Khonoma Village

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Kohima, Nagaland ForestSpecies Protection
 2000 Community Owned

Case Study (2009)

Background

Khonoma village is located about 20 km from the state capital, Kohima. The village, referred to as Khwunoria (named after the Angami term for a local plant, Glouthera fragrantisima), is estimated to be around 700 years old and is spread over an area of 123sq.km. The total population of the village is about 3000, settled in 600 households. Khonoma is famous for its forests and a unique form of agriculture, including some of the oldest terraced cultivation in the region. The terrain of the village is hilly, ranging from gentle slopes to steep and rugged hillsides. The hills are covered with lush forestland, rich in various species of flora and fauna. The state bird, Blyth’s tragopan, a pheasant now nationally endangered, is reprtedly found here.

Over a hundred years ago, advancing British troops found themselves facing a determined warrior tribe in the highlands of Nagaland. The Angami men of Khonoma, famed for their martial prowess and strategic skills, fought a resolute battle to safeguard their territory, inflicting heavy casualties on the foreign soldiers. The village is recorded to have resisted British rule in the region from 1830s to 1880. Finally a truce between the two stopped further bloodshed, but meanwhile Khonoma village had etched its name into the history of Indian resistance to the colonial invasion. Christianity was introduced in the village in 1890, and today most of the villagers are of this faith.

Preliminary ecological studies done so far record the use of about 250 plant species, including over 70 for medicinal purposes, 84 kinds of wild fruits, 116 kinds of wild vegetables, nine varieties of mushrooms, and five kinds of natural dyes from the surrounding forests in the village. Local people have recorded about 204 species of trees, nearly 45 varieties of orchids, 11 varieties of cane, and 19 varieties of bamboo. Villagers also record 25 types of snakes, six kinds of lizards, 11 kinds of amphibians and 196 kinds of birds (of which English names for 87 have been identified, including the grey-billed or Blyth’s tragopan, a threatened bird mentioned in the red data book of IUCN). 72 kinds of wild animals have also been reported by the local people; however English and scientific names for all have not been recorded yet. These include tiger, leopard, serow, sloth bear, Asiatic black bear and common otter.1

Today, Khonoma is witnessing another historic struggle. In an incident reminiscent of the British invasion, in the mid-1990s the villagers had to physically resist timber merchants who came with several dozen elephants to carry out logging, unfortunately aided by some insiders. Over the last decade Khonoma, inhabited by the Angamis, one of Nagaland’s tribes, has made giant strides in establishing or strengthening systems of natural resource management, conflict resolution, village administration and appropriate development, all coupled with a resolute will to conserve biodiversity and wildlife. All this is embedded in the traditional ethos of the village, without fighting shy of experimenting with new technologies and thoughts from outside. The results are impressive enough to warrant yet another key historic place for this village, this time in the annals of India’s environmental movement.

Wildlife hunting is a way of life with the Naga tribes, and a large number of birds and animals are killed every year, including the endangered tragopans. In 1993, 300 Tragopans were reported to be killed for their meat in the village. This magnitude of killing concerned the more ecologically sensitive people of the village and they launched a crusade against hunting. These included some villagers and some who belonged to the village but now resided and were employed outside.

In 1998, the Khonoma village council declared its intention to notify about 2000 ha (20 sq km) as the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). This was motivated by some of the village elders, notably Tsilie Sakhrie, who had in the 1980s been a contractor dealing with the Forest Department. During this time he had been having discussions with forest officer T. Angami, who motivated him to consider dedicating a part of the village forests to wildlife conservation. In the 1980s, Tsilie proposed that the village do something to this effect, but could not achieve a consensus. In 1995, he became a member of the village council. Concerned by the high number of birds being killed every year, Tsilie again broached the subject. A number of villagers were opposed to the idea, since hunting was so much a part of their culture. However, over the next three years, through extensive discussions in the village, the majority were convinced. The sanctuary’s foundation stone was laid in December 1998; it was also decided to ban hunting in the entire village, not only the sanctuary area.

Not content with simple declaration of the sanctuary, the village set up a KNCTS Trust, with a formal set of rules and regulations. Office bearers were chosen from amongst the villagers; Tsilie was chosen the chief managing director. Rules were laid down for the management of the sanctuary, including penalties for violations, ranging from Rs 300-3000, depending on the seriousness of the violation. The village youth were requested to carry out monitoring and to levy fines, which they could then use for their own village-based activities. Villagers also selected some youth members to be the wardens for the sanctuary, to periodically check on the sanctuary. As the concept of a sanctuary was new to the villagers, they decided to seek help from the government, NGOs and other institutions in order to seek technical and academic support for protecting their sanctuary.

NGOs such as the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), North-east Regional Cell, assisted in spreading awareness about the conservation of tragopans. A six-member team of KNCTS was given an orientation about the sanctuary. A number of environmental awareness expeditions were organised for village members. The importance of having a village map, land records, and a survey of flora and fauna were explained to the villagers. Community members visited Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary2 in Assam to share experiences with other similar efforts and visited Kaziranga National Park to understand the issues related to protected area management. NGOs like EQUATIONS (based in Bangalore) have helped the local Khonoma Tourism Development Board to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of tourism, in case the village goes in for a much larger visitor influx. Another NGO, Aranyak (based in Guwahati), has helped the villagers conduct a survey of fauna and flora in KNCTS.

Conservation is only one of the elements of social empowerment at Khonoma. Visitors to the village are confronted with a bewildering number of activities and processes that its residents seem to be engaged in. Some of these are new, some age-old. Khonoma may well be the only village in India that has a global citizenry with an active self-identity; every year, 1 September is celebrated as the village’s ‘birthday’, with Khonomaians from far and wide coming to the village to celebrate, or carrying out celebrations wherever they may be. There are even Khonoma student unions in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi!

Given its historic past, Khonoma also plays host to many tourists; it is on the tourist circuit of those who visit Kohima. Some years ago the Government of India recognised the potential of the village to organise itself, and granted it a substantial Green Village fund through the Tourism Department of the state government. The money is being used to provide basic civic amenities and hygiene measures, reinforce community infrastructure, and prepare the village to receive and show visitors its past and present.

Khonoma is also well-known in agricultural circles for its sophisticated cultivation techniques. In shifting cultivation, farmers use Nepal alder (Alnus nepalensis) trees interspersed with the crops. These trees return nitrogen to the soil, thereby helping the land to rapidly regain fertility when farmers abandon it to move on to the next plot. The village overlooks a wide valley that 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.has been converted into terraced fields, made with such precision that their productivity has apparently remained stable over centuries. According to the villagers, Khonoma is also home to over sixty varieties of rice, and a diversity of millets, maize, Job’s tears, citrus fruits and other crops (grown without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers). All this has made the village a model for emulation in many other parts of Nagaland through the efforts of the unique inter-departmental Nagaland Empowerment of People through Economic Development (NEPED) programme. This is especially useful where shifting cultivation has become unsustainable due to shorter cycles of leaving the land fallow after cultivation.

Amongst the factors that makes all this tick is the strong and clear ownership of land and natural resources within the village boundaries. Such ownership provides a strong stake in working out sustainable modes of land management. But this would not be enough in itself (for such ownership could also result in individuals destroying their lands), were it not coupled with very strong social and political organisations. The village is divided into three hamlets (khels), each with several clans, each clan comprised of several families. The clan is itself a decision-making unit, and selects members to represent itself in larger village-level bodies. These include the village council (which is overall responsible for all affairs), the Village Development Board (recipients of government funds for developmental purposes) and the ruffono, a recent innovation to bring all village institutions under a common umbrella. Traditional institutions such as decision-making by the gaon buras (village elders) have been integrated into the village council’s decision-making. The youth are part of either a student union or a youth association; the women are members of the Khonoma Women’s Organisation. In addition, all villagers are part of an ‘age group’. Such groups are formed by boys and girls in the age group 12-15, and carry out social activities like construction of rest-houses and village paths, and formation of singing and dancing groups. The bond lasts a lifetime; members stick together till they are into their 60s and 70s!

Citizens of the village who move out in search of employment always remain connected to the village in some form and contribute to its well-being whenever possible.

 

The area included in the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) is of outstanding value from a biodiversity, water security and aesthetic point of view. On the map it is about 20 sq km, but if the contours are accounted for, the area may be 70 sq km, comprising exquisite broad-leaved forests and dwarf bamboo grasslands. It is part of the Dzuku valley, which, though not many people would know this, was immortalised by Vikram Seth in his poem ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’. The poem is about how the wild animals of the valley try to stop a proposed dam that would drown out their valley, reflecting an actual movement by NGOs in Nagaland against such a proposal in the 1990s. The idea of the dam has been replaced by a pipeline proposal, to take water from here to Kohima, a project that would hopefully have little ecological impact.

Dzuku is home to a healthy population of the severely endangered state bird, the Blyth’s tragopan (a pheasant). For this and other reasons, the Bombay Natural History Society considers it one of India’s Important Bird Areas. Dzuku and surrounding forests also contain considerable other wildlife, including Asiatic black bear. There are over 40 species of orchids, apart from hundreds of other plant species, the endemic Dzuku lily, serow, sambar, leopard, and so on. Till recently, all these species had dwindled alarmingly due to hunting and habitat pressures. Villagers assert that they are now again increasing due to their conservation efforts; in fact crop damage by wild pigs has become a menace! The hunting ban seems to be highly effective; less than 10 violations have been reported in the last few years.

Tsilie and others are now proposing an extension of the sanctuary to neighbouring forests that are currently seen as a ‘buffer zone’. Currently no hunting or extraction of timber is allowed in the buffer. If accepted by the council, the area (on map) would increase to over 3000 hectares (30 sq km), which on the ground would translate to over 10,000 hectares (100 sq km). And Tsilie in his capacity as the president of the Western Angami Public Organisation (an institution that contains the entire western Angami tribal population) is already discussing with the Southern Angami Public Organisation to declare their areas also protected. Work could also be done to convince Naga tribes in adjoining Manipur, since the Khonoma citizens have relations extending into those villages. If successful, the entire Dzuku and Japfu area could be declared a community protected area, extending to perhaps several hundred square kilometres.

There are, of course, blemishes aplenty. Women obviously do command a great deal of respect, and reportedly are very influential at the household level, or through their own committee, but they do not occupy formal positions in most of the decisive institutions such as the village council. Although villagers have stopped hunting in their own village, they still occasionally hunt outside, though apparently this too is on the decline. The capacity to handle tourists seems rather limited, and there is a worry that a large-scale influx could be counter-productive: hence the importance of the tourism EIA mentioned above. Ironically, the ban on hunting has created a problem of crop damage by wild pigs and other wildlife, for which the village is contemplating selective lifting of the ban, but residents are worried about whether this may have other negative consequences. An increasing tendency to plant cash crops in the jhum (shifting cultivation) and terraced fields is reportedly leading to loss of agricultural biodiversity. Documentation of the area’s biodiversity is rather minimal, a start having only recently been made by the biologist Firoz Ahmed of Aranyak, in association with some of the village youth. Marvelling at the level of traditional knowledge, Firoz reports that of the 20 species of frogs and toads he found in Khonoma, 14 were already reported by villagers!

Khonoma’s conservation initiative is all the more noteworthy if one looks at the enormous decline of wildlife across Nagaland in the last few decades. Hunting has been rampant, according to one resident perhaps fueled by the jump in firearms availability since a truce was declared between the Nagas and the Indian army in 1997. The tribes here eat virtually everything that moves, and though this may not have earlier damaged wildlife populations due to limited hunting technologies, it has of late assumed severely destructive proportions. Khonoma’s effort assumes even greater significance because it is only one of dozens of similar initiatives across Nagaland. Many settlements in Phek and Kohima districts have displayed notice boards warning would-be hunters of severe penalties, declaring community forest reserves with stringent restrictions on resource use, and so on. Slowly but surely, wild animals are making a comeback, a phenomenon that even a decade back seemed virtually impossible (see other case studies on Nagaland in this volume for details).

  This case study has been compiled by Neema Pathak, based on information sent by Tsilie Sakhrie, a social worker from Khonoma village; information collected during a field trip to Khonoma village by Ashish Kothari, Neema Pathak and Shantha Bhushan of Kalpavriksh in February 2005; A. Kothari, ‘The Khonoma Magic: A Nagaland Village Leads the Way’ Hindu Survey of Environment 2005; and Environment Impact Assessment Report, Khonoma Tourism Development Board, November 2004. 

Tsilie Sakhri and Mhiesizokho Zinyu
Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary
M. Zinyu, c/o T.U. Building, Opposite NST Complex, Kohima – 797001
Tel: 0370-2290256 (R) 0370-2100204

Charles Chasie
Centre for Democracy and Tribal Studies and Khonoma Tourism Board
Kohima, Nagaland
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 0370-2290453/2290455

1 Environmental Society Of Nagaland, ‘Birds Of Nagaland’ (unpublished, 2002); M.F. Ahmed, ‘Biodiversity of Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary, Nagaland’, in Aranyak and KNCTS, Environment Impact Assessment Report with reference to Eco-development, Natural Reseource management and Social Capital for the village community of Khonoma, Nagaland (Khonoma Tourism Development Board, 2004).
2 A wildlife sanctuary in Assam, declared for conservation of the golden langur (Presbytis geei) at the behest of the local people.

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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