Indigenous forest conservation in Mawphlang: how a community protects its forest and generates income from carbon credits

Posted By: Minnie Vaid|Dated: May 22, 2012

The remarkable story of the tiny community of Mawphlang  in India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya illustrates how indigenous people are protecting their watersheds and biodiversity by revitalizing their traditional institutions and culture. Mawphlang’s tribal community is now all set to be the country’s first REDD pilot. REDD or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and (forest) Degradation is a mechanism that allows communities to generate income from carbon credits.

Megaliths marking the boundaries of the Mawphlang Sacred Forest, Meghalaya

O sacred forest, we are so proud of you….people come from all over—East and West– to see you, praise you….you beckon us with your colors, waterfalls, fresh air… your fragrance spreads over all….all rites and rituals are for everyone, to heal all and bring peace and harmony for the whole Hima (domain) and the world—song about Mawphlang’s Sacred Forest, composed and sung at traditional rituals by Pyrshailang Lyngdoh, a native Khasi from the village.

Giant stones or megaliths believed to be 500 years old and a repository of the remains of dead ancestors, mark the boundaries of Mawphlang’s 75 hectare sacred forest, an hour’s drive from the state’s capital city of Shillong. These stones are silent witnesses to numerous traditional beliefs and legends about the sacred forest, revered and preserved by local Khasi (tribal) communities.

“In this forest, you cannot cut any trees or branches—if you do, illness and misfortune will befall you. That is our belief. Fruits, flowers, water used by people (inside the forest only) can make them healthy, there are many medicinal herbs that can cure diseases”, says 43 year old Tambor Lyndoh. As secretary of the Federation of 10  Himas (comprising 4250 households) that have pledged to protect their forests, Tambor Lyngdoh has been spear-heading the indigenous movement of forest conservation in the area since 2005.

Site/stones for rituals performed inside Mawphlang’s Sacred Forest, Meghalaya

Northeast India—the  land of the scenic seven sisters—is still considered one of the world’s “hot-spots” of biodiversity despite alarming levels of  forest degradation that is an inevitable fall-out of  modernization, increased consumerism and population pressures.

In Meghalaya, a state once famous for its thick forests, dwindling forest cover— an annual forest loss as high as 5.6 percent from 2000-2005 in the East Khasi hills district—has spurred communities to take charge of their own forests and their ‘sacred’ legacy. And since forests are largely owned and administered by local communities with their own systems of grassroots governance, revival campaigns have integrated traditional and contemporary practices with astonishing results.

Indigenous community institutions like the Mawphlang Lyngdoh-ship (or village  government council) have successfully introduced measures such as social fencing, regulating fuelwood harvesting and grazing,  using smoke-less chullahs or stoves, switching to higher value stall-fed livestock, controlling forest fires by laying down fire lines in ten meter patches outside the forests and banning mining at  nearby quarries.

As a result, aided by US-based non-profit environmental organization Community Forestry International or CFI, the Mawphlang community has regenerated their forests and set up a federation of Himas that will allow them to earn income from carbon credits. This forest landscape restoration project that includes the Mawphlang Sacred Grove  and covers 62 villages, is now poised to be India’s first REDD pilot. Innovative strategies such as a wildlife corridor, eco-trails and awareness campaigns with schools and colleges are being used to strengthen the intrinsic bond that a Khasi has with the forest.

Tambor Lyngdoh travels from village to village,  organizing  ‘dorbars’ or hamlet discussions, passing on oral traditions of forest conservation to the younger generation, the future custodians of these resources—keeping the past glory alive through ways that serve present needs.

Will the Mawphlang mantra for forest conservation be the starting point of a much larger revival of indigenous people whose forests and cultures are increasingly becoming endangered? 

About the Author

Minnie Vaid wears many hats. She has been a print journalist, starting her career with the Times of India and Illustrated Weekly, moving on to video journalism with India Today’s Newstrack, switching to documentary programmes with Business India television, anchoring and producing ROOTS, an award-winning programme on rural India.

In January 2011 her first book A doctor to defend : the Binayak Sen story was launched by Prof Amartya Sen in India. She has recently completed her second book on rights activist Irom Sharmila.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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  • Debdas

    First REDD  project is fine.All states of India should see & start activity at ones own level.The need of the hour is to carry forward the message to stakeholders.I pray to writters to do the needful.I confirm to write articles of this example for the people of Purba-Medinipur district (WB).Thanks to

  • Tamborlyngdoh

    Thumps up

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