness camps and birding workshops in association with the Bombay Natural History Society and several other organisations. He has employed a few local men and women to manage the lodge and pays them a modest salary.
The ecology hotspot
The state is blessed with diverse flora and fauna.
Arunachal Pradesh is among the 18 “biodiversity hotspots” in the world. Around 5,000 species of flowering plants are found here of which 238 are endemic to the state.
It has over 500 varieties of orchids. The state also abounds with wildlife with more than 500 species of fauna including tigers, leopards, clouded leopards, snow leopards, golden cats and marbled cats.
Elephants and tigers abound in the thick, grassy foothills. The hollock gibbon, red panda and musk deer are found in the higher ranges. The Mithun, a bovine species found in the northeast, play a vital role in the socio-economic and cultural life of the tribal population. The Mishmi takin is a goat-antelope that is native to Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan and China.
It has an amazing variety of avifauna with over 650 bird species including the Great Indian Hornbill, the Mishmi Wren Babbler and the Bangle Florican which are found only in Arunachal Pradesh.
Over time, factors such as fragmentation of natural habitats, deforestation, Jhum cultivation, timber felling, hunting, soil erosion and urbanization have led to a loss of biodiversity.
Return to the roots
Jibi grew up in Roing town in Dibang Valley. His parents were farmers and were illiterate. But they educated their five children who are all well-settled now.
Jibi studied initially in the village school then went to Delhi for higher studies and later worked in a travel agency. However, he was keen to return home after he saw how development efforts were wreaking havoc in the area.
Most of the tribes in Arunachal follow either Buddhism or practise animism.
But with education, development and modernisation, people have forgotten the old practices that were aimed at protecting the environment. “Modern education changed the outlook of people. Now they see everything as a resource to be exploited and not to be protected. This has led to the destruction of natural habitats,” he says.
Hunting and poaching became widespread as outsiders lured locals with money to hunt animals which led to a decline in animal numbers.
It was thus that Jibi began working at the grassroots level within his community to educate them and create awareness about the need for conservation.
He hopes in the coming years, other villages too will take up the eco-tourism model. “I am showing them a successful model. I can guide them but ultimately it is up to them to take the initiative to save our planet,” he signs off.
First published by 30 Stades on 3 Jun. 2022