Apatani Village

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Lower Subansiri, Arunachal Pradesh  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  5200  Not Available

Case Study (2009)


The Apatani valley (or the Apatani plateau as it is also called), bifurcated by the river Kele, is located in Arunachal’s Lower Subansiri District (93°57’E to 94°12’E and 27°30’N to 27°40’N). The headquarters of the Lower Subansiri district are located in Ziro, one of the major townships of the Apatani valley. Ziro is well connected by road with Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies at a distance of about 100 km from it. The town is also well connected by taxi service with other district headquarters within the state. The plateau is bowl-shaped surrounded by high hills and interspersed with paddy fields and bamboo–pine groves. Nearly 52 sq km in area, the valley lies at an altitude of 1524 m with temperatures on the cooler side. Although it doesn’t snow, elderly people of the valley remember water freezing up during winters. This does not happen now. The valley lies between the river valleys of Kamla and Khru on the north and Palin on the south. All these rivers eventually drain into the Subansiri river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The villages are situated at the periphery of the circular valley with tropical evergreen, sub-tropical grassland formation, and sub-tropical evergreen forests. The higher altitudes have vegetation like east Indian almond, dhale katus, siriasing, amari, chaplash, kanak champa, sal and hirda, ferns, orchids and araceous species. Red silk cotton tree, screw-pine and the rare species Hyptianthera stricta occur along the banks of the river and along the streams. Apatanis have extensively planted rawami and bamboo in the surrounding hillocks as sources of material for construction of houses and household articles. The occurrence of Himalayan white pine is shrouded in mystery as it does not grow anywhere else in this area. The Apatanis claim that their ancestors brought them from Central Mongolia when they migrated, a place that they believe they originate from. The fauna comprises the tiger, golden cat, large Indian civet, spotted linsang, common palm civet, Himalayan palm civet, jackal, Indian elephant, sambar, barking deer, gaur, Indian wild boar, Assamese macaque and capped langur. The area witnesses copious rainfall throughout the year at an average of 3000 mm.

High precipitation and fertile soils have helped in the growth of luxuriant vegetation. The forest types broadly are of sub-tropical broad-leaved, temperate broad-leaved, and temperate conifer types, depending on altitude. In several places, forests are dense with a profuse growth of epiphytes (mainly orchids and ferns). The hilly terrain in the valley is covered with forests and bamboo-pine groves, while the flat valley is used for paddy cultivation and pisciculture. Approximately 10 per cent of the forests in the Apatani valley are under government control, legally categorised as unclassed state forests (USF). The rest are under the control of family, clan or the community (village). These lands are managed according to traditional rules governing allocation, use and transfer. The community inhabiting the Apatani valley in Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat unique in its traditional wisdom and practices. Furer Heimendorf in his earlier writings in the mid-1940s mentions seven Apatani villages. Recent articles put the number of villages in the valley at around twenty. The population continues to be confined to the central regions of the Apatani plateau around the old Ziro or Hapoli township, former headquarters of the district. Inhabitants of this valley are named variously—Onka Miri, Ankas, Apa Tanang, etc.—collectively called as the Apatani (Apa means regard and Tani means human race). Apatanis, cohabit with other tribal groups called Nishis and Hill Miris; but unlike them, they live in nuclear families. They are divided into a number of clans and each clan lives in a clearly defined part of the village. They worship the sun (Donyi) and the moon (Polo) and there are several fascinating myths attached to their deities and their origin which serves to reinforce their uniqueness as compared to the neighbouring communities. Almost all their festivals are even today connected to nature conservation and community welfare.

The value of land use decreases with its distance from the centre and paddy fields, and the pine and bamboo grown nearer to the house site are prized more than the ones some distance away, the reason being that the Apatanis allow organic waste generated from domestic refuse to mix through small channels with the water that flows from the hill slopes into the paddy fields, which makes the water quality richer in terms of organic nutrients in fields closer to the village.

A study of the agricultural system followed by the Apatanis reveals an indigenous and scientific system which provides them with surplus paddy to be bartered with the neighbouring communities. The Apatanis are known for their intensive permanent cultivation practices, wherein every available inch of land is utilised to the maximum extent possible: wet rice cultivation, where paddy stands in water throughout the season, enables them to practice pisciculture in the same small terraced fields. Because of the fish, they refrain from the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. On the raised edges of the terraces, which normally remain dry, they grow finger millet.

Some salient features of their agricultural methods are:

  • The laying out of fields on the hill slopes in such a way that the water flowing down the hill can be channelled inside the fields using an intricate design of contour bunds that divide the plots.
  • Prudent use of water emerging from forest water sources and ground water, which erupts through springs, to cultivate paddy twice a year (one ripening early and the other late in the year). One set is permanently inundated under water; the other dries out and hardens after the harvest is over.
  • Use of human faecal matter and pig and fowl droppings and decomposed stubble of the last harvest to act as a fertiliser for their crops.
  • The practice of aquaculture by digging a vertical pit in the centre of the paddy field and introducing fingerlings a month after paddy transplantation is yet another unique Apatani practice. During August and September, the water is drained out and the fish is harvested.
  • The cultivation of two varieties of millet, one on the bunds of the paddy fields and the other in open dry fields is a peculiarity of the Apatanis.

The only inputs to the agricultural system are human labour and organic wastes generated by the community, as a result of which the energy efficiency of the system is very high.

Almost every household in the Apatani valley maintains a kitchen garden where beans, chillies, tobacco, cucumber, taro, ginger, potato, tomato and coarse type of spinach are grown. The Apatani households also rear semi-domesticated mithun, pigs and fowls, which provide them with an essential protein supplement. Pigs are considered as a very necessary sanitary institution, as they feed on human faecal matter. It is interesting to observe that the Apatanis depend upon the neighbouring communities (the Nishis and Hill Miris) to graze their cattle as their landscape is better suited for the purpose.

Surrounded (geographically) by hostile Nishi tribesmen, the Apatanis wanted to keep inter-village and inter-tribal disputes to a minimum and formal treaties of friendship between villages formed a fundamental part of their political system.4 In the likelihood of disputes arising over boundaries of forest lands (irrespective of ownership), three poles of (usually) bamboo about 3–4 feet long are erected in a vertical criss-cross manner to depict a dapo at negotiated boundaries of such areas.5 The dapo still has relevance today, with an added element of threat as resource crunches become more prevalent6.

The practice of buning or the making of ceremonial friends also helped diffuse inter and intravillage tensions. Bunings were normally from other clans and tribes. Buning can be inherited: they are made after long periods of friendship and the relationship is accorded formal status by inviting bunings to feast at the Mloko festival. Relations are considered severed if a buning is not invited to a feast.

Some dispute settlement mechanisms in the past, which have continued till recent times, include systems of oaths and ordeals. To a great extent, these systems kept crime and disputes within the community to a minimum, as ordeals were generally severe. If the village authorities were unable to resolve disputes by negotiations and mediation, the practice of ordeals was resorted to. Several taboos are associated with felling of certain trees and animals. There is a need to document these practices.

Performances of private and religious rites are common in the villages and these take place quite often as a part of ceremonies such as weddings or funerals, or reasons as common as an illness in the family, commencement of house building, a fire in the village, or a personal crisis. During festivals and religious ceremonies, entry into forests for cutting firewood or extraction of other resources is not permitted.7 During special ceremonies held at home, members of the family are not allowed to leave the premises of the house for a period of up to seven days. Violation of these norms is considered taboo. The Apatanis perform a seasonal rite in July/August in the name of Yapun, god of thunder. The performance of this rite is believed to ward off the danger of damaging the crop from hailstorms. No villager is allowed to go beyond the cultivated areas—i.e., to the forests—during the ten days following the performance of these rites. Breach of these rules could lead to hailstorms damaging the crops. These rites and restrictions are followed till date.

The Apatani’s way of life reveals a remarkably developed management system for sustainable use of bio-resources which is based entirely on their indigenous knowledge and innovations. However, the elders of the village (gaon buras) express concern over the changing trends in the valley, which include:

  • Introduction of exotic varieties of rice at subsidised rates by the government. This has led to decrease in growth of local varieties. The elders feel that these imported varieties were not suited to their soil.
  • The village forests have had the legal status of unclassed state forests. In Arunachal, most unclassed forests have disputed claims: while some consider these to be government lands, local people consider these as community owned lands. The state government is increasingly bringing more unclassed forests under their Aanchal Forest scheme,8 under which the management of the forest rests with the forest department and the revenue is shared between the Department and the community. The Apatanis do not see any reason why they should share the revenue from what has been their land since times immemorial.
  • The local people are upset about the fact that their ancestral lands were declared reserved forests by the government in 1976. The villagers had no information about this. According to them no process of settlement of rights was undertaken. In fact, one clan in the valley has filed a case in Guwahati High Court against the government, claiming that these lands have belonged to the clan for generations.
  • Tale Valley Sanctuary was declared in 1995 in a part of the reserved forest. The villagers claim that parts of the sanctuary include their traditional lands. The local people are extremely upset about the fact that first the reserved forest and then the wildlife sanctuary were declared without any consultations with the local communities.
  • To reinforce their claim on the forests, the Apatani community has started erecting boards in their forests with a warning statement saying that a fine will be levied in case of violation of local rules and stealing of their resources.
  • In 1993, the Apatanis formed village forest protection committees, with the involvement of the youth. According to the community members the idea about forming this committee came after a realisation that outside influences and cultural factors such as diminishing effects of taboos and social restrictions following modern education were causing rampant destruction of forests.

Over many generations Apatanis have evolved an intricate system of natural resource management. These include efficient forestry and agricultural skills. There is a strong sense of belonging even today because of the critical cultural, religious and biomass dependence on the ecosystem. Under the influence of modern education and changing socio-cultural scenario, some of the traditions seem to have weakened. However, the fact that the villagers have realised the damage such changes can bring about to their ecosystem and have initiated the village forest protection committees is a strong indication that community-based conservation can be a success in the area if the right conditions are provided. One such condition could be a positive wildlife conservation policy, which would take into account people’s participation in the management and protection of the ecosystem rather than alienating them by creating conflicts, such as creation of the sanctuary without their consent or information.

  This case study has been put together by Ruchi Pant. The material for the case study has been    extracted from S. Chatterjee, S. Dey, A.R.K. Sastri and R.S. Rana, Conservation and Sustainable Use of    Natural Bioresources: A case study on Apatanis in Arunachal Pradesh (World Wide Fund for Nature, New Delhi,  2000); R. Pant, ‘Conflicts, Resolution and Institutions in Forest Resources Management:  Experiences from   the traditional mountain communities of Arunachal Pradesh’, in K.Seeland and F.  Schmithusen (eds.) Man   in the Forest (Delhi, D.K.Print World (P) Ltd., 2000); People’s Commission on  Environment and Development, ‘Report on Public Hearing on Environment and Development’ (New Delhi, The People’s Commission on Environment and Development, 2002). 

Ruchi Pant
16 Deshbandhu Apartments,
Kalkaji, New Delhi 110019.
Tel.: 011- 251603984, 09810845648 (mobile)
E-mail: [email protected]

1. Several agencies such as the G.B. Pant Institute for Himalayan Environment and Development, Arunachal Unit, World Wide Fund for Nature – Arunachal office, State Forest Research Institute, Botanical Survey of India, etc., have already surveyed the place. Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, a social anthropologist, spent long periods of time in the region many decades ago, and wrote several books on the Apatanis.
2. In these cases, families bury their dead in their cultivated lands within a special enclosure.
3. Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, A Himalayan Tribe: From Cattle to Cash (Berkeley, California,University of California Press, 1980).
4.  von Furer-Haimendorf, A Himalayan Tribe. As above.
5. These days the literate in the community have started writing a note of warning that mentions the punishment and the fines a violation would attract on a wooden plaque affixed at the center of the structure.
6. Personal communications with the elders of Hang village during field work in 1985.
7. The period of abstinence during the Mloko festival is known as anyodo.
8. A scheme under which forests are managed jointly by the forest department and the local community. The local communities see this as an effort by the department to assert their rights in areas which are the strongholds of the communities and considered by the communities as their own.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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