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This is a continuation of my previous post regarding MMES. For those who haven’t please read that post first

 

I left for Assam within a week of the tragic terror attacks in Mumbai. This naturally got my family and friends jittery as Assam itself did not have a very good reputation for being a safe place. Frankly I was a bit nervous too as I had no idea what the current situation was in the Bodo dominated area of Manas NP. Nonetheless I continued as I knew that outside perception was bound to be obscured, and the reason why I chose to travel to the North East in the first place was to eradicate these perceptions. The journey was a long arduous one, with the last leg from Pathsala to the remote village of Lwkhi Bazaar being the most exciting one. As is the case in any remote part of India the bus was choco block with people carrying paraphernalia of all imaginable type. Everything from vegetables, to livestock, dish antenna to bed were squeezed into the overflowing bus. I was amazed that the rickety bus hadn’t come apart yet. The apathetic condition of the road added more adventure to our journey, especially when the bus was near about to topple forcing everybody to do an emergency evacuation. After four painful hours and a couple of emergency evacuations I reached finally reached Lwkhi Bazzar, my home for the next three months.

The first ten days were truly a testing period for me. Since all the volunteers were busy with their own work I was left to get bored on my own. There were times when I felt that I was simply wasting my time over here and that I should just leave from this place to travel somewhere else. Irregular meal timings, no breakfasts, short days, even the smallest factors became a battle with the self.  The only saving grace at this point of time was my inclination towards butterflies. I spent most of my mornings walking in the forest, observing and photographing butterflies. These multi coloured winged beauties simply captivated me. In the evenings at least I had company, as everybody would gather at the office to chat about the happenings of the day. Quite a few of us used to stay together at their guesthouse cum office so it was always lively during night time.

Things picked up steam after my first formal meeting with the cabinet members of the NGO. After a brief introduction from both sides it was decided that I would teach computers to the NGO staff, formalize their accountancy system and initiate the kids at a nearby school to the world of computers, during my stay over here. From the following week I started my nouveau venture of introducing the kids to the wired world. In the initial stages language barrier posed bit of a challenge, but as the classes progressed we understood each other quite well. Once they were comfortable with the mouse, they were absolutely thrilled to be able to draw and play games on the computer, always looking forward to their morning class. It was an enriching experience for me as well as for them.  Frankly teaching the NGO staff basic computers proved to be the bigger challenge. I literally had to coax them to sit and learn computers with me, and even towards the end remained unsuccessful at that.  

By this time I had broken the ice with the NGO volunteers, winning over their complete trust. Our friendship bonds strengthened daily, making them to treat me like a family member . I found it hard to believe that at one point of time these very people were dreaded insurgents, albeit out of desperate circumstances. Today though you can see a complete transformation in them , having returned back to their cultural way of life. They are such a warm and friendly community that it’ a pity the outside world still has negative perceptions about the Bodos.  At about this time I started visiting their protection camps in the national park with my good friend Kalen. This presented me with a great opportunity to travel extensively in the park .The Dewmari camp situated in the lap of the Bhutan hills soon became my favourite one. Whenever there was an opportunity I would go to Dewmari , from where I would trek to the Bhutan hills with one of their guards.  One such trip to their western most camp of Kahitema proved to be an adventurous one. While on our way back after picking up some of the conservation guards, a drunkard cyclist was standing in the middle of a narrow bend. Despite seeing us approach he stood planted in the middle as a result our driver had to swerve the Tata Mobile at the very last minute. In slow motion our Tata Mobile toppled to the left side as we helplessly tossed inside. Luckily there were some banana trees on the periphery which broke our fall and not our bones. All of us were lucky enough to come out unscratched. Thirty minutes of pushing and grunting got the Tata Mobile back on all its fours. As though this wasn’t enough the gearbox started giving us some problems , further down the road. At one point we were going to abandon our vehicle, requesting another vehicle to pick us up. But our resourceful driver managed to temporarily fix the issue, albeit the vehicle had to be driven only in the second gear.

New Year' party

New Year' party

Being peak tourist season I often found myself in the company of tourists. It was always an interesting affair to interact with them , exchanging our thoughts and ideas besides a warm log fire. On a few occasions the dance troupe would showcase their cultural dances enthralling the audiences. The welcome dance, the butterfly dance, the warrior dance , each one having it’ own story and significance. Sometimes members of other NGOs who were working in that area would also stay at the Jungle Camp. Most of them became very fast friends and useful contacts for working on other projects in the North East.  Forged an especially deep friendship with Dilip, who was doing a commendable job of grooming the youth of Assam to start their own business. He used to have training programs in places from where ULFA were recruiting cadets, so that the youth could channel their energies to more constructive use.

This was the first time I was ever working with a community at a grassroots level. It was a completely different ball game from the maniacal ways of the corporate world. Sometimes working with the communities would mean sitting down and chatting over endless cups of tea. This would not amount to work in the corporate world but is extremely important for bonding and understanding the ways of the community. I soon learnt that planning for work was an exercise in futility causing tons of frustration. When working with them it was necessary to have a more fluid approach to work by dynamically altering the time, quantum and methodology of work. It was pointless to have any expectations either from myself or from them, the only thing that mattered was to work with them. While teaching the kids I continuously had to be innovative as I had to overcome not only the teaching barrier but also the communication barrier. I absolutely loved being in their company and enjoyed teaching them the most. In comparison teaching computers to the NGO staff turned out to be an uphill task, having to expend most of my energy in motivating them.

The school kids

The school kids

My three month stint did teach me a lot of things, especially about my own self. It gave me ample opportunity to observe my emotions and feelings, getting to know myself in a better way. This is the type of work I really enjoy doing and will continue to do, never casting a backward glance at the corporate world. I know that this is just the beginning of my relationship with these wonderful people for I will continue coming to Manas to work and live with them.

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 Manas – A land endowed with varied biodiversity, exceptional beauty and rich cultural traditions
Colour Sergeant mating
Colour Sergeant mating
Great Pied Hornbill
Great Pied Hornbill

 

                                                                                                                                

Sunset over the Manas
Sunset over the Manas
For the land is not without its people

For the land is not without its people

See more of the winged beauties

Take a peek of Manas’ biodiversity

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Conservation of natural biodiversity is increasingly becoming a challenge in our insatiably materialistic age. Pristine forests are being indiscriminately hacked causing their helpless inhabitants to vanish from the face of the earth. To tackle the issue of wildlife conservation there are many scientific organizations. But seldom does one see high levels of zeal from a local community to protect the forests they once destroyed, especially from a community once dreaded as gun trotting insurgents. Such is the story of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism society, a group of locals who through their own motivation and dedication started the uphill task of conserving the forests of Manas, without any outside assistance. My two and a half month stay with them as a volunteer was truly a phenomenal experience.

The seeds of this organization germinated from the violent past of the Bodo movement. For many years the Bodos had been suppressed by the state government, forcing them to start a mass political movement for a separate state. This political agitation came to a halt in 1993 after the signing of a tripartite agreement between the Bodo leaders, Central government and State government. But a couple of years after signing the accord, frustrated by the failure of the government to implement the agreement, the Bodos grouped together to form an armed outfit under the banner of Bodo Liberation Tigers to press for their demands.

This was the dark period during which Manas was depleted of its resources. Since the southern boundary of Manas spans across the entire Bodo dominated territory, there was vast deforestation. Due to the complete breakdown of the law and order situation in and around Manas, the locals often took shelter in the forest to escape the atrocities of the policing forces. Taking advantage of this lawless situation, some unscrupulous businessmen started forming organized groups for poaching and felling, which got free access to the park. Some groups of poachers made sporadic attacks on the forest offices causing destruction to most of the protection camps in the park . This grim situation compelled the forest guards to abandon almost all the protection camps. The situation was so perilous that UNESCO declared it as a world heritage site in danger.

Even during these troubled times a small group of Bodo youth from the Chapaguri Koklabari Anchalik Committee in the Koklabari area went ahead with their crusade of conserving Manas. They conducted motivation campaigns at selected areas where tree felling and poaching were rampant, asking the local villagers to refrain from their destructive activities by seeking other means of livelihood. At length, the student leaders of the committee put forward a crucial proposal for the protection of Manas while establishing it as an international tourist destination. The committee members urged their top leaders to place the issue of conserving Manas National Park, making it an international tourists destination, at the negotiating table while the leaders were exercising cease-fire with the Central and State governments. This event marked the beginning of the transition of the Bodo mindset from terrorism to tourism.

In 2003 when the Bodo Accord for creating Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts was finally signed, the issue of restoring Manas National Park whilst making it an international tourist spot was incorporated as one of the special packages within it. Enthused by this development, some people from the Koklabari area came up with the idea of creating a bird watching centre cum tourist spot. Thus in December 2003 Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES) was born with the objective of conserving Manas National Park as also to restore it back to its former glory.

The initial two years were a testing period for the organization, due to limited funding coupled with stiff resistance from the local people. To start with, awareness campaigns denouncing poaching and logging were conducted in some of the fringe villages. The members of the Society personally went and spoke to the families of hardened poachers, explaining to them the ills of the profession. As a result a group of fifty poachers succumbed to the social pressure, giving up their arms to work instead as conservation volunteers with the Society. With the help of these poachers, a survey of the forest was conducted so as to locate the areas where there was maximum poaching and logging. After identifying these areas, patrolling was commenced with volunteers. In the beginning the guards faced lots of hardship as there were no permanent protection camps in the forest. There were instances when just five or six of the volunteers were attacked by a group of fifty loggers, despite which they overpowered the loggers. The society did not even have money to pay remuneration to the guards, but their rations were taken care of. Seeing this level of dedication and commitment, the then park director Mr. Abhijit Rabha gave his complete support to the society, assisting in every possible way. The forest department along with the society joined forces to slowly eradicate all the poaching camps from within the park.

From poachers to protectors

From poachers to protectors

Over the years MMES has increased the gamut of their activities manifold. Currently there are 11 protection camps where the conservation guards stay throughout the year to patrol the national park, covering an area of more than 300 sq. kilometers. To provide logistical support to these camps MMES has built a network of roads extending more than 60 kilometers. Since the road network forms the backbone for the conservation activities, they are regularly maintained. The conservation guards patrol the forest on a daily basis to ensure that there are no illegal activities. Oftentimes they go deep into the forest for two to three days, camping in make shift shelters.

Understanding the importance that the grasslands play in the ecosystem, the MMES annually maintain the grasslands by burning them in a controlled way.  Their consistent efforts have paid off as today there is neither any poaching nor logging happening in the areas being patrolled by them. Wildlife populations have surged back as have the migratory birds. In fact, the resurgence of the elephant population is creating a man- animal conflict where the elephants often damage the houses of villagers. In such cases, MMES is paying the affected villagers compensation to repair the house. Monitoring of endangered species has been reinstated with the assistance of outside researchers. A conservation and monitoring centre of the critically endangered Bengal Florican has been set up in the Koklabari farm. Awareness campaigns are regularly held in fringe villages for educating the people on the importance of conserving the rich biodiversity of Manas. School children are taught to appreciate their rich inheritance by taking them on excursions in the national park.

Manas Jungle Camp

Manas Jungle Camp

MMES’s long cherished dream to make Manas into an international tourist destination was accomplished in 2005 when the first foreign tourist stayed at their Jungle camp.    This was thanks to the initiative by Help Tourism who spent a lot of time,effort and money in working with MMES for developing the tourism capacity over here.   They conducted many trainings and workshops for the MMES boys  to cater to the needs of the tourists.  Besides Help Tourism also put in a great deal of effort on the conservation front, by conducting many surveys for wildlife inventory.   The Jungle camp has five traditional huts made of mud and bamboo which are equipped with modern facilities to accommodate tourists. Open jeep safaris, bird watching, jungle trails, rafting on the Manas, cultural trails are some of the options which MMES offers to tourists depending on their interest. Their idea behind initiating tourism service has been, both complimentary and supplementary to their conservation activities. As a community, they want to show the world that Manas has regained its past beauty and is no more an endangered world heritage site. The greater challenge confronting the MMES has been to shed the perception of being an insurgent community, a view which is still prevalent among many outsiders. The other equally important task on hand has been to fund their conservation activities. With very limited sources of revenue for their conservation activities, tourism has been providing them with the much needed funds.

Taking encouragement from the excellent work being done by MMES in the Koklabari area, six other NGOs with a similar model have started operating in other areas in Manas.  Visibility about their tremendous effort will play an important role in the long term sustainability of their work. What Manas needs today is for us to support and appreciate this phenomenal community initiative, and to assist in dispelling the false notion of the Bodos as a gun-toting community because they are truly a warm and cultured community, their hospitality well worth experiencing.

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