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.