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Posted at: Aug 21, 2016, 12:47 AM; last updated: Aug 21, 2016, 12:47 AM (IST)

Giving back to nature

A remote tribe in Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh is showing the way to reconnect with — and preserve — ecology

Swati Rai

In industrialised and ‘advanced’ societies, a happy co-existence of nature with the human race usually appears to be a distant dream, but a tribe in Arunchal Pradesh has provided a glimmer of hope through its extraordinary efforts. The Apatani tribe, through unique sustainable farming methods like rice-cum-fish cultivation system and social forestry system is preserving ecology in a distinctive way. The tribe, with a population of 20,000 is based in Ziro Valley in the Lower Subansiri district in Arunchal Pradesh.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had shortlisted Ziro in 2012 for inclusion in the Tentative List for nomination to Unesco for inscription in the World Heritage Site for “extremely high productivity” and “unique” ways of preserving ecology.

The Apatanis are not nomadic. They have settled in Ziro Valley and practice wetland cultivation without cutting down forests. The area abounds in rice fields. The practice of rearing fish in rice fields serves dual purposes. It prevents worms and larvae to infest the water and also provides manure to the crop. The bunds are used to grow millets and not an inch of land goes waste.

Dr KannoTage, who runs an NGO Ngunu Ziro, shares, “The hills around Ziro Valley act as watershed and they are protected from wanton deforestation. Certain water-retaining species of trees get special protection.”

The Apatanis make the best and optimum use of the resources available to it. The tribe uses indigenous raw material for its food and clothes. The rice farms are irrigated through a series of canals all across the valley that are channelled using running water like natural streams and rivulets.

In an exemplary show of community living, the maintenance of these irrigation canals is periodically undertaken by everyone involved in farming.

Agriculture for the Apatanis is a spiritual practice. Anything which gives life — the sun, the forests, agricultural fields and even houses are considered gods. "There are elaborate rituals to maintain the health of the crops at different stages of their growth," says Kane.

Owing to the scenic beauty of the valley and the unique living habits of the Apatani tribe, the state has seen a rise in the number of eco-tourists and in sustainable tourism. Vaibhav Todi, director, Greener Pastures, an eco-tourism organisation, says, “The tribe’s traditions have valued community cooperation, agriculture and the environment as its core. All matters are resolved peacefully as a community together.

The social forestry system ensures that at least three trees are planted for every tree cut and waste is reused as fertiliser for farms and forests. Hunting is strictly regulated. “The tribe’s thriving in a Himalayan valley as a civilization since numerous centuries right till today is truly remarkable and shows the exceptional abilities of the tribe as a community and their rich knowledge of the environment and living harmoniously alongside it,” says Todi, whose organisation aims at helping the region and its communities witness sustainable development.

No surprises then that the valley is home to numerous homestays today where the direct benefits of tourism goes to both to the hosts and the guests.

The valley also hosts the Ziro Festival of Music which has helped get it the recognition from mainstream urban denizens across the country.

Bird-watching is also being promoted by the locals for the tourism fraternity which has helped educate and reduce their hunting.

The Ziro Valley and its people are more active in responsible tourism rather than ecotourism. The main emphasis of tourism in the valley is the cultural preservation and promotion of the Apatani way of life. “This is because ecology is already an important part of every Apatani’s life and they have, for centuries, respected and lived in harmony with nature.”

Dr Tage, however, doesn't share the same opinion. “At present, tourism at Ziro is at too small a scale to have any effect on the practices or ecology. People are concerned about recently started events like the Ziro Festival of Music. Most participants from outside are bad influence. They don't respect the traditional cultural practices and look down upon the Apatanis as "tribals". Though sponsored by the government, the local people have almost no role in the festival. Also large-scale cash crops plantation, as in other places, is always a threat to the ecology of the place. However, this also is related to unplanned selection of sites for such plantation. Therefore, there has to be a balance between economy and ecology.'

Responsible and planned sustainable tourism should be emphasised in the Ziro Valley, if the preservation of Apatanis cultural and social way of life is to be respected and maintained.

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